While strolling through the park with her parents, 5-year-old Lexie breaks into a run and proudly spins through another cartwheel. She can't resist showing off the new move she recently mastered again and again in the wide-open grass. Her mom and dad cheer her on as she experiments with her developing physical skills.
Lexie's parents are giving her a wonderful gift that will last a lifetime: the time, space, and encouragement to engage in regular physical activity. Learning to maintain good health is one of the most important things you can teach your child, especially today, when physical activity is on the decline, and childhood obesity is at an all-time high.
The statistics are of great concern. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the obesity rate for children ages 2 to 5 has more than doubled, and obesity has become a serious health condition for more than 20 percent of kindergarteners and 25 percent of first graders. The increase in obesity is due in part to the significant decrease in physical activity. Young children are now spending nearly as much time sitting in front of television and computer screens as they spend playing outside, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Similarly, in recent years, both unstructured playtime (recess) and regimented physical education classes in schools have gotten shorter, less emphasized, or have disappeared altogether. It's an unfortunate fact: American children are becoming increasingly less active with each year of age, and inactivity in childhood is very much linked to future sedentary living habits and obesity in adulthood.
The good news is that as a parent, you can help reverse these trends. Even better, a significant part of the solution is simple: move together! Playing catch, taking walks after dinner, riding bikes, or kicking a ball are all powerful motivators that not only help develop your child's basic physical skills, but send the message that you think it's important to take care of your own and your child's body. Plenty of physical activity combined with healthy eating is the perfect antidote for early childhood obesity.
Physical Activity and Learning
Kids need exercise just as much as they need books. In fact, teaching physical skills helps kids learn better throughout their school day. Many studies suggest a link between a child's overall health and learning. Physical fitness can affect everything from a child's behavior to his ability to focus on tasks. Movement is a basic fact of a young child's makeup. Early childhood expert Mimi Chenfeld says it best: "Moving is as natural to learning as breathing is to living."
It's important to work with this aspect of a child's life, rather than against it. Kids need to wiggle, fiddle, and jiggle. Instead of inhibiting movement, parents (and teachers) should try to encourage children to use their bodies whenever possible. Fortunately, most good programs do place a high priority on movement and physical activity, and teachers cleverly incorporate all kinds of movement (from fine motor skills to leaping, dancing, jumping, crawling and climbing) into the day of preschoolers and kindergartners.
Physical play offers opportunities for social and emotional growth as well. Children develop confidence as they witness their own physical skills blossom. This translates into social confidence: A child who is proud of her physical abilities tends to view herself more positively in general. The feeling of competence shines through as she approaches other children to play, offers suggestions for how to play and resolve conflicts, and negotiates her way through different kinds of play.
The Power of Practice
Physical skills fall into three categories:
- Locomotor skills: moving from one point to another; include walking, running, skipping, and galloping
- Stability skills: Maintaining balance while moving through the environment; include rolling, jumping, and landing
- Manipulative skills: Giving force to objects; most frequently associated with playing games and sports; include throwing, catching, and kicking
All of these skills get their start in infancy, progressing from a 4-month-old baby's newly emerging ability to swat at the mobile dangling above his crib to the 12 year old hitting home runs on the baseball diamond.
Just as children need time to explore when learning to talk, read, or write, they need time to practice new physical skills. As a parent, you are the perfect role model and mentor. Let her take the lead, and play with her. Steve Sanders, author of the book Active for Life, suggests that children benefit from your gentle guidance when learning a new skill. For example, if your child is learning to jump, you might say something like "Great! Now bend your knees," or "Remember to land on both feet at the same time." It's best to provide only one cue at a time, as too many directions can be confusing.
Getting More Daily Activity
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education offers these fitness guidelines for young children:
- Toddlers should accumulate 30 minutes of structured physical activity daily.
- Preschoolers should accumulate 60 minutes of structured physical activity daily.
- Both preschoolers and toddlers should engage in at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of unstructured physical activity daily.
- Young children should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at time, except when sleeping.
It's important to note that physical activity can be cumulative. In other words, you can help your child get the recommended amount of activities over the course of the day; it doesn't have to happen all at one time. Of course, the best way to get your child up and moving is to do it with them. It's great fun, and not that hard to incorporate exercise into the time you spend with your child. You don't need to enroll her in lots of classes and sports to encourage a healthy lifestyle. Here are some ways to work physical activities into your everyday activities:
- Play outside together. Take a neighborhood fitness walk after dinner, or skip or run together on your way to school. Balance on a line of tape stuck to the floor. Hop or jump up and down steps. Hide behind trees and mailboxes. A sloping lawn or a hill at the local park is ideal for rolling down. Play catch with soft foam balls, balloons, and even balls of yarn, which are great for tossing (especially with young children). Play chase. There's an element of thrill in trying to catch you. Take turns being the chaser and the chase-ee, and be sure to end with a hug.
- Share the housework. Think how physical your chores are. You no doubt get some exertion toting laundry down the stairs and carting grocery bags in from the car. Have your child help with these tasks, then praise his strong muscles. Children can also "help" vacuum or sweep.
- Make an indoor obstacle course. Chairs, pillows, tables, sofa cushions, and large and small toys can all be used to create a course that requires coordination to navigate. Make it harder or easier depending on your child's age. Place a few hula-hoops on the floor or outside on the grass and call them "ponds." Your child can hop from pond to pond like a frog. Set up a row of chairs to create a tunnel to wiggle through.
- Look to nature. Throw stones. Not at each other or other people, of course, but in a wide expanse of yard or park, or at a pond or river. This can be a fun game, as well as excellent practice for coordinated sports. Play with sticks. Again, don't encourage violence, but suggest using the sticks to whack at trees or fence posts, or as walking sticks.
- Use music to inspire movement. Dance music inspires kids to get up and go. Make up songs to accompany routine tasks. Children love the playful aspect of silly songs, and will soon get the hang of making up lyrics themselves. Act out songs, such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," or "All Around the Mulberry Bush." Other more obvious examples are: "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," "If You're Happy and You Know It," "I'm a Little Teapot," "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Ring Around the Rosy," "Hokey Pokey," and "The Wheels on the Bus." Sure it's noisy, but providing kids with rhythm instruments is always a good idea, too. You can get actual instruments like bongo drums, maracas, and tambourines, or you can make homemade versions with all sorts of household items.
- Offer props. Crepe paper streamers or ribbon sticks inspire children to "run like the wind," while handfuls of silky scarves became leaves or blossoms to fling and wave. Children can also turn scarves into reins and pretend they are horses. Lay colorful scarves on the floor to create a pretend "river," and see how many ways you can think of to travel along or get across the water.
- Give art projects physical appeal. For example, a child standing at an easel can employ large arm movements as she creates works of genius to tack onto walls and the refrigerator. Tape large mural paper to your wall, or outside to the sidewalk, so that you can share in the creative fun. Clay and play dough are good for pounding and pushing. You can also take your art projects outdoors. Unroll or spread out large pieces of paper for "foot" painting, or make watercolors by mixing biodegradable, nontoxic paint with lots of water in empty coffee cans. Then create a sidewalk canvas that'll last until the next rain. Covering the driveway with a chalk race course or giant mural is nothing if not physical play.
- Stretch your child's mind, too. Think about math: Almost every physical exertion can be measured. For example, how far can you jump? How fast can you run? How high can you jump? How many turns of the jump rope can you get through without stopping? (Tape markings on the floor or sidewalk to show progress.)