Boosting physical activity levels for young children is high on the agenda as the Government rolls out the new Healthy Active Learning initiative. This program has been designed to promote and improve healthy eating and physical activity in schools, kura and early learning services across Aotearoa.
The increased focus on physical activity is in response to a growing body of evidence showing a drop in physical activity for children of all ages. This places children at a huge disadvantage moving forward as movement primes the brain for learning, fostering the neural pathways that form the foundations for cognitive (hinengaro), physical (tinana), emotional (whatumanawa) and spiritual (wairua) learning.
Research has also shown that habitual physical inactivity and sedentary behaviours in the early years can lead to poor health outcomes later in life.
Given the increasingly busy schedules of working parents and with young children spending more time in care, early childhood education (ECE) services play an important role in supporting the physical development and health of children.
A recent study suggested that ECE services could create stronger physical activity policies to encourage children to be active while attending care.
“In contrast to the perception of many adults, preschoolers are not naturally active and energetic,” says PhD student Sarah Gerritsen who conducted the survey with the support of Gravida and a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship.
“Instead they need lots of opportunities and encouragement to engage in active movement.”
Published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (2016) the study put forth the following suggestions for ECE:
- A ‘physical activity champion’ – someone who shares knowledge and skills about physical activity, raises awareness and promotes positive change regarding physical activity for children.
- More training and participation in health promotion programs such as the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Heart Awards or Sport Waikato’s Under 5 Energize
- A written physical activity policy to guide staff in planning and implementing activities for children with policies worded as requirements and addressing or limiting the time children spent using computers or watching TV or DVDs while attending the service.
Healthy habits start early and are more likely to be carried through to adulthood. Even short bursts of activity throughout the day add up. Promoting active play – that’s moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity to get the heart pumping – in your setting can help set young children up for life.
What are the guidelines?
New Zealand’s Physical Activity Guideline recommends providing ‘at least three hours every day (for toddlers and pre-schoolers) of fun activities, spread throughout the day’, which aligns closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.
The WHO standards also include infants (from birth to one year) and recommends their physical activity as ‘supervised interactive floor-based play in safe environments. For those not yet mobile, 30 minutes of tummy time including reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling, and crawling spread throughout the day during awake periods is encouraged’.
New Zealand’s Sit Less, Move More, Sleep Well: Active play guidelines for under-fives provides the following suggestions:
- Provide fun activities that support physical, social, emotional and spiritual growth
- Include plenty of opportunities for active play:
- that develop movement competence and confidence
- that provide sufficient challenges to build resilience and encourage creativity through exploration
- where children are by themselves as well as interacting with others, such as parents, siblings, friends, whānau/family and other caregivers
- that include a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, especially activities involving nature
Why physical activity is vital for a child’s development
Young children love being active; it’s their modus operandi! Participating in energetic activity has physical, psychological and social development benefits and being physically active every day can:
- Help achieve and maintain a healthy weight (Obesity affects around 7 per cent of New Zealand children aged 2 to 4 years).
- Build strong bones and muscles
- Improve balance, movement and coordination skills
- Promote social skills through interactions with people
- Support brain development
- Encourage self-confidence and independence.
How to build more movement into the day
Rain, hail or shine, children should be moving a lot every day. From jumping in puddles, playing tips, ball games, pretending to be an animal, or dancing to music, there are lots of activities that can happen inside and outside. Whatever activities you choose, have fun together! Let children see you jumping, dancing, and being silly. The more they see you moving, the more they will want to join in. These moments will help lay the foundation for an active and healthy lifestyle.
Here are some early childhood specific programs with plenty of ideas for heart pumping activities.
Children love Sesame Street and this heart racing resource won’t disappoint. With tantalising ideas for movement including ‘Elmo Says!’, ‘Magical Wand’ and ‘ABC Stretch with Me’, you know this is going to be super fun and exciting.
This program includes physical activities that require minimal time and equipment with activities for large and small spaces and promotes fun and easy ways to add more active play into everyday routines.
There’s even a handy ‘letter’ to share with a child’s family with some easy tips to encourage active time at home.
This comprehensive program was developed in Australia and offers loads of ideas specifically designed to help early childhood educators feel confident to promote active play and teach fundamental movement skills to children in early childhood settings. It’s also been mapped against the EYLF and NQS.
The program includes information on ‘active play’ and ‘nature play’ as well as structured ideas for games and activities – these are broken into age categories – posters, an active play audit tool and a physical activity policy template to help.
This American guidebook covers the full spectrum of considerations for increasing physical activity in early childhood settings. Designed primarily for early childhood educators this resource answers a lot of questions on the ‘how to’ and the ‘why it’s important’. Presented in stages readers are guided through child assessments, engaging families and communities, daily routines, business practices and it includes extensive resources. This resource really packs a punch on the information scale.
Additional tips for consideration
Ever heard the phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’? In the case of children, it covers how they can learn positive behaviours through observational learning. Get in on the action and enjoy some physical play with the children.
Undertake a short course to give staff and educators additional skills and confidence in planning and running physical activity programs.
If resources are available, organise sports, activity group or dance groups to visit your service and run a structured activity with children.
Partner with parents
Involve parents and get them excited by letting them know about the activities their child is engaged with and why physical activity is important. Send handy tips home that are easy to embed at home such as stretches for the morning or set up a ‘clean up’ race.
A policy for physical activity
The best way for an early childhood service to integrate various considerations on physical activity for children is to develop a physical activity policy. This can be a separate policy or part of the general policy of the service. Service policies need to cover important issues such as development of fundamental movement skills, active play and sedentary screen time.