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Physical Activity for Preschoolers

Wee workouts? Not quite, but physical activity for preschoolers still matters.


Updated April 16, 2014

Child pushes doll in stroller

Physical activitity: For preschoolers, it's part of everyday play.

Catherine Holecko

Little kids don't need any extra encouragement to move their busy bodies, do they? It seems that way, yet amounts of physical activity for preschoolers often don't add up. In the late 1970s, about 5% of children between 2 and 5 years old were overweight. Recently, that figure has climbed to nearly 14%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How can you encourage physical activity for preschoolers?

The Society of Health and Physical Educators suggests the following fitness guidelines for young children.

Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) should spend:

  • At least 60 minutes a day, cumulative, on structured physical activities
  • At least 60 minutes a day (and up to several hours) on unstructured physical activities
  • No more than 60 minutes at a time engaged in sedentary activities, unless they are sleeping

For toddlers (12 to 36 months old), the recommendations are the same, except structured physical activity should add up to 30 minutes a day instead of 60.

Teaching Physical Activity for Preschoolers

What does "structured" play mean? Small children need help learning motor skills. They must go through several developmental steps to learn how to coordinate their movements into efficient running, throwing, catching, and the like. "There is a common misconception that if you kick kids out to play, they will learn" on their own, says Jackie Goodway, Ph.D., an associate professor of motor development and elementary physical education pedagogy at Ohio State University. "But it's like reading. If you don't teach them, provide feedback, and offer them appropriate opportunities to practice and learn," they won't become proficient at those skills.

While formal classes can be wonderful, says Goodway, parents make the best role models. To boost your child's physical activity and motor development, spend time playing actively with him. Offer positive, constructive feedback ("Kick a little more softly next time" or "I like how you reached out for the ball"). Provide age-appropriate toys and equipment, such as a wiffle ball and a fat plastic bat instead of a heavy wooden one. If you do enroll your child in a movement class, make sure it is appropriate for his developmental level. Kids this age are not ready for team sports, and they should not spend time waiting for their turn on the sidelines. Instead of one ball and 10 kids, for example, each child should have her own ball.

Encourage Physical Activity with Preschoolers

To make sure your child gets his daily hour (or more) of physical play, try:

  • Tag or chase: For variety, hop, waddle, or dance instead of running
  • Catch or kickball (experiment with balls of different sizes and textures)
  • Swimming or other water play, such as running in a sprinkler or washing the car
  • Riding a tricycle or scooter
  • Crawling through a cardboard-box tunnel
  • Dancing: Add scarves or ribbons to make it more exciting
  • Indoor obstacle course: Build one together using sofa cushions, hula hoops (to jump in and out of), chairs lined up to form a tunnel or balance beam, etc.


Physical Activity and Good Nutrition: Essential Elements to Prevent Chronic Diseases and Obesity. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 15, 2008.

Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years. National Association for Sport and Physical Education. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2009.


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