Encouraging a physically active lifestyle
Being physically active every day is vital for the healthy growth and development of babies (<1y), toddlers (1-2y) and pre-schoolers (3-4y) and physical activity is an important component in addressing unhealthy weight.
Practitioners working with young children and their families are in a good position to educate and support parents/carers to promote an active family lifestyle.
This section aims to provide ideas for physical activities to help parents/carers encourage babies and young children’s healthy growth and physical development, and to support them to develop the skills, strength, and confidence to enable them to be more active.
Physical activity ideas for babies
Parents should encourage babies to be active throughout the day, every day, in a variety of ways. Play – including physically active play – should be a key component of the child’s schedule alongside sleeping and feeding. The child’s favourite playmate is their parent/carer, so it is important that parents try to spend time playing with their child each day.
Encouraging movement and tummy time helps babies to develop neck and head control, and to develop strength and control in their arms and legs.
- When babies are very small, they enjoy just wriggling around on the floor.
- By six months, babies may be able to reach and grasp objects, push and pull, sit unaided and roll from their tummy to their back.
- By 12 months, babies are more mobile and may be able to crawl, stand, cruise holding onto furniture or even start walking.
Each child will develop at their own rate and so activities can be adapted and tailored in accordance with their stage of development.
Tummy time is very important to help strengthen neck, back and shoulder muscles that the child needs for sitting and crawling. Tummy time can be started from birth by lying the baby on the parent’s chest or lap for a minute or two at a time (NB this should only be done when the parent is wide awake and unlikely to fall asleep). Parents can gradually increase the amount of tummy time as the baby becomes more used to it and progress to the floor once the baby is ready.
It’s quite common for babies to dislike tummy time initially so encourage parents to try different strategies such as:
Babies should not sleep on their tummies.
Click on the tabs below for more age-specific physical activity ideas for babies.
Babies aged 0-6 months
- Lay the baby on their back so they can kick their legs.
- Encourage tummy time from birth, little and often is best.
- Place babies on different textured surfaces (e.g., fluffy blankets, duvet, towels and play mats) to make tummy time more interesting and enjoyable.
- Scatter around some toys and noise makers of varying colours, shapes, and sizes (e.g., squeaky toys, rattles, soft toys) just out of their reach to encourage them to lift their head up, look around, roll, reach and belly crawl.
- Get down on the floor with them and interact with them through talking, singing and reading.
- Dangle objects for them to touch and try to reach for (e.g., a toy, rattle, noise maker).
- Sing songs or nursery rhymes that have actions. Show them the actions such as clapping their hands or feet, and join in by doing actions yourself like waving, pulling faces or clicking fingers. Peek-a-boo is a fun game that babies will play again and again.
- Let babies experience the outdoors by taking them for a walk in a pram, or by placing them on a blanket under a tree so that they can watch the leaves.
- Blow bubbles that babies can follow with their eyes and enjoy reaching and grasping for.
- You can take your baby swimming from a very young age – there’s no need to wait until they have been vaccinated.
Babies aged 6-12 months
- Encourage babies to progress from tummy time to getting on all fours and rocking backwards and forwards by showing them this position.
- Encourage unsupported sitting while they’re playing on the floor by using cushions ‘in case’ rather than to prop up.
- For babies already crawling, obstacle courses can be used to encourage climbing, wriggling, and squeezing over and under objects. Safe objects like soft toys and household items like cushions can work well. Babies also love exploring cardboard boxes!
- Roll balls for the baby to follow and grasp - encourage them to attempt to throw or kick. Collecting and using different types of balls (e.g., foam, beach, tennis ball, etc.) offers a rich sensory experience and fosters their manipulative skills. Ball pits are also great fun and provide lots of stimulation.
- Let them play with household items such as pots and pans and safe utensils like a wooden spoon or plastic spatula.
- Play singing and dance games which encourage moving different parts of the body such as ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and ‘if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ and ‘row, row, row your boat’.
- Help babies support their weight on their legs in a standing position by lifting them and placing hands under their armpits and then holding their hands when they’re in a standing position.
- Place toys on a higher level (e.g., chair, sofa) to encourage kneeling and pulling up to standing. This helps to encourage cruising around furniture.
- Don’t forgot that adults can function as climbing equipment, and that repetition of activities for babies is good.
- If it’s dry and safe, encourage them to explore the outdoors - grassy areas, under trees, sand, soil and leaves.
- Set up play mats, tunnels, and other equipment outdoors to stimulate movement.
- Babies love playing on the slide or the swings at the park. Place them halfway up the slide and support them to slide down or slide down with them on your lap. Sit with them in a swing, or if they can swing unaided, swinging alone.
Physical activity ideas for toddlers and pre-schoolers
One of the easiest ways to help a family increase their toddler or pre-schooler’s physical activity is to help them build physical activity into their daily lives and make it a fun and enjoyable activity for the whole family. This makes reaching the recommended guidelines easier as parents do not have to find additional time in their day to ensure their child is being sufficiently active.
This active games handout can be given to parents/carers to support the conversations you have with them.
Click on the tabs below for ideas when families are out and about, at home or in the garden.
- Allow toddlers and young children to walk, ride their scooter or balance bike rather than going in a car or push chair (especially for short journeys such as to the local shop or park). This can take longer but keeps children physically active.
- Walking with reins can help keep walking toddlers safe.
