How to Make Sure Your Kids Get the Physical, Emotional and Learning Benefits of Physical Play in the Early Years

The benefits of physical activity are not only related to physical health, but also contribute to psychological well-being, cognitive development (attention and concentration), social competence and emotional maturity (controlling emotions and behavior, self-esteem and self-respect).

All of this begins with physical activity.  And physical activity begins with you.

A recent study shows less than ? of children, both in Canada and the US, meet or exceed the minimal standard of just 30 minutes of moderate activity each day. Inactivity is linked directly to increased screen time and the rising costs, competitiveness, and accessibility associated with organized sports. The developing sedentary patterns can result in increased health problems. This has been the pattern for more than the past 10 years but hope is far from lost and you can help change the tide beginning today!

Physical activity in early childhood primarily involves active games and the children’s ability to move freely and explore their environment.  Today we'll look at some simple everyday ways kids can get the benefits of physical activity in early childhood.

The Benefits of Getting Kids Moving in the Early Years:

Confidence: Early childhood is a time when children feel that their physical abilities are high and when they are most willing to try and repeat new activities. This can be helpful in developing lifelong basic physical skills such as body awareness, throwing, catching, and maintaining balance. Starting in the early years means kids can build on their natural early confidence.

Physical health – Activity in the earlier years helps shape a healthy lifestyle in adulthood.  Muscle and bone development, overall body coordination, and weight control are all naturally occurring benefits of physical activity.

Studies show that physical activity in early childhood is associated with better physical health, which involves proper body posture, stronger bones and muscles, and a better cardiovascular and respiratory function. It also significantly reduces the risks of developing some diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

How Physical Activity Affects Learning:

Cognitive learning – Increased concentration and classroom participation are improved through your child’s physical activity.  Some teachers report that the activity reduces moodiness and symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Physical activity supports and enhances your child’s education experience.

Social learning – Interactions within activity times, such as recess, build trust, communication, empathy, and cooperation.  These skills are essential in future social interactions and contribute to the wellbeing of your child.

Emotional learning – Fresh air and activity keeps the child’s brain active and reduces stress, symptoms of depression, and anxiety.  Children who are physically active report higher rates of self-esteem, and parents report that their children often have a better night of sleep.  

Everyday Ways to Encourage Physical Activity in Kids

Now, with a snapshot of the benefits that physical fitness and activity can have on your child, let’s take a look at what parents and caregivers can do?

  • Help your child find the activity that fits their interests..  Not every child is made for hockey, or football.  If they are, fantastic, pursue that. Others may enjoy riding a bicycle, going for walks, playing tennis at the park, or swimming at the beach.  Activity doesn’t necessarily mean organized sports. The availability of physical activities is only limited by imagination.
  • Be involved in their activity. Children learn from their parents.  Even with the advancement in technology, the influence of parents remains the strongest factor in child development.  Consider coaching their teams, joining them on bike rides, or going for evening walks together. Retired CFL Toronto Argonaut and high school educator, Jude St. John, suggests that, “Parents can increase their child’s physical activity by participating with them, actively exploring activities their child might enjoy, giving them opportunities to participate, and by modelling an active lifestyle.” Never underestimate the impact of your example.  The more active you are, the more likely your child is to engage in physical activity.
  • Make the activity enjoyable. Often times we overlook the activity of simple play.  Play helps develop social skills, cooperation, and leadership.  These skills are transferable into the classroom to facilitate learning, and will help establish the foundation for future interactions and learning opportunities.
  • Assure your child that they aren’t required to be athletic to be active. Activity is just that – being active.  Have you watched children play at the playground at a nearby park?  Those children are active. As a parent and caregiver, you role is to get your child off the couch and into the world of active fun.  Jude St. John adds, “ With the wide range of physical activities available, there is something for everyone. The level of athleticism a child has or doesn’t have should not prevent them from finding some form of physical  activity they enjoy.”
  • Encourage recess activities.  Recess is not just a break for teachers and students to get away from the classroom.  In fact, it is a vital part of child development and their educational experience. Taking a break from active learning to passive learning through social activity gives a period of refreshing.

A Few Tips to Access Physical Activities for your Child

  • Join a local YMCA or similar community activity center.  Fees are often adjusted based on a family’s income making the activities accessible to everyone.
  • Keep an eye on your local media for free gym nights or activity nights.
  • Encourage your child to invite a friend to attend with them.  
  • Many communities have local charities or foundations that will assist with subsidies to help decrease the cost of organized sports and activities.
  • Weave physical play into your regular activities – look for ways to get your kids moving doing the activities you are already engaged in: toss socks paired balled up socks into the laundry basket from the couch, or you could have an impromptu sock fight with those same socks. Declare that it’s time to build a mountain of pillows to scale. Create a terrain with obstacles around the house or use sponge balls to play.
  • Media movement breaks – If your family enjoys watching a television series together, do jumping jacks or marching in place during the commercials. Any activities that get children moving are better than sitting on the couch for a long time. In the age of technology, parents must be creative in order to develop positive screen time habits. The key thing is to create an environment where children feel safe and where they are encouraged to expand their views and range of physical activity.
  • Get outside –  check out your local parks, playground, outdoor recreation areas. Getting outdoor gives kids an opportunity for physical activities of varying intensity – from moderate, such as taking a walk, to very intense such as running and jumping. With the right clothing, outside play is almost always an option.

The key thing is to create an environment where children feel safe and where they are encouraged to expand their physical activity.

The early years are crucial both for children's psycho-physical development and for the adoption of healthy habits that will follow them throughout their lives. Scientific evidence suggests that children with higher levels of physical activity in early childhood are more likely to remain active later in life, which is important for obtaining optimal health and well-being

Parents and caregivers play a decisive role in encouraging the physical activity in young children. We can model healthy habits by playing physical games with our children, making time and space for our own physical activity, and limiting our own time spent watching TV or playing video games

What are your favorite physical activities to do with young children?

Here are some fun ways to Get Kids Moving – Indoors and Out: