It’s no secret that today’s children do not participate in as much physical fitness as children in previous generations, hence the childhood obesity epidemic our country is currently facing. But while most parents understand how important it is to get their child active, many aren’t sure what physical fitness should look like for young children. How much activity do they need? When should they start playing sports? I’ve addressed some of the most frequently asked questions about children and exercise below to help parents cheer on their child to a healthy, active lifestyle.
Q. How much physical activity does my child need each day?
A. According to the Society of Health and Physical Educators’ national physical activity guidelines:
- Infants should engage in active play for short periods of time several times a day.
- Toddlers should engage in at least 30 minutes of structured activity (skill practice), and at least 60 minutes to several hours of unstructured play.
- Preschoolers should engage in at least 60 minutes of structured activity and at least 60 minutes to several hours of unstructured play.
Q. What kinds of fitness activities should my child participate in?
A. Young children get and stay fit by participating in fun, child-friendly physical activities and by practicing specific motor skills, such as jumping, climbing, throwing and kicking. For toddlers and older preschoolers, anything from having an impromptu dance party to playing simple games like “Simon Says” or “Duck, Duck, Goose” provides an outlet for movement and physical fitness. It is important to remember not to apply adult fitness concepts to young children. A child’s muscles, bones and lungs are not yet mature, so it is inappropriate for them to participate in adult-type fitness activities such as push-ups, sit-ups or running long distances.
Q. What age should my child get involved in organized team sports?
A. Most children are not ready for the competitive aspect of organized sports until they are around eight years old. Children are typically unable to visualize a situation from another’s point of view until they are seven to 10 years old, and this can get in the way of children taking turns in practice, passing a ball to a teammate to score a goal, understanding rules and game strategies, or listening to a coach.
Q. But my local recreation center is offering organized sports leagues for children as young as three…should I allow my child to participate?
A. Sure, if your child is interested and has the foundational skills like running and kicking needed to participate. Just make sure the focus is on learning and having fun, not on competitive play. Young children can kick and run, but it will be years before they can fully understand the rules and strategies of a competitive game. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Policy on Organized Sports for Children provides good information for parents considering enrolling their child in an organized sport.
Q. How can I best help my child develop physical skills?
A. Play with your child every day. Play time provides your child with opportunities to practice and refine motor skills. And eventually, when your child throws a ball and hits a target, walks across a balance beam without falling, or kicks a ball into a net, he will grow more confident in his physical abilities and himself. You can also help by providing an environment at home conducive to physical activity, be it a large indoor area with furniture moved aside, an outdoor lawn, or a nearby park where your child can run and climb.
No matter your child’s age, the important thing is that you get her moving – every day! Help her get in the habit of being active early on and you’ll set a foundation for healthy living that will last a lifetime.