Currently, there are many aspects of everyday life in Australia that make it easy to be physically inactive. Many families rely on cars for transport and use labour-saving devices (escalators, remote controls), and screen-based entertainment is among the most popular forms of leisure. This is a cause for concern, due to increasing evidence of a relationship between lack of physical activity and lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

It is important to encourage physical activity in early childhood for two reasons. Firstly, children under the age of five who are very active are more likely to stay active throughout childhood, and early development of good habits may form a foundation for later years. Secondly, regular physical activity during early childhood can impact on immediate and long-term health outcomes.

The increasing incidence of weight problems (overweight and obesity) in childhood reflects the levels of physical activity and sedentary behaviour of entire communities. Early childhood settings are an ideal place to develop good habits in young children and influence the behaviours of families. Parents, staff and carers can work together to share the responsibility of making physical activity a priority both inside and outside the home.

For children under five years, active play is the best form of physical activity. Active play includes unstructured ‘free’ play and structured ‘planned’ play (both indoors and particularly outdoors), active transport (such as walking to a destination, rather than driving) and certain everyday tasks. Children’s activity patterns are very ‘stop–start’ in nature, and so physical activity within the setting should be spread throughout the day. A setting’s program should also consider how often children are sedentary or inactive, and quiet times.

The benefits of active play go beyond just the physical, to include the development of social and language skills, as well as brain development.