Motivating Preschoolers to Be Active

Preschoolers Need to Play

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Preschoolers can be unstoppable — running, spinning, leaping, and climbing at every opportunity. Their desire to move, move, move makes this a great time to cultivate fitness habits that will last.

Kids need to be fit for the same reasons adults do: to improve their health and ensure that their bodies can do what they need them to do. Regular exercise helps kids grow, build strong muscles and bones, develop important motor skills, and enhance self-esteem.

It's a little odd to think about "motivating" a preschooler to be active. (It's not like thoughts of thinner thighs or a slimmer belly are going to spur them to the gym for a workout!) Yet it's important that they play actively several times daily.

So what should parents and caregivers do? You probably already know what will motivate this age group best: fun.

To keep active time fun, know what activities are best for your child's age group and make having a good time the top priority. For instance, preschoolers might groan if you drag them on a boring walk around an exercise track. But if you walk through the woods, stopping to admire nature and tossing rocks into a stream, the walk is much more appealing.

Understanding which skills your child has — and is working on — is another key to keeping it fun. You can have a great time kicking the ball back and forth together, but your child probably wouldn't have much fun if put into a soccer game with all the rules enforced.

Away From Home

Also consider kids' opportunities to be active while away from home. At a child care center or preschool, do kids have access to a playground or large indoor space for activity? The games and equipment need not be fancy. Preschool kids are working on skills such as hopping, balancing on one foot, throwing and catching balls, pedaling tricycles, and skipping.

They'll enjoy simple games such as catch and tag, playing with plastic bats and balls, dancing, and tumbling. And kids still love to play "Duck, Duck, Goose," "London Bridge," "I'm a Little Teapot," or "Simon Says."

The benefits will pay off now and later, according to the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE). When kids learn basic skills (jumping, throwing, kicking, catching) in the preschool years, it builds confidence and increases the chances that they'll continue to be physically active as they grow up. NASPE recommends that preschoolers accumulate at least 60 minutes of structured (adult-led) physical activity a day.

Free Time

A little freedom also can motivate preschoolers to be active. Though some of their physical activity can be structured and led by a parent or caregiver, it pays to let them take the lead sometimes. NASPE recommends that preschoolers engage in at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity (free play) a day.

Encourage active free play, which means letting kids choose the activity and make decisions about what to do — all within a safe and supervised environment, of course. This could include exploring the backyard, running around the playground, or dress-up.

During pretend play, preschoolers often like to take on a gender-specific role because they are beginning to identify with members of the same sex. A girl, for instance, might pretend to be her mother by "working" in the garden, while a boy might mimic his father by "cutting" the lawn.

Parents Play an Important Role

One important message here is that your preschooler is clearly keeping an eye on how you spend your time, so set a good example by exercising regularly. Your child will pick up on this as something parents do and will naturally want to do it as well.

In addition to being good role models when it comes to exercise, parents can take these steps to encourage physical activity:

Limit TV and computer time. When you do, kids often find more active stuff to do. Allow no more than 1 to 2 hours per day of quality programming. Though lots of computer programs are marketed to preschoolers, none are necessary for their development. If you decide to allow computer use, carefully choose the software and the websites your child can visit.

Know your child. Help find activities your child likes and then present many opportunities to enjoy them. Keep equipment and supplies on hand and, if possible, within easy reach for your preschooler.

Provide close supervision. Preschoolers' physical abilities — like climbing to the top of a playground tower, for instance — often exceed their ability to judge what's safe and what's dangerous. Likewise, they don't know when it's time to take a break on a hot day.

It's up to your child to have fun outside. It's up to you to bring the water bottle, snack, and sunscreen!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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