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Encouraging physical activity through play

Early Education Practitioners including nursery staff, play workers and childminders have a great opportunity to support children and families increase physical activity through play.

Play is crucial for children’s health and wellbeing. Playing is a natural way for kids children to learn and develop new skills. It provides children with the opportunity to practise risky activities in a safe environment. It gives them the opportunity to be physically active, develop coordination and burn off some energy. Play can also help encourage children’s enjoyment of physical activity which will lead to a healthier life.

What do we mean by Physical Activity?

When people hear the term physical activity, their first thoughts might be of sports including tennis, swimming and football. However, physical activity means everyday activities, in short anything that requires you to move around. 

For children - and adults who join in - physical activity can range from basic movements, like reaching for and grabbing toys, to being up on their feet and playing games that move the whole body and get them out of breath and sweaty.

How much physical activity do young children need?

In July 2011 the UK Governments published physical activity guidelines. For the first time these include guidelines specifically for the under fives:

From birth and before walking:

Babies should be encouraged to be active from birth. Before babies begin to crawl, they should be encouraged to be physically active by reaching and grasping, pulling and pushing, moving their head, body and limbs during daily routines, including tummy time, and during supervised floor and water play, including tummy time.

Once babies can move around, they should be encouraged to be as active as possible in a safe, supervised and nurturing play environment.

Once they can walk:

Children who can walk on their own should be physically active every day for at least 3 hours (180 minutes). This should be spread throughout the day, indoors or outside.

The 180 minutes can include light activity such as standing up, moving around, rolling and playing, as well as more energetic activity like skipping, hopping, running and jumping.

Age and development-appropriate active play, such as using a climbing frame, riding a bike, playing in water, chasing games and ball games, are some of the best ways for this age group to be physically active.

Children under 5 should not be inactive for long periods, except when they're asleep. Screentime (including TV, computers and game consoles), travelling by car, bus or train or being strapped into a buggy for long periods are not good for a child’s health and development. There's growing evidence that such behaviour can increase their risk of poor health and can lead to the formation of unhealthy, inactive habits.

What can you do?

The creation of opportunities for children to be physically activity is fundamental to developing active lifestyles for children as they grow.

As a childminder or nursery worker, you can very easily encourage physical activity through play. This could include:

  • encouraging children to stand up at a table whilst they draw, colour or write
  • acting out the lyrics to a nursery rhymes and songs
  • playing chasing or jumping games.

You could think of ways to give children in your care plenty of opportunities to move and exercise and practice their growing ability to walk, run, climb, push and pull. Play and physical activity could be built into everyday activities such as encouraging children to tidy up their toys after they have finished playing as well as carrying their plates into the kitchen after their meal. Children will love to copy you help and help copy you with daily activities!

The play@home baby, toddler and pre-school books contain lots of activities ideas which promote active play for children. You could also act out the child’s favourite stories as you share a book together. The Bookbug baby and toddler packs contain lots of books which children will love to act out. The Play Talk Read website, also has a variety of age and development appropriate activity ideas which encourage active play.