Physical activity

Levels of physical activity have a direct effect on a child's health and are important in helping develop the attitudes, skills and behaviours for lifelong physical activity and health. The creation of strong links to opportunities for physical activity both at home and in communities is fundamental to developing active lifestyles for families and children. Many sectors within the early years workforce contribute to encouraging and supporting active and healthy lifestyles among parents, children and families.

Physical movement and active play have a positive impact on developing social skills and bonding. For babies and young children, learning and movement are interdependent, and encouraging parents and carers to play and interact with their baby can help build a sense of wellbeing that is important throughout childhood and adult life.  Establishing daily play routines early in childhood encourages children’s enjoyment of physical activity and promotes the value of parents doing exercise as role models. The play@home programme strengthens the relationship between parents and children to develop their self-esteem, giving them confidence to try new activities. 

What do we mean by 'physical activity'?

Physical activity includes all forms of activity, such as everyday walking or cycling to get from A to B, active play, work-related activity, active recreation (such as working out in a gym), dancing, gardening or playing active games, as well as organised and competitive sport.

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

It can include anything from walking to nursery and helping with household chores to playing chasing or jumping games.

Why is physical activity in childhood important?

In infants and very young children, being physically active strengthens developing muscles and bones and helps develop coordination and movement skills.

In children, taking part in a variety of physical activities helps maintain healthy weight, improves self-confidence and social skills and can provide opportunities to develop friendships.

Being active in childhood means children are more likely to be active later in life and so is an important part of developing a lifelong healthy lifestyle.

What are the recommendations for physical activity for the early years?

From birth and before walking:

Babies should be encouraged to be active from birth. Before babies begins 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, and during supervised floor 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, is the best way for this age group to be physically active.

Children under 5 should not be inactive for long periods, except when they're asleep.

Watching TV, 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.

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Physical activity and inequalities in the early years

Being physically active promotes healthy physical, emotional and social growth and development throughout childhood.

Many physical activities also provide opportunities for fun, bonding and new friendships.

Physically active children are more likely to maintain healthy levels of activity later in life, which can help mediate the effects of health inequalities.

Quick links:

What are health inequalities?

The WHO defines health inequalities as "differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups."

For a general discussion of health inequalities and the early years, please see Inequalities in the early years.

Policy context

Activity in this area is consistent with commitments and priorities detailed in the Early Years Framework and the National Parenting Strategy, Equally WellAchieving our Potential, a range of NHS Scotland's Quality Indicators and is relevant to Scotland's national practice model for child-centred services - Getting it Right for Every Child (all external links).

Let’s Make Scotland More Active set out a 20-year ambition to increase physical activity in Scotland and has recently been supplemented by recommendations for the Early Years from the UK's Chief Medical Officers detailed in Start Active, Stay Active.

How do inequalities relate to physical activity levels in children?

The relationship between inequalities and physical activity in children is not linear and differs for boys and girls.

The 2011 Scottish Health Survey (external link) showed that, among all children aged 2-15, only 70 per cent of girls met recommendations, compared to 76 per cent of boys. Rates of activity are higher among children under 8 years as activity levels begin to drop in later childhood and into adolescence.

While boys aged 2-15 living in the least deprived areas are most active (81 per cent met recommendations), those living in the second most deprived fifth of areas have higher levels of activity than the remaining groups (77 per cent met recommendations).

Associations with socioeconomic classifications were not significant for boys but girls living in lower supervisory or technical households were the most active (77 per cent met recommendations), compared with 67 per cent-69 per cent in all other types of household.

One of the strongest associations was with the activity levels of mothers.

80 per cent of boys aged 2-15 and 71 per cent of girls aged 2-15 whose mothers met adult recommendations for physical activity met the child recommendations, compared with 72 per cent of boys and 62 per cent of girls whose mothers did not.

Disabled children from benefit dependent families, looked after children and children of asylum seekers are also more likely to experience restricted play opportunities, including for active play (The Power of Play: An evidence base (external link)).

Almost 1 in 6 children in Scotland have no access to safe places for outdoor play with children living in deprived areas being more affected than those in the least deprived areas (Findings of the Scottish Play Commission: Raising the Bar (external link)).

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How might levels of activity in children be increased?

The report Growing Up in Scotland: Overweight, obesity and activity (external link) suggested that action at the family level to encourage parents and children to share a similar active lifestyle, increasing maternal awareness of recommended activity levels and improving access to attractive green spaces and play areas may be effective in increasing activity.

The Physical Activity Health Alliance conducted research into how best to promote physical activity to all age groups (including the early years) and has produced a learning note on Development of key themes for physical activity promotion (external link).

Key learning points include:

  • the need for a 'person centred' approach that helps individuals make messages and information personally relevant to their own lives
  • the importance of highlighting the personal health and social benefits to them and their children
  • the need to keep language simple
  • the importance of highlighting accessible, everyday activities that can contribute to healthy levels of activity.


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Articles in this topic

  • Article

    Active Play Research - Inspiring Scotland

    Inspiring Scotland is working in partnership with the University of Strathclyde to measure the impact of investment in Go2Play and the interim evaluation results are now available.

    • When was this last updated? 1/29/2016
  • Article

    Active travel

    Active travel offers both children and families an opportunity to incorporate regular moderate activity into the daily routine, helping to achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.

