Information about overweight and obese children is highly publicized and has become a grave concern. The numbers of children who are obese have doubled in the past few years. The research shows that young children are developing more sedimentary habits beginning at an early age, which in turn can lead to obesity.
Caregivers must be dedicated to planning time during each day for physical activity in an effort to break this cycle. Planning more physical activities for infants and children can help break the unhealthy habits children are learning and keep them physically active. This is just one step that can work to help the growing number of America’s overweight children.
Indoor and Outdoor Activities
First, look at your childcare setting and determine whether there are spaces indoors and outdoors that are safe and uncluttered that allow infants and toddlers freedom to be physically active. In the indoor space, children need obstacle free play areas to provide them safe opportunities to crawl, walk, or toddle around. Provide appropriate equipment and materials to encourage children to engage in gross motor activities.
Plan and provide daily outdoor activities for young children, unless there is bad weather. What does bad weather mean? As defined by the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, Revised Edition (ITERS-R), bad weather means extreme temperatures, rain, or ice. To be alert for bad weather in your area, listen to local weather broadcasts for warnings that children should stay inside. However, on most days, children can to go outside for a limited time as long as they are dressed appropriately.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has established guidelines regarding the amount and kinds of physical activity to which infants, toddlers, and preschoolers should be exposed. For young infants, these guidelines include assessing the environment and making sure there are many opportunities for physical development.
NASPE guidelines also state that infants should not be placed in settings that restrict their movement for long periods of time. For healthy development, infants need to be allowed to move and to experience a wide range of experiences through exploring their environment. The infant guidelines specify that teachers and caregivers should recognize the importance of physical activity and implement a variety of opportunities for structured and unstructured physical play.
Physical activities for infants in the childcare setting can be as simple as encouraging tummy time. Infant tummy time and crawling have multiple benefits including improvement of strength, coordination, movement, balance, and socialization. Through these benefits, physical activity can help prevent developmental delays.
The NASPE guidelines for toddlers state that children in this age range should be exposed to planned physical activities for at least 30 minutes throughout each day. It is important to note that these 30 minutes should be spread out through the day and not all at one time.
The guidelines also recommend that toddlers be engaged in at least 60 minutes daily of unstructured play activities that encourage physical development. Keep in mind that 60 minutes is the minimum; aim to provide as much unstructured physical activity as possible throughout the day. The goal is to make sure that toddlers do not spend time in sedentary activity for more than 60 minutes at a time, unless they are asleep or resting. Let them run, roll, walk, climb, jump, slide, push, and pull until they are tired.
In the childcare setting, there are many ways to encourage movement in toddlers. Dancing to songs such as the Hokey Pokey, exploring the many ways the body can move, playing with balls in the outside play area, or navigating an indoor obstacle course can keep toddlers moving in fun ways.
Materials and Equipment
Materials and equipment for infants and toddlers should provide opportunities for children to use their gross motor skills. Items that promote this type of physical activity include:
- Small push-pull toys and riding toys without pedals
- Gyms that allow infants to grasp or kick at items
- Large blocks or construction toys
- Balls of various sizes that can be rolled, thrown, or kicked
- Indoor and outdoor climbing equipment that is age appropriate
During story time, include books on children and adults being active. Stories that focus on dancing, building, sledding, gardening, canoeing, running, or playing sports can show the many ways to move and be fit. Look for creative ways to incorporate movement into story times. Many books lend themselves to encouraging movement.
Items such as walkers, exer-saucers, swings, and buggies are not recommended for young children. Equipment such as walkers are often used because people think that these items will teach their child to walk at an early age.
On the contrary, research indicates that children who are put in walkers or walker-like equipment do not walk earlier than other children. In fact, walking skills may be delayed when walkers are used. Children also may fall behind in other areas of development because the equipment restricts the ability to explore, which leads to learning. Therefore, these devices should not be used in the childcare settings.
Many caregivers believe that giving young children buggy rides outdoors provides physical development opportunities. Buggy rides offer children outdoor time, but not physical activity. When infants are placed in the buggies, they become sedentary and physical activity is not encouraged.
Non-mobile infants should be allowed to move freely. This may include tummy time on a mat or blanket, both indoors and outdoors. Young children who are able to crawl or walk can be given items they can play with to practice their physical skills, such as the push/pull toys, crawl through tunnels, slides, etc.
It is important that caregivers recognize the influence that you have in promoting physical activity among young children. Serve as a role model. Let young children see you on the move while running, bending, lifting, climbing, kicking the ball, or dancing. You are in a position to help children learn self-help skills and begin to establish their own healthy habits.
Amy Hood Hooten, PhD
Infant/Toddler Specialist, T/TAS
Administration of Children and Families, /eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/For%20Parents/Safe%20and%20Healthy%20Family/Health/PhysicalFitness.htm
Environmental Rating Scales, ers.fpg.unc.edu
National Association for Sport and Physical Education Activity Guidelines, www.aahperd.org/naspe/standards/nationalGuidelines/ActiveStart.cfm