Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood - Directors/Coordinators Book

Toddlers and pre-schoolers: One to five years

Page last updated: 21 April 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. Children need time to learn a range of movement skills. In fact, at no other time in life are so many physical skills learnt.

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 bodies
  • 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 best active play opportunities encourage children to be spontaneous and imaginative. 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). Daily chances for active play also encourage children to use small and large muscle groups in creative ways, and most importantly allow children to take control of their own play.

The ability and development of a child should direct the types of activities and play that are appropriate and interesting to them. Every child should be encouraged to be active, regardless of ability!

The following activities all need to be included in a setting’s program:
  • 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. Encouraging unstructured play helps children feel more comfortable:
  • trying, and learning new skills
  • moving in their natural ‘stop-start’ pattern
  • being challenged, and adapting to a range of different environments
  • expressing themselves
  • taking appropriate risks.
Examples of unstructured play include free play in playgrounds or sandpits, dancing to sounds and music, and other imaginative play such as dressups. ‘Rough and tumble’ play can sometimes be part of unstructured play, particularly for boys. Although there is evidence that boys may play differently to girls, both boys and girls need equal access to all play spaces and play items.
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Structured play

Structured play is 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 classes
  • action games and songs, such as ‘Hokey Pokey’
  • guided discovery sessions – problem-solving activities where adults prompt children to figure out the best way to perform certain

Active transport

Active transport involves using physical activity – such as walking, pedalling a bike or using a scooter – to travel. Families need to be encouraged to use active transport rather than always using a car, and to encourage young children to walk rather than sit in a stroller. Young children are quite capable of walking or pedalling, even if it is just for short bursts at a time. As they get older and stronger, the distance and amount of time children walk or pedal can gradually increase. Active transport also provides a great chance for children to learn about road and pedestrian safety. Remember to supervise children when participating in active transport.

Examples of simple ways adults and children can use 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.

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. Encourage staff to sometimes join in with children’s play.

Active play opportunities should encourage children to:
  • use big muscle movements
  • practise a range of different movements
  • use their imagination
  • experience a variety of play spaces and equipment
  • feel good about what they can do
  • make up their own games and activities
  • set up their own play area
  • have fun!
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Making the most of simple 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
    • ‘How fast can you…?’
  • Where their body can move
    • ‘Can you do that sideways?’
  • What their body can do
    • ‘Can you do this with one leg and then the other?’
  • Who they can move with
    • ‘Can you both do that together?’
Prompts should encourage a range of activities that include upper body, lower body and full body movements in indoor and outdoor play spaces.

Equipment ideas to promote active play in one- to five-year-olds

Items used in active play can either be toys or everyday items. Items should always be appropriate to the development of the child – for example, streamers are ideal for four- and five-year-olds, however may be unsafe for children under two to play with on their own. In play spaces shared by many children of different ages, be sure to consider the safety of all children – through the types of play equipment used, as well as the access and storage of equipment.

Upper body movements

Objects to hold, wave, shake, bang, throw, hit or catch.

Suggestions for equipment:
Balls, pompoms, mini beanbags, bats, rackets, quoits, tambourines, streamers, empty containers, pots and pans.

Lower body movements

Objects to move over, through or around.

Suggestions for equipment:
Hoops, tunnels, foam noodles, cones, tyres, boxes, coloured carpet squares, chalk marks and piles of leaves.


Objects to climb on or up. Always consider safety when planning climbing activities – however, let children take appropriate risks.

Suggestions for equipment:
Climbing frames, low branches, ladders, ropes, stepping stones and boxes.


Balancing activities do not need to be high, although ability needs to be considered when setting up equipment.
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Suggestions for equipment:
Beams, wobble boards, planks of wood, logs, chalk lines and stepping logs or stones.


Building can include stacking items, or making constructions such as cubby houses.

Suggestions for equipment:
Wooden blocks, sand, buckets, boxes, planks of wood, tyres, old linen and furniture.

Creative movement

Encourages children to use all of their body or parts of their body freely, and in ways that feel good.

Suggestions for equipment:
Music, musical instruments, bells, rattles and streamers.

Outdoor play for one- to five-year-olds

Children who spend more time outdoors will generally be more active. Access to a covered outdoor area allows children to be active in all weather conditions, and being outdoors in cooler weather does not cause the common cold. Outdoor areas usually provide children with more space, and a variety of surfaces and equipment. Children can use larger muscle groups and experience moving in a whole range of different shapes, speeds and directions. Outdoor play also allows children to be messy and noisy.

Outdoor play gives children opportunities to:
  • make big movements
  • try new movements
  • have ‘rough and tumble’ play
  • improve their balance, strength and coordination skills
  • seek adventure and watch and explore nature
  • extend their creativity
  • learn from their mistakes
  • manage their fears and build toughness.

Reminders for outdoor play…

Be SunSmartŠ - Abide by sun protection policies – sunscreen, shelter, hats and suitable clothing.

Supervise - Make sure that staff supervise children when around water, heights, steps, fences, animals or small objects.

Clothing - Encourage parents to dress their child in clothing and footwear that is suitable for being active.

Water Make sure children drink plenty of water when playing outside, particularly in hot weather.
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Join in - Encourage staff to interact with children and support them in outdoor play. Make sure that play is still led by children.

Taking ‘chances’ in outdoor play

Although outdoor play may appear risky, children need opportunities to play freely and explore outdoor play spaces. Allowing children to get to the next level of exploration helps them to test themselves and manage new tasks. As with ‘rough and tumble’ play, playing outside is important for the development of both girls and boys. What some adults may see as consequences of ‘risky’ play could actually be side effects of fun play experiences, such as:
  • being messy and loud
  • getting grubby
  • getting small grazes, bumps and bruises
  • dealing with heights, different surfaces and new play areas and items.
Parents should be encouraged to allow their children to participate in risky play, and be educated to understand that the benefits may outweigh the risks.

Preventing risky play can mean children may miss out on important benefits, and can lead to:
  • low physical and mental health
  • poor motor skills and imagination
  • lack of independence and social skills
  • poor problem-solving skills and lessened ability to take on challenges
  • a poor sense of self-belief.

Active play and children with disabilities

Children of all abilities benefit from experiencing physical activity and play. Engaging with parents is particularly important when working with children with disabilities. It is crucial to find out from parents the details of their child’s disability, and how it affects everyday functions and abilities. It is also important to discuss the child’s interests, dislikes and capabilities as well as what the parents’ goals are for their child. Ask whether it is possible to contact the child’s health professional for more information. Staff can help by being patient and generous in spending time with children with disabilities.

Considering children from all cultures

Australia is home to people from over 200 countries, providing children with many opportunities to learn about all cultures. Different cultures have varying sensitivities that need to be respected.

Being aware of different cultures and customs includes:
  • asking parents or community leaders to share their culture, including traditional toys, costumes or dances
  • incorporating any traditions and languages into games if possible
  • working with parents to ensure the setting is inclusive and respectful of their cultures, keeping in mind issues such as body contact or dress.