Active Toddlers

What you should know about active play and little kids

toddler ride on
Ride-on toys can be an indoor or outdoor activity for toddlers (and siblings). M. Ryan

Sometimes I think toddlers have magic powers. Super speed that lets them slip away from you in the store. Wiggle power that enables them to slip out of a stroller harness and bolt for the street. And let's not forget Spider-Man like climbing ability that makes it possible for them to scale a bookcase in the blink of an eye. All of this, while sometimes maddening, is really quite normal. In fact, you want your toddler to be running, jumping, and twirling in circles (really!).

According to pediatric experts, toddlers shouldn't be inactive for more than one hour at a time (unless they are sleeping). That means that as much as you might enjoy the break you get when your little one is chilling out with cartoons or turning pages in that mail-order catalog that caught her attention, you want to encourage her to get moving after an hour spent sitting around. Normally, that isn't a problem anyway, since at this stage of development nothing is likely to hold your toddler's attention for more than a few minutes.

So while more or less constant motion is both a good thing and inevitable for toddlers, you might wonder what type of activities are best for your child's development. The types of activities will depend largely on your child's interest, his gross motor skills at this point, and your comfort zone since it can sometimes be hard to let little ones go free and risk injury. Experts offer two general guidelines for active play between 12 months and 36 months of age:

  1. provide at least 30 minutes of structured play each day
  2. allow your child at least 60 minutes of free play time (unstructured physical activity) per day

Structured Play Time

Structured physical activity is sometimes referred to as adult-led activity. Think of it as times when you are teaching your child a skill such as how to kick or throw or ride a bike. If your child receives physical therapy, activities he does with his therapist might also be considered structured play time.

You can also include any formal classes you have your child enrolled in. While classes are not necessary for toddler development, there are some great options for young children, including:

  • swimming
  • dance
  • gymnastics
  • skating

Keep in mind that your child is probably too young to participate in organized team sports. Children under 3 are often still in parallel play mode and also may not be able to understand the formal rules of team sports such as soccer and t-ball.

Free Play

For most toddlers, unstructured physical activity makes up the bulk of their day. While she may welcome your presence and occasional interaction, your child will very likely not need much from you to enjoy herself. Toddlers can entertain themselves for amazingly long stretches doing the most mundane-seeming activities like racing from the couch to the love seat or filling a cup on the table with rocks from your garden. Don't assume that you need to step in at all to "add" to these games. She's learning about her environment and her own body and as long as she's happy and safe, you can just let her be. Of course, there are plenty of times when your toddler does want and need you to help them make the most of play time. Some suggestions:

  • Turn simple everyday items into playthings. Laundry, pillows, cups, and other things laying around the house are pure magic to toddlers.
  • Invest in a few key active play items. Ride-on toys are a great way to help toddlers use up some energy while building strength and balance. A sturdy sand and water table or kiddie pool will keep kids moderately active while enjoying the outdoors. And, of course, a variety of balls are always a hit.
  • Take him to the park. It can be hard to watch your little one stumble and crash a bit as he masters the equipment, but by adhering to some basic playground safety rules you can ensure a fine time.
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