Physical activity is an important factor in the healthy development of children. Inadequate physical activity negatively impacts childhood development and puts children at risk to become obese, develop Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular health risks, Unfortunately, many parents underestimate the role that activity plays in keeping children happy and healthy. According to a recent survey outlined by WebMD, only 15% of parents regard overall physical health as a primary concern for their children.
Young children have an inherent desire to be active, which can be fostered by parents and caregivers. Strategies for encouraging positive activity and nutritional behaviors should start during early childhood because this stage of development is a critical period learning. Inactivity becomes the norm when children are not giving opportunity for movement. Physical activity activity time is rapidly being replaced with “screen time” (television and computers). Major cities and towns have become less physically active friendly with automobile commutes where children are confined to car seats for long periods of time.
Parents, caregivers, and early childhood learning centers should provide environments that promote structured and unstructured physical activity time. Structured activity is teacher/adult led through a curriculum ensuring both a physically and emotionally safe environment, Unstructured physical activity is “free play” or recess.
What Do the Experts Say?
According to SHAPE America (The Society of Health and Physical Educators) , toddlers should be engaged in at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity and preschoolers 60 minutes of structured physical activity. Both groups should have a minimum of 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity time and should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except when sleeping. These activity times can be divided into smaller blocks of time throughout the day to avoid large periods of time when children are sedentary.
The American Heart Association suggests that a sedentary lifestyle represents a significant risk factor for the development of coronary artery disease and may boost the risk of significant cardiovascular threats, such as low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. The AHA agrees that all children above the age of two should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day. Their guidelines also suggest splitting the full activity hour into several shorter periods for children who struggle to exercise for extended periods of time.
What Should the Recommended 60 Minutes Include?
Parents and caregivers can help shape a child’s attitudes towards physical activity by encouraging young children to be physically active. Children require a variety of activities to maintain and promote physical health.
The SPARK Programs (Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids) encourages that Early Childhood structured physical activity time engage children in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) at least 50% of the session time. Moderate physical activity is the equivalent of a fast walk while vigorous physical activity is similar to a jog.
SHAPE America also recommends “Preschoolers should be encouraged to develop competence in fundamental motor skills that will serve as the building blocks for future motor skillfulness and physical activity.” These fundamental motor skills include locomotor skills and object control skills.
Physical activity programs like SPARK Early Childhood include academic integration during physical activity that focus on readiness skills such as listening, following direction, colors, numbers, shapes, literature, science, social skills, and rhythmic activities. SPARK Early Childhood also includes Family activities, simple fun activities that can be done with parents or caregivers, that require little or no planning.
Promoting Healthy Growth
If you’re concerned about how to incorporate such a wide range of exercise opportunities into your child’s day – remember it’s not as tough as it seems. Learn what your child likes to do and get creative. For instance, if your child likes to explore, head for the nearest jungle gym. If your little one prefers creative activities, then go on a nature hike and collect leaves for a picture. SPARK suggests simple as turning on music and dancing or imitating animal movements instead of turning on a “screen” are wonderful ways to incorporate movement. If your child is enrolled in an early childhood program, inquire about the physical activity program offered at the site to see if it meets the recommendations of SHAPE America and includes important school readiness skills.
It doesn’t matter how your child gets their recommended activity each day — what matters is exercise and movement are given the attention that they deserve.