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Physical activity for young children

Physical activity can start very early in life as part of everyday play. When you’re choosing activities for young children, focus on fun and play.

Daily physical activity: focusing on fun

When you’re choosing physical activity for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, focus on activities that are fun.

If children enjoy what they’re doing, they’re more likely to want to keep doing it. And physical activities that children enjoy will increase their confidence and ability to move well.

Physical activity is vital to your child’s healthy growth and development. And it can start very early in life as part of your child’s everyday play.


Physical activity for children 0-2 years

Babies aged 0-12 months need plenty of opportunities for free movement and floor play, as long as they can do it in a safe environment. An environment that encourages your child to explore and develop skills like reaching, rolling, sitting up, crawling, pulling up and walking is great.

Your child can be active inside or outside. But being outside can provide endless opportunities to use big muscles, think creatively and learn more about the environment.

Before baby can walk
Even tiny babies like to stretch and play. A large blanket on the floor (or on the grass outside) for tummy time can be a safe, clean and welcoming place for babies to practise lifting their heads. This helps them develop strong muscles. Australian guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day when baby is awake.

A blanket on the ground or floor is also a great place for baby to learn to roll, creep, crawl and sit. If you put a toy or object just out of reach, it encourages your baby to make an extra effort to reach it.

Low-cost tummy time toys include things to grab and hold, like old boxes. Another idea is plastic containers with things that rattle inside. Just make sure the container lids are on very tightly. Bright colours, drawings of dots, squares or stars, shiny surfaces, changing textures and different sounds can also interest your child.

You can also encourage your baby to look, clap, reach or move to sound – try talking, singing, rhyming or action games like pat-a-cake and peekaboo.

If you’re putting your baby on the floor, just remember to look for potential hazards down at baby’s level. Stay with your baby to keep things safe.

When baby starts to walk
Once your child is walking, you can encourage her just by letting her move often. This means plenty of time out of the pram or stroller.

This is a great time to look for objects and activities that encourage movement – for example, climbing a slide at the local playground.

Tip: Playing with your child and praising him as he learns to run, jump, dance and throw encourages him to keep going.


Physical activity for children 2-5 years

Toddlers and preschoolers need plenty of free time and space to just run around and play. Backyards, school playgrounds, empty sporting fields, adventure playgrounds, school playgrounds, parks, trails and the beach are all great places for children of this age.

Here are some ideas for keeping physical activity fun:

  • Use large, soft balls to practise catching, hitting, bouncing and kicking. Start with something small and easy to hold like a little bean bag. When spaces aren’t safe for balls, some rolled-up socks can be good for this activity.
  • Make up games that involve different types of movement. For example, get your child to chase bubbles, walk along chalk lines, gather shells and jump over puddles or cracks in the ground.
  • Play different kinds of music, or make sounds with your voice or instruments. This can encourage dancing and a sense of rhythm.
  • Invent some silly walks and runs with your child. You could play guess the animal games, where you run like a monkey, jump like a bunny, flap like a bird and so on.
  • When your child is ready, let her try learning to ride a bike, scooter or tricycle – under your supervision, of course. She might also enjoy playing with push toys like trucks, doll prams and toy lawn mowers.
  • Leave the car at home sometimes and walk to local places like the library, park or shops. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even go without the pram or stroller.

Tip: Toddlers and preschoolers should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day. All children need to play energetically each day, and children over three years need at least an hour of energetic play each day.


Organised physical activity and sport

When is the right time to sign your child up for organised sport? When your child is ready is the simple answer.

If your younger child is interested in organised sport, it might be worth looking for a non-competitive sport. Some sports offer modified versions for preschoolers. Other options could be dance, gymnastics or swimming classes.

Modified sports and junior physical activity programs usually focus on introducing children to structured, organised sports, developing physical and social skills, building confidence, and getting everyone to have a go. That’s because there’s no need to pressure young children about perfect technique, or winning and losing. It’s more important for them to learn about the fun of playing, being active and trying hard.

If you think your child is ready for organised sport, you could talk to other parents about sport and physical activity programmes or classes in your area. Also talk to people at the program and even the instructor for your child’s age group. Go along and watch other children playing. A sign of a good programme is children having fun.


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