It’s never too early to encourage fitness with young children

Fitness is for kids of all ages and abilities

National attention has helped support an increased awareness of childhood health and obesity. The promotion of healthy eating and nutrition along with increased physical exercise and fitness in children is helping to combat this phenomenon.

Children with special needs and developmental issues are at greater risk for inactivity than their peers who are developing at the standard rate. Exercise or physical activity is important to help children:

  • Promote lifelong fitness and health
  • Increase life expectancy
  • Control weight
  • Decrease risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Improve psychological well being

Most children, as they grow and develop, find fitness fun when introduced to activities. Rolling on the floor, dancing around the house and playing on the playground incorporate fitness into their lives. It is important to find opportunities to go outside and increase your child’s activities. It’s never too early to start an active, playful lifestyle.

12 to 24 month olds
Infants and toddlers learn through exploration and movement within their environments. During this time children start to get up on their feet and learn to walk. Keep in mind that children still need adult support while walking on the grass or sliding down the slide during this period of development.

Family Fitness & Fun Tips:

  • “Let it Pour” – Help child lift, carry and pour water or sand from one container to another in a sitting and standing position outside at the park or in the sandbox.
  •  Sit facing each other and hold hands rocking back and forth singing, “Row, Row, Row your Boat.”
  • Sing and dance with imitative songs such as “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
  • Help to climb small playground structures (ladders, slides and infant swings) with adult assistance.

2 and 3 year olds
It is recommended by the National Association of Sports and Physical Education that toddlers get at least 30 minutes of structured play (adult-led play), 60 minutes of unstructured play (free play), and physical activity for part of every hour (with the exception of when they are sleeping) each day.

Toddlers explore and play as a way to learn about their world. Two and 3 year olds prefer unstructured play such as running, swinging, climbing, kicking and throwing a ball, riding a tricycle and sand box play.

Toddlers enjoy playing with peers to improve socialization skills. Parent-child programs within the community can introduce toddlers to a variety of activities and skills appropriate for their age. But you don’t have to enroll your kids in a formal program to foster these skills. It is most important that your child at this age has safe and active opportunities for play together with their parent and supervised play to explore by themselves.

Family Fitness & Fun Tips:

  • Walk like a penguin, hop like a frog or imitate a variety of animal movements.
  • “Bean Bag Balance” – place a beanbag or small, soft toy on your child’s head and have them walk around the yard.
  • Play “Follow the Leader,” dance to music or chase bubbles in the wind.

4 and 5 year olds
The NASPE recommends 60 minutes daily of structured physical activity and one hour to several hours daily of unstructured, safe activity. Regular physical activity helps children play and meet the demands and challenges of daily life

The best way to promote physical activity in children is to limit sedentary time (watching TV, playing computer video games, etc.) Children in this age group demonstrate improved coordination, ability to participate in more organized games such as “Simon Says” and more turn taking games such as ball toss.

Children 4 and 5 years old rely on the positive encouragement and instruction given by adults to refine their motor skills. They may begin navigating a bike with or without training wheels with the help of an adult, but only in traffic free areas due to a lack in judgment, coordination and awareness. Unstructured play in this age group is also important to allow for learning of new skills through practice.

Family Fitness & Fun Tips:

  •  “Jump the River” – Place two jump ropes or chalk lines on the ground and ask your child to jump across the river. Keep making the gap wider until he/ she “gets wet” and doesn’t make it across the gap.
  •  Play games such as soccer with limited rules.
  •  More independence is seen on community playground structures with climbing, sliding, stepping and hanging.
  • Town- and city-based recreation activities usually start at this age and are a good balance between instruction and structured activity

Children with Special Needs
Children with developmental concerns or special needs also require regular physical activity to assist in strength development, social development and cognitive development. Exercise through play helps children meet the demands and challenges of daily life and master the skills involved in movement and body awareness.

Considerations specific to your child’s diagnoses, delay or special needs have to be considered when planning an exercise program for your child. Consultation with your child’s pediatrician, medical specialists or physical therapist is suggested to help identify resources specific for your child’s needs and to help adapt specific activities to foster success for your child.

Family Fitness & Fun Tips:

  • Exercise can be part of every child’s daily life. Consult your physical therapist on how to incorporate fitness and play into daily activities for your child.
  • Social roles, cognitive development and relationship development are part of play, fitness and exercise for children of all abilities.

Parents should consult their child’s pediatrician with any questions prior to their children starting a fitness program or engaging in organized sports or recreation.

Jonathan Greenwood PT, MS, c/NDT, CEIS, PCS is Director of Pediatrics at the Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital Network. He is a Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Pediatrics.

Categories: Mind and Body, Stepping Stones NH