Inactive children are likely to become inactive adults. Increasing the amount of physical activity has been associated with an increased life expectancy and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as overall physical, psychological and social benefits.
It is therefore important to introduce physical activity at a young age, along with reducing sedentary time – watching television, playing computer games or talking on the phone. Physical activity should be fun for children and adolescents, with parents seen as role models for active lifestyles. Children under five need time to play and master their physical environment and develop fundamental movement skills.1
Physically active play, otherwise known as ‘natural movement’, can make unique contributions to children's development which cannot be obtained from more structured forms of physical activity.2 Active play may make important cognitive, physical, social and emotional contributions to children's development which, again, are not necessarily obtained from more structured forms of physical activity.3 Active play has also been widely acknowledged as an essential part of human development.4
Despite its health benefits, many children and young people do not meet the current UK guidelines of an hour per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days of the week,5 although natural movement is harder to measure and therefore account for.
Physically active play is the best way for young children to be physically active. Enabling environments which provide opportunities for physically active play (e.g., providing space and variety of equipment) at home and within a childcare setting are essential.
Active play may involve games with rules and can be social or solitary, but the distinguishing features are a playful context, combined with activity that is significantly above resting metabolic rate.6 These include developing creativity, resolving conflicts in peer groups, social interaction skills, conquering fears and building resilience to face future challenges.
Tips for parents
· Plan for stimulating, fun, active play opportunities and challenges, which children can direct themselves. This will encourage independence and exploration.
· Provide space for children to run around freely and spontaneously, to allow them to experience whole-body movement.
· Provide equipment and toys, and everyday objects or props (e.g., balls, streamers, cardboard boxes, empty containers) for them to explore.
· Take children to parks or open spaces such as the beach, to provide opportunities to play outdoors.
· Allow small children to crawl and move around at least once a day.
· Design your backyard or garden for activity – ropes, ladders, tents, swing sets, sandboxes, wagons for hauling toys and outdoor sporting equipment for basketball, badminton, football, etc.
· Play music for dance and creating routines.
· Provide support, prompts and demonstrations, as not all children are naturally active or creative, and those that are shy may otherwise avoid social groups.
1. American Heart Association (2012), Physical Activity and Children, retrieved from: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Physical-Activity-and-Children_UCM_304053_Article.jsp
2. Brockman R, Fox KR and Jago R (2011), What is the meaning and nature of active play for today's children in the UK?, International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8:15.
3. Burdette H and Whitaker R (2005), Resurrecting free play in young children, Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 159:46-50.
4. Ginsburg KR (2007), The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds, Pediatrics, 119(1):182-191.
5. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1989), Convention on the Rights of the Child, General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November.
6. Simons-Morton BG, O'Hara NM, Parcel GS, Huang IW, Baranowski T and Wilson B (1990), Children's frequency of participation in moderate to vigorous physical activities, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 61(4):307-314.
Claire Darlington is a freelance group exercise instructor and the founder of the STRIDE project, which launched in 2006 to motivate, educate and advise young teenagers about the benefits of exercise and healthier eating. Contact Claire at www.chesterfitness.co.uk or email@example.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.