Teaching Kids About Exercise

Start this healthy habit early, and make it fun!

Mom and child at playground

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Teaching kids about exercise is just one of the many things parents do to get children off to a good start. It goes on the list with well-child check-ups, serving healthy foods, reading together, and offering hugs, kisses, and praise liberally.

The first step is helping little ones make physical activity an everyday event, now and as they grow. "Movement and exercise for kids should be as much of a habit as brushing teeth daily—but more fun!" says Rae Pica, a movement education specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity and Free Time Create a Successful Child (Marlowe & Company).

Why Teaching Kids About Exercise Is Important

"Children were born to move," Pica says, noting that movement helps kids develop not only their bodies, but also their brains, their ability to learn, and their social skills. "It impacts not only ​physical development, but cognitive, social, and emotional development—the whole child."

Early childhood is also the best time to establish good habits so that kids seek and enjoy exercise instead of avoiding it. And of course, starting early means reaping the benefits early! "Moderate to vigorous physical activity feeds the brain with water, glucose, and oxygen, which we all need for optimal performance," says Pica. "And it gets those endorphins going, so we feel better too. That goes for both parents and kids."

How to Get Your Family Moving

Kids may be "born to move," but if they don't see their parents making fitness a priority, they'll turn quickly from jumping beans into couch potatoes. "What's important to important adults in children's lives becomes important to them," says Pica. So we grown-ups need to be good role models. Kids are paying attention (even if it seems like they never hear us ask them to pick up their toys!). So be sure yours see parents who exercise, and enjoy it.

Beyond being a good role model, it's up to you to promote exercise to kids by making sure that they have time, space, and opportunities to move and play. It's as easy, and as difficult, as that. If you're challenged by living in an urban setting or an extreme climate, you might need to be more creative about finding those spaces and opportunities. And we're all challenged by time—who can fit in everything we want and need to do? That's why making fitness a habit helps. We all find the time to brush those teeth; we need to find that time for fitness too.

Play Together, Play Apart

Playing with your children gives the kids playmates, demonstrates that you think play is important and offers you the opportunity to get moving too. But kids also can, and should, play independently. "Children will learn a lot when they play on their own: problem-solving, conflict resolution, creative self-expression," says Pica.

Pica suggests the following three games for easy, active family fun. Parents can serve as facilitators and cheerleaders, or join in—whatever you're all in the mood for today.

  • Forward, march! Have a parade around the house (inside or out). Equip everyone with toy musical instruments, or pots, pans, plastic containers, and wooden spoons. Take turns taking the lead and setting the pace. Make up silly marching steps and cheers.
  • Forever blowing bubbles: You know the rules for this one. One person blows the bubbles, and everyone else chases them!
  • Come dancing: Put on your favorite tunes and boogie down.
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