Your Health

Exercises for Young Children

IMAGE Car seats, strollers, and high chairs are great for keeping your little one safe and secure while you are traveling or getting things done at home.

But, if kids spend too much time without activity, it can cause problems with their motor development. Also, they can get too comfortable being sedentary and less likely to play and be active. This inactivity adds to the rising rate of childhood obesity.

You do not need to engage your young child in any serious physical activity. Instead, encourage your child to do more of what kids are naturally inclined to do—explore and play. Exercise is important to help your child learn to use muscles and develop coordination. Just keep in mind that if an activity is too difficult, kids become frustrated and lose motivation to try again.

Infants (Birth to 12 months)

Engage your infant in some activity every day. This includes setting up safe areas for your infant to play in, playing games with your child, and carrying your child to explore different environments. Do not keep infants in baby seats or other restrictive settings for long periods of time. Instead, place them in settings that encourage play for short periods of time several times a day.

To encourage your infant to be active, try the following:

  • Lay your infant on a blanket on the floor with a few toys.
  • Provide brightly colored, easy-to-grasp toys that can be squeezed or have different textures to encourage reaching and grasping.
  • Place the infant on their tummy facing you, encourage them to lift their head and kick their legs.
  • When the baby is learning to roll over, hold a favorite toy just out of reach to motivate them to keep trying.
  • Play peek-a-boo or patty-cake; help move your child's hands so they learns the motions.
  • Carry the child to a new environment, set them down, and let them explore. Be sure the area is safe.
  • Avoid allowing your baby to watch TV.

Toddlers (12 to 36 months)

As walking skills progress, toddlers have a lot of energy. Encourage your child to participate in active play as much as they would like to in a safe environment. Do not keep your child in a baby seat or inactive for long periods of time. Along the same line, do not sit a child younger than 2 years old in front of the TV. In children older than 2 years, limit TV viewing to 1-2 hours per day. It is important for your child's overall health to be physically active.

Toddlers should work up to at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity each day. Unstructured activity should last more than 60 minutes.

To encourage active play, try the following:

  • Bounce, throw, and chase balls to develop hand-eye coordination . Use soft balls that will not break anything.
  • Dance to music and follow-along songs to promote body awareness and balance.
  • Play "Simon Says" and "Follow the Leader."
  • Provide safe, sturdy objects to ride, push, pull, balance on, and climb.
  • Make chores into games that kids can help with, for example:
    • During dinner preparation, have your child carry something to the table that will not break or spill.
    • On laundry day, have your child throw dirty clothes into the laundry basket

Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)

Continue to encourage your young child to participate in active play as much as possible throughout the day. Provide structured physical activity for at least one hour each day. Unstructered activity should take up one hour to several hours per day.

Some suggestions:

  • To promote balance, help the child walk along a line on the ground. Be sure that it is a safe area with no cars around.
  • Lay out objects to create a maze or tell a child to run around a tree and back, providing vigorous exercise plus mastering turns and balance.
  • Around age three, children learn to hop and are ready for the game "hopscotch," which will promote balance and strengthen leg muscles.
  • Around age four, kids learn to skip. Practice skipping with them across the yard, or work it into a game of "Follow the Leader."
  • Provide safe objects to ride, push, pull, balance on, and climb.

Emphasize fun, not competition. Preschoolers lack the social and cognitive development for organized team sports.

Again, it is important that you limit how much time your child spends doing sedentary activities, like watching TV or playing video games. Keep "screen time" to less than 1-2 hours a day! That way, your child will have more time for active play.

For Kids of Any Age

Physical activity should become part of the family's daily routine. This means parents, too! Kids are more likely to stick with it if they see their parents and older siblings being active. Look for chances to fit in exercise and make it a part of your family's lifestyle.

Plan day trips or vacations that include hiking, kayaking, swimming, bicycling, roller skating, skiing, or horseback riding. At home, set limits on TV time and encourage kids to get outside and play. Also, involve the whole family in housework and yard work. Try to make these activities fun.

If you make exercise a priority in your life, your children will likely do the same.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics

    http://www.aap.org

  • American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance

    http://www.aahperd.org

  • About Kids Health

    http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

  • Active star: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children from birth to age 5. National Association for Sport & Physical Education website. Available at: http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/standards/nationalGuidelines/ActiveStart.cfm. Accessed March 3, 2014.

  • NHLBI integrated guidelines for pediatric cardiovascular risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 12, 2013. Accessed March 3, 2014.