Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Beyond just healthy eating, adequate sleep, and proper hygiene, young children also need plenty of exercise to keep their bodies and minds healthy and happy. Daily physical activity is necessary for building strong bones and muscles as well as strengthening hearts and lungs. Exercise also helps young children to improve their gross motor skills, including running, kicking, throwing, and swinging. Regular physical activity can greatly decrease children's risk of becoming obese and developing associated health problems, as well as promoting better sleep. As well, since many young children play with other kids, exercise time can also help young children to develop good social skills such as sharing, communicating, and empathizing.
Play time can also become a family experience which serves to bond family members together and allow adult members an opportunity to model healthy exercise habits for children. Exercise also helps young children develop a healthy self-image and positive self-esteem as they take pride in their physical accomplishments. The exhilaration that comes with running, laughing, and playing can also boost a child's mood. This leads to one of the most important reasons kids should play outside: it's fun!
The USDA recommends that children of all ages get at least 60 minutes of physical activity on most days. However, exercise doesn't have to be boring and monotonous. Families can take walks together, ride bicycles, play baseball, basketball, football, catch, or engage in numerous other sports in the backyard. Little ones can spend hours playing on the jungle gym at the playground with their friends. Adults can create and supervise races, obstacle courses, etc. that are age-appropriate and safe. Children may also be entered into developmentally appropriate community-based sports leagues and activities. Whatever form children's physical activity takes, caregivers should do what they can to make sure appropriate safety precautions are taken so as to reduce the risk of injury, including skin damage from overexposure to the sun. See our safety information section later in this article for more information on how to help children remain safe.
Summertime offers children the widest array of opportunities for physical expression. However, physical activity can still take place in the winter. Little ones can join in a "dance party" in the living room or "work out" with Mom while she does an exercise video. Some newer video game consoles or games encourage physical activity by making the player stand up and move around to win the game. In addition, families can enjoy indoor fun nights at a bowling alley or skating rink. Children can take indoor lessons (e.g., swimming, ice skating, gymnastics, karate, or dance) or join indoor sports teams (e.g, soccer, basketball, volleyball, ice hockey). Many facilities offer scholarships or reduced fees to families who otherwise cannot afford to pay for these activities.