The Active Play Guidelines for young children

Published on Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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It's important for babies, toddlers and preschoolers to be busy. They're discovering the world and making leaps and bounds with their physical and mental development, but the big question is - how active and how rested should under-fives be?

To answer this and help parents and care-givers find a healthy balance between busy time and sleepy time, the government has put together the Active Play Guidelines for Under-Fives.

With a focus on sitting less, moving more and sleeping well, these guidelines set out simple ways that grown-ups can support the healthy growth and development of young children so, let's look at what the government recommends and why.

What are the benefits of active play?

Whether it involves rough and tumble, make-believe, nature play or sporty games, the Ministry of Health says that, 'Active play during the first five years of life is essential to the health and future wellbeing of children.'

This means sitting less, moving more and sleeping well has a positive effect on children’s:

  • Healthy weight gain
  • Mental health
  • Behaviour
  • Movement and physical skills development such as balance, coordination and muscle development
  • Competence skills and brain development, including communication, emotional, social and decision-making skills

Movement through play lowers the risk of obesity, motivates children and builds their confidence. It encourages creativity, imagination and exploration, and it helps youngsters to learn, make sense of the world and interact with one another.

In fact, active play is so important that it's recognised under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which New Zealand has signed.

What are the Active Play Guidelines for Under-Fives?

These evidence-based guidelines have been written to support health practitioners, early childhood educators and others when they're providing advice to parents and whānau of under-fives.

The aim is to reduce sedentary activity and develop good quality sleep behaviour, so let’s look at the government’s recommendations, one-by-one:

The Sit Less guidelines

Sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time has been linked with poorer sleep and negative effects on children's physical health, emotional health and communication skills.

While babies who spend a lot of time sitting in movement-restricting equipment such as mobile baby walkers, have been found to have a higher body weight and less muscle development than more active infants.

For these reasons, the Ministry of Health recommends that under-fives spend less time sitting, and parents and care-givers are advised to:

  • Provide regular activity breaks
  • Discourage screen time for under-twos and limit screen time to less than one hour a day for ages two and over
  • Limit the time spent in equipment that reduces free movement like high chairs and baby carriers

The Move More guidelines

As mentioned above, there are wide-ranging benefits that come with regular active play, and to encourage under-fives to move more, grown-ups are urged to:

  • Provide fun activities that support physical, social, emotional and spiritual growth. These should be spread out over at least three hours per day for toddlers and preschoolers
  • Include lots of active play opportunities that:
    • Develop confidence and competence
    • Offer challenges to build resilience and promote creativity through exploration
    • Provide opportunities for self-play and interaction with others
    • Include a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, with a focus on nature

The Sleep Well guidelines

After all that active play it is vital that under-fives get enough time to rest and recuperate.

There is evidence that, 'Children who consistently sleep less than the recommended amount each day have lower physical, emotional and social functioning outcomes … as well as impaired academic performance,' so the guidelines set out what 'sleeping well' means for different ages.


  • From birth to three months, babies need 14 to 17 hours of good quality sleep every day, centred around their physical and emotional needs, and including daytime sleeps
  • Infants aged four to 12 months need 12 to 15 hours of good quality sleep each day, including daytime sleeps, which usually decrease as they get closer to their first birthday
  • Toddlers aged one to two should have 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep per day, including at least one daytime nap
  • Preschoolers aged three to four need 10 to 13 hours of good quality sleep each day, with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times

The first five years of a child's life are incredibly important for their ongoing development, and there are practical ways that parents and care-givers can support their health and happiness – both now and in the years to come. Let's get physical!

To read the Sit Less, Move More, Sleep Well: Active Play Guidelines in full, click here.

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