The Importance of Physical Activity in the Early Years

kristenby Kristen Varley, RECE
Preschool teacher

As parents, caregivers and educators, we generally make the assumption that children are naturally active and therefore discount emphasis on (regular) physical activity in the early years (0-5 years old). The reality is however, just like us bigger humans, tiny humans also require reliable daily routines that allow for sufficient time to be physically active. Have you ever heard of the “60 Minutes a Day” rule when it comes to exercise? This same rule applies to our children. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) insists that children in the early years receive a minimum of 60 accumulated minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day for optimal development. Unfortunately, it has become far too common for these minutes to be Playgroundoverlooked and replaced with other (sedentary) activities. Continuous advancements in technology paired with enhanced importance placed on academic achievements have allowed for physical activity in the early years to become an afterthought. What is failing to be acknowledged however, are the negative consequences that can arise from ignoring physical activity at such an early age. Therefore, it is imperative as parents, caregivers and educators, to not only address these consequences together, but also to ensure we start to provide abundant opportunity and play environments that allow for more than the minimum standards to be met.

Facing the Reality of Obesity
Typically when we are facing the realities of obesity, we tend to oversee an older demographic. The media has left little undisclosed highlighting the inclination of adult obesity in North America, and in turn has given us ample solutions to overcome it. We are frequently cautioned of how dangerous excessive weight gain is to our internal health and therefore, knowing we should exercise more frequently and maintain healthier diets has become common household knowledge. What the media lacks to unveil however is the emerging trend in preschool obesity. According to the Canadian National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth (NLSCY, 2011), currently 15% of 2-5 year olds are overweight, and 6.3% of that same age bracket are classified as obese. These numbers are of great concern for limitless reasons (increased blood pressure, respiratory complications, increased risk of type II diabetes, to name a few) and will undoubtedly continue to incline if we sidestep addressing them as serious apprehensions.
The sad reality is, contrary to what we believe, children are not naturally active in the early years. In fact, as advancements in technology continue to blossom, the number of children participating in physical activity continues to dwindle. The NLSCY (2011) states that only 36% of 2-3 year olds and 44% of 4-5 year olds engage in unorganized physical activity each week. There is nothing natural about that. In fact, to put it bluntly, it’s quite disturbing.

PlaygroundPhysical Activity and Developmental Milestones
So, why do something? Preventative health measures are an obvious motive. But physical activity in the early years branch out to multiple developmental benefits as well.
The early years (0-5 years old) are considered a critical stage in a child’s life and become imperative for certain milestones to be attained. In turn, reaching these milestones at certain ages tend to set the stage for later childhood development and adolescence. When it comes to physical activity, in addition to obvious physiological benefits (maintaining a healthy weight, increased bone health, increased cardiovascular health, etc.), consistent exercise is also vital to all five developmental domains in which these early childhood milestones originate: social development, emotional development, language development, cognitive development and motor development. Physical activity allows for more interactive play with both peers and adults, it is correlated with higher levels of self-identity and self-esteem, it creates exposure to new vocabulary, it creates stronger neural connective pathways improving attention regulation and it contributes to overall healthier mental performance. In addition, physical activity is the primitive layer when it comes to mastering motor skills—tummy time as an infant; climbing the outdoor playground as a preschooler—building the foundation underlying standard movements such as crawling, standing, walking, running, jumping, etc. In the end, physical activity allows for the most beneficial skill children can master: a sense of capability and independence (and let’s be honest, as parents, caregivers and educators, we all benefit from this one, too).

bikeSo, what can we do?
Contrary to belief, ensuring your child is getting proper allocated time for physical activity does not equate to rushing out and signing them up for the next (expensive) recreational activity. In fact, ensuring your child is implementing physical activity into their daily routine can be completely free (and fun for everyone!) From infancy, being active revolves around interactive floor play. This can include (but is not limited to): tummy time, reaching for and grasping balls and other toys, rolling and crawling. For toddlers and preschoolers, being active revolves around anything that keeps their bodies moving, such as: walking, climbing, dancing, exploring, running, jumping etc. These are all movements that you can implement into your daily routines to ensure your children are receiving the time they need to keep their bodies busy and are reaching their daily physical activity goals.

playingAs an Early Childhood Educator, my program plans always stem from my children’s interest and are seldom structured. Research (in addition to consistent personal experience) illustrates that optimal learning in the early years occurs in unstructured environments where children are able to take the lead exploring. Therefore, there is no reason why implementing a physically active regimen into your child’s daily routine should skew from that ideology. Children thrive on unstructured play. So, as parents, caregivers and educators, ensure to provide your children with an appropriate environment and materials in which they can explore their physical capabilities. This will also give you time to step back and assess where your children stand developmentally and allow you to interfere with physical literacy when necessary.

One of my favourite experiences here at the club was when my class created their very own obstacle course. All I had to do was provide materials (mats, balls, hula hoops, etc.) and the children took care of the rest. They discussed, planned, Climbingcreated and then (when they felt they were ready), floated through the course from start-to-finish with the most incredible smiles across their faces. In fact, they ended up having so much fun that they had to create an extra “rest station” because they had gone around the course so many times but refused to stop playing. Allowing children to take lead like this not only inflates imagination and levels of creativity, but it increases the likelihood of participation (every child in my class participated that day, which is unheard of for this particular group—it was awesome).

So, what can you do? Be a role model. Plan more outdoor family time. Replace screen time (television, iPads, computers, etc.) with interactive playtime. Get involved! St. Alban’s alone provides inexhaustible activities to choose from for our early years kids to move and explore their bodies. Find out what your community has to offer and you may be surprised at what you find! At the end of the day, we want to ensure we are extending the importance of physically active lifestyles passed the bigger humans and incorporating our tiny humans as well. They need it just as much as we do and it is time we acknowledged their physical needs and capabilities with significance. And, of course (and most importantly) HAVE FUN with it! Physical activity is not a chore and should not be treated as such! That being said, it is time to sign off and go PLAY! – Miss K.

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