Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood - Staff and Carer Book

Toddlers and pre-schoolers: One to five years

Page last updated: 25 May 2011


Toddlers (1 to 3 years) and pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day.

The importance of movement for one-to-five-year-olds

A child’s job is to move freely and be active every day!

The skills developed between one to five years of age range from learning to walk through to running and throwing a ball. In fact, at no other time in life will children learn so many physical skills.

Studies of children under five years of age have shown that active play helps them to:
  • improve the health of their muscles, bones and heart
  • develop new movement skills and imagination, and learn about their body
  • build self-confidence and cope with stressful situations
  • enjoy being active
  • improve their communication skills, including how to solve problems and make decisions
  • learn how to interact, share, take turns and care about others.

Active play

Young children naturally look for adventure and want to explore. The pace of activity can range from light actions (such as building or playing on the floor) through to vigorous actions (such as running or jumping). The ability and development of a child should direct what activities and play are appropriate and interesting to them. You should already know the development level of each child in your care and what they enjoy. Young children like to show off what they can already do, and be regularly challenged to try new things.

Active play includes the following:
  • Unstructured 'free' play
  • Structured 'planned' play
  • Active transport
  • Everyday physical tasks

Unstructured play

Unstructured play is creative and spontaneous play that gives children the freedom to move at their own pace and decide how they will play, what they will do and where it will take place.

Examples of unstructured play include:
  • free play in playgrounds or sandpits
  • dancing to music
  • imaginative play that incorporates the time of year (such as 'being a fish' in summer, or 'being a falling leaf; in autumn).
'Rough and tumble' play can sometimes be part of unstructured play, particularly for boys. Although boys may play differently to girls, both boys and girls need equal access to all play spaces and play items.

Structured play

Structured play in planned play that may take place at set times, have certain rules or need special equipment.

Examples of structured play include:
  • creative movement and dancing
  • action games and songs, such as 'Hokey Pokey'
  • guided discovery sessions - problem-solving activities where adults prompt children to work out better ways to perform certain movements.

Active transport

Active transport involves using physical activity, such as walking, pedalling a bike or using a scooter, to travel. Families can also be encouraged to use active transport. Most young children are able to walk or pedal, even if it is just for a short time. As they get older and stronger, the distance and amount of time children walk or pedal can gradually increase. Active transport is also a good opportunity to teach children about road and pedestrian safety. Remember to supervise children when participating in active transport.

Some simple examples of children and adults using active transport include:
  • parking the car further away and walking to a destination
  • using a form of public transport that involves walking to and from the stops
  • cutting down the amount of time spent in the pram or stroller, and encouraging children to walk instead.

Everyday physical tasks

Children enjoy helping adults with many everyday physical tasks. These activities do not need to be restricted to chores, and can also include spontaneous games.
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Examples of everyday physical tasks include:
  • helping with the gardening
  • tidying up inside and outside play spaces
  • helping to set up activities and meal areas.

Promoting active play for one-to five-year-olds

Not all children are naturally active or creative, and some will need to be guided more than others. They may need to be shown how to enjoy using different equipment, how to try the same action as someone else or how to use music and sounds to make play more fun. At times, try to join in with children’s active play – however, encourage children to make up their own games and activities.

Adults are very important in making sure children are active, and that they enjoy being active. Adults need to be confident in their ability to provide children with a range of play experiences. The positive influence of adults shouldn’t be underestimated. Adults can make a lasting difference in helping children learn and grow through regular physical activity and movement.

Making the most of simple active play prompts

Regularly 'prompting' children to move in different ways helps to challenge them and constantly improve their skills. This can involve prompting children to change:
  • how their body can move
  • where their body can move
  • what their body can do
  • who they can move with.

How the body moves


  • 'How fast can you....?
  • 'Can you do that slowly?'
  • 'Can you do that fast, then slow?'


  • 'Can you find something heavy?
  • 'How lightly can you...?'
  • 'Can you hold that lightly or gently?'


  • 'And freeze!'
  • 'Can you do that wobbling?'
  • 'How smoothly can you...?'

Where the body moves

Direction and shape of movement

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  • 'Can you do that forwards/backwards/sideways/downwards/upwards?'
  • 'Can you go through/over/under/around that?'


  • 'How high can you...?'
  • 'Can you do that low?'

Ground pattern

  • 'Can you move in a straight/curved/wiggly/diagonal line?'

What the body can do


  • 'Can you stretch and...?'
  • 'Can you curl up and...?'
  • 'How big/small can you...?'
  • 'Can you build something tall/short/little/big/small/long/wide?'

Body support

  • 'Can you do that standing/sitting/kneeling/crouching/lying down/on your tummy/on your back?
  • 'Can you do this with one leg? And the other leg?'

General body awareness

  • 'Can you follow your head/finger/knee?'
  • 'Can you do that with your feet up high/hands down low/arms stretched out?'
  • 'Can you do this with one leg/arm/elbow/knee? Now the other one?'

Who to move with

  • 'Can you show me how you do that?'
  • 'Can you teach Anna?'
  • 'Can you follow what Abdul is doing?'
  • 'Can you both do that together?'