- If parents are keen to be active themselves, incorporate running or skipping into journeys to make the trip more fun.
- Take the stairs rather than lifts or escalators (could count the stairs to make it more fun).
- A toddler can push their soft toy or doll in their push chair to encourage them to walk.
- Ask the child to create an obstacle course or den.
- Simon says activities.
- Hide a small toy in the house for the child to find.
- Dancing to music.
- Play musical statues.
- Play active games in the living room.
- Introduce targets like laundry baskets or empty plastic bottles that allow them to practice ball and manipulative skills.
- Try to make tidying toys into a game.
- Child can help to sweep using the brush from a dustpan and brush.
- Ask child to find you something ‘red/green’ etc. in the room you are in.
- Washing and hanging up clothes, pairing socks together.
- Unpacking shopping.
- Dusting with a feather duster.
In the garden
- Help in the garden (weeding, digging, watering, planting, etc.)
- Help peg washing out.
- Put pegs on plants to find/collect again.
- Chalk drawings on the patio.
- Make their own mini obstacle course.
- Tidying up outside play equipment.
- Go to the park for active play on the swings, climbing, playing with a ball, or just running around.
- When walking search for leaves/pine cones/conkers etc.
- Jumping in puddles.
- Leisure centre children’s activities
Physical activity for young children with a disability
All babies and young children need to be active, including children with a long-term condition or disability, unless their medical professionals have advised that physical activity should be restricted.
Just like other children, they will enjoy being active and it will help with their development.
Many of the physical activity ideas provided here could be adapted to suit individual children’s capabilities.
Increasing physical activity for the whole family
It is important for the whole family to be physically active, both for the family’s and child’s health. Parents and carers can encourage their child to be active by getting involved and spending time actively playing with them, and by giving children praise and encouragement.
Even if a family member is unable to be physically active themselves, it is important they are positive about physical activity and actively encourage the child to participate. Adults are important role models and their involvement in physical activity and active play will encourage their young child to be more active, and enjoy being active. This will stimulate further participation in physical activity.
Increasing children’s confidence to be physically active
Some young children can be shy and reluctant to join in with others. It is important these children are guided and shown how to enjoy active play (e.g., how to use different equipment and play spaces).
Parents/carers can also be anxious about the risks that physical activity might bring (e.g., falling). It is important to help parents/carers understand the benefits of children being active and encourage them to talk positively about physical activity with their children (and try not to show children when they are feeling nervous themselves). This will help increase children’s confidence.
Parents/carers can do this by supporting the child’s autonomy, competence and relatedness (to recap on these concepts refer to the communicating with parents about child weight module).
Here are a few tips on how parents/carers can communicate positively about physical activity:
- Offer specific praise and encouragement to children while they are being active e.g., praising tummy time endeavours, catching skills, encouraging a child to walk rather than be in a pushchair (relatedness and competence)
- Encourage children to explore (parents/carers may need to be willing to step back and allow some risks – within a safe environment) (autonomy)
- Encourage children to do things for themselves (even if it does take longer) rather than be tempted to do it for them (competence and autonomy)
Reducing screen time
It is important to limit the amount of time young children spend in front of screens (including TV, games consoles, tablets, mobile phones). If a young child does spend time in front of a screen, it is important that it is educational, or encourages them to be physically active. Through working with parents of young children, you can help to educate parents in the importance of reducing screen time and how they can go about achieving this.
Here are a few ideas to help parents/carers reduce their child’s screen time:
- Replace the TV as a ‘babysitter’
Parenting a young child can be tiring, and it can be tempting for parents/carers to sit infants and toddlers in front of the TV to make time for household chores (or simply for parents/carers to have a rest). If this is something parents/carers struggle with, a good first step is to show you empathise with their needs and acknowledge this is a normal feeling for parents/carers to have. Encourage them to limit the frequency and duration of the “TV babysitter” whenever possible, and to try and come up with other activities that can keep the child safe and distracted for 5-10 minutes. For example, stacking toys, or playing with building blocks.
- After nursery action plan
Children may turn to screens (e.g., TV, tablets) when they have few other activities to do. Try to support parents/carers to come up with after work and after school/nursery activities that children can do instead of screens. They could make this a fun task and give their child some autonomy by involving them in choosing activities (which then becomes an activity in itself!). For example:
- make a “top 10 activities” list together
- create a “lucky dip” of activities together that the child can later select from
- make a “spinning wheel” with different activities to choose from.
Create a viewing calendar
Parents/carers could ask their children to choose their favourite programmes and they can be put on a viewing calendar. The TV can then be put on for these programmes, and then turned off afterwards (while children are watching TV, parents/carers can set a timer and continue undisturbed with their own activities).
In accordance with the World Health Organisation guidelines, try to support parents to set a maximum duration of 1 hour for these programmes each day. The risk with TV viewing is that once the TV is turned on children continue to watch whatever programmes come next.
- Infographic showing UK Chief Medical Officers’ (2019) physical activity guidelines for early years. This can be useful to print off and use as a prompt when discussing physical activity with parents/carers.
- Active games for young children handout, which can be given to parents/carers of toddlers and pre-schoolers to take away.
- This BMJ blog written during the Covid pandemic contains some relevant ideas for encouraging under 5s to be active at home.
- For a more comprehensive guide to practical ideas for physically active play in under 5s, please see the British Heart Foundation’s Early Movers guide.