Physical Activity for Preschoolers

Preschooler girl playing ball outside
Tom Odulate / Getty Images

Do we really need to promote physical activity for preschoolers? It seems like little kids don't require any extra encouragement to move their busy bodies. However, obesity rates are dangerously high in children. While these trends are lower among children ages 2 to 5 than older children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents and caregivers need to make sure that even small children get plenty of active playtimes every day.

How much is "plenty"? The Society of Health and Physical Educators (a professional society for teachers) recommends:

  • Free play: At least 60 minutes a day (and up to several hours) in any kind of unstructured physical activity, like exploring at the playground or playing pretend at home
  • Limited sedentary time: No more than 60 minutes at a time sitting still (reading books, watching screens, coloring) unless they are sleeping
  • Structured play: At least 60 minutes a day, cumulative. This could mean 10 minutes of playing catch; 10 minutes of riding on a scooter or bike; 15 minutes playing with a parachute with classmates and teachers; and a 25-minute swim lesson

For toddlers (12 to 36 months old), the recommendations are the same, except structured physical activity should add up to 30 minutes a day instead of 60.

Teaching Physical Activity

Why do we need to call out structured play specifically? Small children need help learning motor skills. They must go through several developmental steps to learn how to coordinate their movements into efficient running, throwing, catching, and the like.

"There is a common misconception that if you kick kids out to play, they will learn" on their own, says Jackie Goodway, Ph.D., an associate professor of motor development and elementary physical education pedagogy at Ohio State University. "But it's like reading. If you don't teach them, provide feedback, and offer them appropriate opportunities to practice and learn," they won't become proficient at those skills.

While formal classes can be wonderful, says Goodway, parents make the best role models. To boost your child's physical activity and motor development, spend time playing actively with him. Offer positive, constructive feedback ("Kick a little more softly next time" or "I like how you reached out for the ball").

Provide age-appropriate toys and equipment, such as a Wiffle ball and a fat plastic bat instead of a heavy wooden one. If you do enroll your child in a movement class, make sure it is appropriate for his developmental level. Kids this age are not ready for team sports, and they should not spend time waiting for their turn on the sidelines. Instead of one ball and 10 kids, for example, all children should have their own ball.

Encourage Physical Activity

To make sure your child gets his daily dose of active play, try:

  • Catch or kickball (experiment with balls of different sizes and textures)
  • Crawling through a cardboard-box tunnel
  • Dancing: Add scarves or ribbons to make it more exciting
  • Indoor obstacle course: Build one together using sofa cushions, hula hoops (to jump in and out of), chairs lined up to form a tunnel or balance beam, etc.
  • Riding a tricycle or scooter
  • Swimming or other water play, such as running in a sprinkler or washing the car
  • Tag or chase: For variety, hop, waddle, or dance instead of running
1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight & Obesity. Childhood Obesity Facts.

Additional Reading
  • Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2009.

By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.