    • When was this last updated? 1/13/2013
  • Article

    Benefits of physical activity for infants and young children

    Highlighting the importance of physical activity and its link to mental wellbeing.

    • When was this last updated? 5/22/2013
  • Article

    Early Years: The Evidence

    Series of video chapters looking at the evidence behind Early Years Policies. Links to YouTube.

    • When was this last updated? 4/7/2015
  • Article

    Healthy Eating, Active Living (2008 - 2011)

    Information on the Scottish Government's strategy from 2008 to 2011 on how to improve the nation's diet and tackle obesity. This strategy has now been replaced by the 'Preventing Overweight and Obesity in Scotland: A Route Map Towards Healthy Weight' and 'Lets Make Scotland More Active'.

    • When was this last updated? 6/10/2014
  • Article

    How can I help promote physical activity in the early years?

    How can I help promote physical activity in the early years?

    • When was this last updated? 5/31/2013
  • Article

    Let's Make Scotland More Active

    A national strategy that aims to improve health in Scotland by encouraging physical activity.

    • When was this last updated? 6/13/2013
  • Article

    Physical activity and mental wellbeing

    The importance of physical activity and its link with mental wellbeing.

    • When was this last updated? 6/11/2013
  • Article

    Physical activity and play@home

    This article outlines to contribution play@home can make to the new physical activity guidelines for children under 5.

    • When was this last updated? 1/13/2014
  • Article

    Physical activity for children under five years old

    In July 2011, the UK Government published new physical activity guidelines, specifically for the under fives. Following the guidelines, The British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health created information leaflets for parents of children under five.

    • When was this last updated? 3/14/2012
  • Article

    play@home and parenting - 0-3 physical activity

    This article highlights the contribution that play@home can make to early engagements with a child from birth.

    • When was this last updated? 9/7/2011
  • Article

    Recommended activity levels for 0-5 year-olds

    Information on the recommended weekly activity levels 0-5 year-olds.

    • When was this last updated? 6/11/2013
  • Article

    Support in other settings

    As children enter nursery or school, play and physical activity continue to have an important effect on their health and wellbeing.

    • When was this last updated? 8/24/2010
  • Article

    Supporting physical activity

    For many young children, and for infants and babies, their parents or carers are the gatekeeper to an active life. Whether it be acting as positive role models, participating in activities with their children or by encouraging and supporting their children to access and engage in activities of their

    • When was this last updated? 1/13/2014
  • Article

    Talking about health

    Health Behaviour Change Training can help professionals develop skills to promote change in individuals to promote health and wellbeing.

    • When was this last updated? 7/8/2013
  • Article

    the 27 - 30 month review

    Information on the implementation of the 27- 30 month check

    • When was this last updated? 12/5/2013



Professional support materials

  • External Resource

    Education Scotland: outdoor learning

    Helping children towards active lifestyles and active learning.

    • When was this published? 9/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Energising Lives [1.8MB]

    A guide to promoting physical activity in primary care.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    NHS Health Scotland Commentary on NICE Public Health Guidance on promoting and creating environments for physical activity [149KB]

    This guidance looks at how environmental interventions can increase levels of physical activity.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Physical Activity Health Alliance

    The Physical Activity and Health Alliance (PAHA) is a joint collaboration facilitated by NHS Health Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Physical Activity in the Early Years Factsheets

    The BHF National Centre for Physical Activity and Health has launched three new factsheets on physical activity and the under-fives. The factsheets cover a range of topics including: current levels and factors influencing physical activity in the early years and interventions to increase levels

    • When was this published? 8/28/2012
  • External Resource

    Play Scotland

    Play Scotland works to promote the importance of play for all children and young people, and campaigns to create increased play opportunities in the community.

    • When was this published? 9/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Sustrans website

    Sustrans promotes sustainable and healthy modes of transport such as walking and cycling.

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010
  • External Resource

    Youth Sport Trust – start to play

    Youth Sport Trust is an independent charity which aims to build a brighter future for young people through PE and sport. The start to play programme provides a number of fun resources to encourage play and physical activity opportunities for young children, their parents, guardians and carers.

    • When was this published? 5/7/2013

Information for the public

  • External Resource

    Active living: Get you and your family moving [490KB]

    Promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles in families.

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010
  • External Resource

    Active Nation website

    Active Nation is packed with advice, top tips and great ideas to help you fit more activity into your life.

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010
  • External Resource

    Active Scotland website

    Active Scotland helps people look for ways to get active in their local area.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Asthma UK Scotland

    Asthma UK is the charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the 5.4 million people in the UK whose lives are affected by asthma.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Ready Steady Baby!

    A website for the public providing information and advice through pregnancy and the baby's first days.

    • When was this published? 8/18/2010
  • External Resource

    Ready Steady Toddler!

    A website for the public with information, tips and advice for bringing up toddlers.

    • When was this published? 9/30/2010
  • External Resource

    Take life on website

    This website contains handy tips to help you improve your health and wellbeing

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010
  • External Resource

    You and your baby

    A book for new parents with learning disabilities. This book is available free of charge to Early Years professionals in Scotland as an alternative to Ready Steady Baby! To order contact

    • When was this published? 2/15/2011
  • External Resource

    You and your little child

    Book for parents with learning disabilities with children aged 1 - 5 years. This book is available free of charge to Early Years professionals in Scotland from NHS Health Scotland as an alternative to Ready Steady Toddler! To order contact

    • When was this published? 2/15/2011