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2021 Sep

Why Preschoolers Need to Play

Is unstructured play important for your child’s development?

Preschoolers can be unstoppable—running, spinning, leaping, and climbing at every opportunity. Their desire to move, move, move makes this a great time to encourage fitness habits that will last.

Kids need to be fit for the same reasons adults do: to improve their health and make sure that their bodies can do what they need them to do. Regular exercise helps kids grow, builds strong muscles and bones, develops important motor skills, and boosts self-esteem.

So how can parents and caregivers keep preschooler active? You probably already know what will motivate this age group best: fun. To keep active time fun, know what activities are best for your child’s age group and make having a good time the top priority. For instance, preschoolers might groan if you drag them on a boring walk around an exercise track. But if you walk through the woods, stopping to admire nature and tossing rocks into a stream, the walk is much more appealing.

Understanding which skills your child has—and is working on—is another key to keeping it fun. You can have a great time kicking the ball back and forth together, but your child probably wouldn’t have much fun if put into a soccer game with all the rules enforced.

Fun Away from Home

Look for chances to be active away from home. At a childcare center or preschool, do kids have access to a playground or large indoor space for play? The games and equipment don’t need to be fancy. Kids enjoy simple games, such as catch and tag, playing with plastic bats and balls, dancing, and tumbling. And they still love to play “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “London Bridge,” “I’m a Little Teapot,” or “Simon Says.”
Preschoolers are working on skills such as hopping, balancing on one foot, throwing and catching balls, pedaling tricycles, and skipping. When kids learn these basic skills now, it builds confidence and makes it more likely that they’ll continue to be physically active as they grow up. Try for at least 60 minutes of structured (adult-led) physical activity a day.

Free Time

A little freedom also can motivate preschoolers to be active. Though some of their physical activity should be structured and led by a parent or caregiver, it pays to let them take the lead sometimes. Help your preschooler get at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity (free play) a day.

Active free play means letting kids choose the activity and make decisions about what to do—all within a safe and supervised environment, of course. This could include exploring the backyard, running around the playground, or playing dress-up.

During pretend play, preschoolers often like to take on a gender-specific role because they’re beginning to identify with members of the same sex. A girl, for instance, might pretend to be her mother by “working” in the garden, while a boy might mimic his father by “cutting” the lawn.

Set a Good Example

One important message here is that your preschooler is clearly keeping an eye on how you spend your time, so set a good example by exercising regularly. Your child will pick up on this as something parents do and will naturally want to do it, too.

More Tips

  • Limit screen time. Allow no more than 1 to 2 hours per day of quality programming on TVs, tablets, and other devices. Though lots of computer programs are marketed to preschoolers, none is necessary for their development. If you decide to allow computer use, carefully choose the software and the websites your child can visit.
  • Keep it fun. Help find activities your child likes and then offer many chances to enjoy them.
  • Keep equipment and supplies on hand and, if possible, within easy reach for your preschooler.
  • Supervise closely. Preschoolers’ physical abilities—like climbing to the top of a playground tower—often exceed their ability to judge what’s safe and what’s dangerous. Likewise, they don’t know when it’s time to take a break on a hot day.
  • Part of helping kids have fun outside means making sure that they do so safely, so keep a close eye on your child. And don’t forget the water bottle, snack, and sunscreen!

© KidsHealth/The Nemours Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

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