Parents and child care providers have the perfect opportunity to introduce young children to a world of fitness, and make a positive impact on their present and future health. Research indicates that children who exercise regularly perform better academically, and have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol than children who are less fit.
A fitness program at home or in child care can help develop the coordination, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health of children in a non-competitive environment. It may also foster an early appreciation for exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. With variety and constant motion, nobody will be left out, and everybody will make friends and have fun.
Preschoolers are highly imaginative. They love pretending to be animals, ice-skaters, astronauts, etc. and acting out creative fantasies about these characters. Music, props, and costumes all add to the fun. Children ages three to six master many physical skills such as running, hopping, and skipping. Control of fine motor skills begins, and their bodies thin out as their legs grow rapidly. Children this age look to parents and caregivers for behaviors to model. Adults can encourage activities such as climbing, swinging, and riding tricycles, to improve children’s coordination and muscle strength.
Preschoolers love the rhythm, tunes, and words of many different styles of music, and just can’t help moving and singing when music is played! They are also beginning to form friendships and enjoy short group activities. Vocabulary quickly increases and children are able to follow very simple and clear directions. They appreciate some structure and predictable routines.
Preschoolers are unable to wait in lines or take turns without becoming frustrated. Games and activities should be designed to allow all children to move at once. Allow for varying levels of participation, and never force a child to join in. Two and three year-olds may be more reluctant to participate, while four and five year-olds will more readily accept physical challenges and enjoy all games. Older preschoolers may also like being helpers: cleaning up toys, or helping younger children.
The job description of a school-age child reads: “learn and play.” As children grow, their strength and coordination increases rapidly. By age nine, their hand/eye coordination has fully developed. They can work cooperatively in team sports and games, and usually make friends easily. School-age children are learning motor skills required for biking, jumping rope, playing soccer and other sports.
The motivation to master such skills is key to their development. Adults have the ability to delay gratification and rationalize that exercise is necessary for good health, even if it is unpleasant. Children are motivated by success and fun, but are totally unmotivated by failure and boredom. They exercise purely for the intrinsic joy of the activity. If an activity is not fun, a child will probably not continue with it.
Children are natural interval exercisers. They push themselves hard and then take brief recovery periods. Children have small lungs and hearts, and a higher resting pulse than adults do. This accounts for their higher rate of respiration and tendency to fatigue quickly. Children can dehydrate rapidly since they generate more heat and sweat less than adults. Frequent water breaks and variety in class activities help children safely meet the challenge of cardiovascular activities.
School-age children love to be with their peers, and while they enjoy some fantasy play, they are becoming more inhibited and don’t want to appear foolish around their friends. They will become more comfortable with new activities as they get to know each other.
Children come in all shapes and sizes, levels of coordination, and varying temperaments. They are unique, creative, impressionable, affectionate, and honest. They crave acceptance from adults and want to please them. Some will want to invent their own games, some will sulk, some will cooperate, and some will require more encouragement.
Respect their differences, try playing some of the games they invent, and give and receive hugs when appropriate. Find your playful side, jump in, and have some fun, too!
– Kathleen Beardsley