Physical Activity for the Toddler
Physical activity is a key ingredient in a healthy lifestyle, and adults often declare that they are going to start being more physically active. Young children, however, are so naturally energetic, that you rarely think about the fact that they need to be physically active, too.
Over the past few years, the number of overweight children has increased dramatically throughout the nation. Young children are developing sedentary habits, which, in turn, may lead to childhood overweight and obesity. Families and caregivers of young children are the keys to helping break this cycle! Beginning with the toddler years, you should plan more physical activities for children so you can help them build healthy habits and help reverse the surge in overweight children.
Your childcare setting may be a perfect setting for toddlers to take part in physical activity. Look at the toddler’s environment and identify spaces both indoors and out that are uncluttered and allow the toddler ample space to crawl and walk and “toddle” regularly every day.
Inside your childcare setting, children need uncluttered play areas with appropriate equipment and materials to give them opportunities to develop their gross motor skills. Except in extreme weather (rain, snow, or extreme hot or cold), outdoor activities should be planned daily for toddlers.
In most cases, children should be able to spend a meaningful amount of time outdoors, with, of course, appropriate clothing, sunscreens, etc. For children in out-of-home care, most state licensing regulations require some amount of outdoor time daily.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has established guidelines for the amounts and kinds of physical activity infants and toddlers should be exposed to. For these young children, the guidelines include assessing the environment and providing as many opportunities for physical development as possible.
The guidelines state that toddlers should be exposed to planned physical activities for at least 30 minutes throughout the day. The 30 minutes of activity should not be all at one time, but spread throughout the day. Toddlers and preschoolers should engage in at least 60 minutes and up to several hours per day of unstructured physical activity and should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except when sleeping. Toddlers should develop movement skills that are building blocks for more complex movement tasks.
Toys and Equipment
What kinds of activities can toddlers do? Most toddlers can walk, run, and jump in place with both feet by two years of age. Many toddlers will learn to balance briefly on one foot, climb well, kick the ball forward, throw the ball overhand, and pedal a tricycle as they transition from a toddler to a preschooler.
Materials and equipment should encourage toddlers to be active and to use and develop their gross motor skills. Such items include small push-pull toys, riding toys (without pedals), balls, bean bags, age appropriate climbing equipment, tumbling mats, and slides.
Items such as walkers, exer-saucers, swings, and buggies do not encourage physical development, and their use should be limited with young children. Adults sometimes believe that walkers and walker-equipment will help teach their child to walk at an early age, but this is not the case. Research has shown that children who are put in walkers or walker-like equipment do not walk earlier than other children. In addition, research also indicates that children in walkers are actually about 10 percent behind in all areas of development, mainly because they are not able to explore.
Many adults believe that by giving young children buggy or stroller rides outdoors, they are providing physical development opportunities. Once again, this is not the case. Strollers and buggies are means of transportation that should not be used for play. When toddlers are placed in the buggies, they become sedentary and physical activity is not encouraged.
For children whose mobility is limited, the need for physical activity is still important. These children need time to move freely as much as they are able; even tummy time on a mat or blanket, inside and outside is beneficial. Toddlers who are able to crawl or walk can be given items that they can play with to practice their physical skills such as the push-pull toys, crawl-through tunnels, slides, etc.
Activities for Toddlers
There are a variety of activities that promote physical development and can be done inside or outside for toddlers that are fun for the children and the caregivers.
For children 12-18 months old:
- Provide pull toys to encourage children to pull themselves up or walk.
- Provide toys such as soft balls or beanbags that can be thrown safely to help children develop the patterns of throwing overhand.
- Provide opportunities indoors and outside to allow children to carry objects from one place to another.
- Provide babies with opportunities to pound or hammer wooden pegs into a workbench to develop developmental skills.
For children 18-24 months old:
- Play games that encourage children to move in various directions at different speeds and use different sized steps, etc.
- Provide opportunities for children to kick at balls so they can learn to balance.
- Provide opportunities for the children to walk up stairs.
- Provide movement or flexibility opportunities for toddlers such as twisting, nodding heads, and touching toes.
- Provide opportunities for all children to listen to music and dance!
Children learn by example so let them see you walk, run, bike, build, dance, climb, or play ball. During reading time, share books about people who lead active lives so that the toddlers see other people–both adults and children–being active. Stories of athletes, dancers, astronauts, farmers, and other physically fit people show children that exercise is important.
Whatever activities are selected to implement with toddlers, the important thing to remember is that toddlers need to have many opportunities for physical activity. Activities should vary widely in terms of the different motor skills involved to perform them. When toddlers learn to enjoy physical activity early, they start to build and maintain habits for physically active lifestyles that last a lifetime.