Most parents spend a lot of time worrying about the development of their children. However, in today’s culture we seem to place greater emphasis on the areas of intellectual and social development while de-emphasizing the importance of other areas … especially physical development. Experiencing the world through electronic media is replacing the hands-on experience that can only be gained through exploration and play. We as parents must understand that while chasing that toddler may be wearing us out, they are gaining invaluable knowledge and experience through physical interaction with the world and people around them. And we must ensure that those opportunities remain available to them as they grown into pre-teens and young adults.
Physical activity benefits a developing child in many ways. It allows toddlers to improve their movement skills, begin to build healthy hearts, and develop self-confidence. Adolescents who participate in regular physical activity do better in school, feel happier, grow stronger, and learn social skills through play with friends. Carried through late adolescence and the teenage years, exercise helps an individual learn to maintain a healthy body weight, develop a healthy self-identity, and delay or prevent some of the potential health consequences of adulthood like heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure.
Aside from the sheer joy of watching a child having fun at play, the most compelling reason to ensure that our children have ample exposure to physical activity may be the mounting research showing the positive relationship between exercise and standardized test scores. That’s right, kids who play more test better than those who don’t. A review of the association between school-based physical activity and academic performance was published in 2010 with cooperation between the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The categories of physical activity noted were: recess, physical education classes, activity breaks inside the academic classroom, and extracurricular physical activity. More than one relationship was seen in most of the studies. In the summary of results, the review noted, “Of all the associations examined, 50.5% were positive, 48% were not significant, and only 1.5% were negative.” And overall, 46 of the 50 studies showed that physical activity had a positive effect on academic performance and standardized test scores.
So, how much activity is enough? The recommended levels of physical activity change throughout a child’s development. There are no recommended time lengths for infants, but physical activity should be encouraged to enhance motor development. It is recommended that toddlers get at least 30 minutes of planned physical activity (i.e., reaching, grasping, picking up, etc.) and at least 60 minutes of unstructured activity. Preschoolers see the recommendation for directed activity increase to 60 minutes while still getting another 60 minutes of free play. School aged children should receive at least 60 minutes of combined physical activity.
From birth, children are learning and establishing habits they will carry with them throughout their lives – and the adults in their lives are setting their example. As that example, we cannot allow these little humans to see us eat junk throughout their developmental years and then expect them to miraculously have good dietary habits when they are adults. By the same token, we cannot expect them to exercise and take care of themselves physically when we don’t model those good habits and have allowed them to sit on the couch and play video games their entire childhood. If we really want out children to “have it better than we did”, we need to lead by example. Their bodies and brains depend on it!