Little boy plays with scoop ball on Primrose playground

Developmentally-appropriate Toys to Encourage Physical Activity

Parents often ask me what they can do at home to help their child be more physically active. According to a study out of the University of North Carolina, the answer can be as simple as enhancing children’s play environments.

This study examined environmental factors at child care centers that encourage children to be more active for longer periods of time. Researchers found that children were more physically active when their center had more portable play equipment, like balls, hoops and jump ropes. Toys for physical development can make a big difference in your child’s activity level. 

Additionally, child care centers that offered more opportunities for active play, had age-appropriate toys for physical development and well-trained staff saw children with higher levels of physical activity. Children experienced about 80 minutes more of moderate-to-vigorous activity at these centers compared to less supportive environments.   

How to Create an Environment for Fitness at Home

Taking the above findings into consideration, you can maximize your child’s physical activity at home by providing a variety of basic toys and equipment that encourage active playtime. It’s important to provide toys that are appropriate for your child’s developmental stage and emerging abilities. Additionally, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines safe toys for young children as well-made, painted with nontoxic and lead-free paint, shatter-proof, and easily cleaned.

Many safe and appropriate play materials and toys for physical development are free items you already have around the house. Following are age-specific toys and equipment that you can use to promote physical activity for your little one:

  • Infants: Provide large balls, push and pull toys, and low, soft items for them to crawl over.
  • Toddlers: Provide a variety of large and small balls for kicking and throwing; ride-on equipment (avoid tricycles until children are 3); tunnels (from cardboard boxes or other safe materials); and hammering toys. Toddlers benefit most from using their large and small muscles.
  • Preschoolers: Provide sand and water play toys; large and small balls for kicking, throwing and catching; hoops and jump ropes; ride-on equipment including tricycles and wagons; plastic bats and balls; plastic bowling pins; and targets to throw things at.

Research also suggests that having appropriate outdoor play equipment will not only make children want to play outside, but they will be more active and develop physical skills as a result. Parents of preschoolers looking for play equipment for the backyard might consider a balance beam or log, an incline mat to roll on, a rope hanging from a tree to swing back and forth on, or a playground set that offers a variety of climbing opportunities.

No matter what play equipment you have, you can help your child develop a healthy, active lifestyle by being active with them. Go outside and throw, catch, kick, run and climb with your kids. If you’re inside watching TV, chances are your child will want to be right beside you on the couch, so set the example and show your little one how fun it is to be active together!

For more information about safe, appropriate toys for young children, you can check out the following publications available through NAEYC:

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