Physical activity for toddlers and pre-schoolers

Physical activity should remain a high health priority in families with children aged between one and five years. Daily chances for active play lay the foundations for developing the vital physical, mental and social skills necessary for dealing with everyday situations.

From the age of one year to around five years (through the toddler and pre-school years), it is recommended that children be active for at least three hours every day. This may seem like a lot but children are naturally active and ‘on the go’, so short bursts of activity, from light (such as building or playing on the floor) through to vigorous (such as running or jumping) can be spread throughout the day.

How important is active play for one-to five-year-olds?

Active play is very important for children – a child’s job is to move freely and be active every day! The skills developed from the age of
one to five years 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.

Active play helps children 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.

What kinds of things can I do to help my child be active?

Young children naturally look for adventure and want to explore. The ability and development of your child will determine the types of activity and play that are suitable and enjoyable. Young children like to show adults what they can already do, as well as be challenged regularly to try new things.

Active play includes several types of activities:
  • Unstructured play is creative 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 dancing to music, and playing in the sandpit, at the park or with other children. ‘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 play spaces and play items.
  • Structured play is planned play that may occur at a set time and place, or need equipment. Examples include action games and songs (such as ‘Hokey Pokey’), kinder-gym, creative dancing and swimming lessons.
  • ‘Active transport’ involves using physical activity to travel – for example walking, pedalling or using a scooter. Even young children can walk or pedal for a short time, and will be capable of walking longerdistances as they get older. Try walking to and from the early childhood setting, or walking or pedalling to the local shops. For short distances, encourage children to walk rather than use a stroller. Remember to supervise children when participating in active transport.
  • Everyday physical tasks include helping with the gardening, unpacking shopping, folding clothes or tidying up play spaces. Children enjoy helping adults with many everyday tasks.
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What can I do if my child is not interested in active play?

Every child is different, and some naturally prefer quieter activities like reading or drawing. However, we all need to maintain a certain level of physical activity for good health, so here are some tips for encouraging your child to be more active:
  • Plan a variety of opportunities for your child to be active
  • throughout the day, and try to make sure the emphasis is on fun.
  • Let your child explore and make up their own activities.
  • Find an active play buddy for your child, from family or friends.
  • Give lots of praise for efforts made during active play.
  • Focus on what your child can do, not what they can’t.
  • Plan family outings and celebrations around chances for active play.
  • Make walking a part of everyday life.
  • Make active play fun and positive.
  • Be patient and provide plenty of time for your child to practise movements.
  • Be active with your child, and try to be a role model.

What are the best ways to encourage children's active play?

You do not always have to be directly involved in all of your child’s active play – safe play spaces and equipment, along with supervision, can allow children to be creative and make up their own play.

It is important to help your child develop an enjoyment for physical activity. Try to provide a balance between activities that let your child create and imagine, with activities that provide new challenges and some ‘risks’.

Prompting children to move in different ways helps to challenge them constantly improve their skills. Try promoting your child to change:
  • how their body can move ('How fast can you...?, 'Can you do that lightly?')
  • where their body can move ('Can you do that backwards?', 'How high can you...?')
  • what their body can do ('Can you curl up and ...?', 'Can you do that on one leg?')
  • who they can move with ('Can you follow Anna?', 'Can you teach me to do that?').

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

Play objects can include toys or everday items, but should be appropriate for the age and development of the child. Active play should also encourage the use of the upper body, lower body and whole body, in indoor and outdoor play spaces.

Ideas for play items for children from one to five include:
  • boxes, crates, baskets, cardboard tubes and containers
  • balls of different sizes
  • ropes, scarves, towels and streamers
  • planks of wood
  • buckets and spades
  • brooms and paintbrushes
  • pots and pans
  • leaves and pine cones
  • old clothes, old linen and old furniture
  • rackets and bats
  • wooden blocks
  • ropes hanging from the ceiling
  • mats, cushions, beanbags and tyres.
Remember that not all of these equipment suggestions are suitable for all ages – for example, ribbons or streamers may be fun for four- or five-year-olds, but they are not suitable for one- or two-year-olds. Talk to the staff or carers at your child’s setting and share ideas for play items that your child might enjoy.
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If you have children of different ages, always consider the safety of younger children during play – especially when it comes to the access and storage of equipment only suitable for older children.

What about outdoor play for one-to five-year-olds?

Children who spend more time outdoors will generally be more active. Outdoor areas usually provide children with more space, and a variety of surfaces and equipment. Outdoors, children can experience moving in a whole range of different shapes, speeds and directions, and have the freedom 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
  • be more creative
  • learn from their mistakes
  • manage their fears and build toughness.
Parents often worry that outdoor play can be risky, but children need opportunities to play freely and explore outdoor play spaces. Providing a range of challenges in play teaches children to understand, manage and learn from taking risks.

As with ‘rough and tumble’ play, playing outside is important for the development of both girls and boys. Normal side effects of outdoor play may include getting grubby, small grazes, bumps and bruises, being noisy and messy, and learning to deal with heights and new movements. Also, being outdoors in cooler weather does not cause the common cold. As long as outdoor play is supervised, the benefits generally outweigh the risks.

Active play and children with disabilities

Every child can benefit from physical activity and active play. If you child has a disability, discuss with your health professional some ways to offer a full range of active experiences for your child. At the early childhood setting, let the staff and carers know the deails of your child's disabiltiy and how it affects everyday functions nd abilities. Tell them about your child's interests, dislikes and capabilities, as well as what you would like them to help you achieve for your child. Early childhood staff may value being able to contact your child's health professional for more information.

Making outdoor play as safe as possible....
Be SunSmartŠ - Remember sun protection whenever your child is outdoors – sunscreen, shelter, hats and suitable clothing.
Supervise - Always supervise your child around water, heights, steps, fences, animals and small objects.
Clothing - Dress your child in comfortable clothing and shoes that are suitable for being active.
Water - Make sure your child drinks plenty of water when playing outside, particularly in hot weather.
Join in - Interact with children and support them in outdoor play – but make sure that play is still led by the children.