Energy in the balance: Promoting physical activity

Posted: October 8, 2013

As role models, child care providers can have significant influence in encouraging the children they care for to develop healthy physical activity levels.

When providers are actively involved and enjoying physical activity, the children are more active and providers also benefit. Overcoming barriers and keeping it fun are key.

Encouraging the development of healthy habits in children is an important priority for child care providers. What researchers have observed is that even though many caregivers know the benefits of physical activity for good health, they are often quick to identify barriers to being active either for themselves or for the children for whom they care. Identifying strategies to overcome these barriers, promoting physical activity in the children they care for, and being active themselves is critical for all to have healthier lifestyles.

In the tip sheet, Move on: Reversing children’s sedentary lifestyles Part 1, specific guidelines for each age group of children are listed. Knowing the guidelines is one thing, but putting them into practice is another. What if a child does not enjoy being active? Or perhaps the caregiver is hesitant about being involved in moderate to vigorous activity? What if there are physical limitations? These are all good questions and important issues to address.

First, it is helpful to understand the difference between physical activity and exercise since the two terms are often considered to mean the same thing. Physical activity is really any activity that requires moving your body in a way that uses muscles and energy. Exercise is a more structured type of activity that is planned and typically involves repeated motions. All exercise is physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise.

Some of the concerns or barriers that early childhood educators have expressed about being physically active are:

  • Concern about safety or that children will get dirty
  • Weather
  • Cost of equipment/lack of facilities
  • Time
  • Enjoyment

These are common barriers for adults as well. It is important to think about ways to overcome these concerns.

Although having appropriate clothing and footwear, sunscreen, and rain gear requires extra effort, it prepares both children and adults to be able to move more freely. Restrictive clothing and uncomfortable shoes decrease the desire and ability to engage in many activities. Encouraging parents from the beginning to provide these items no matter what the season will make it easier to involve children in outdoor activities. Having a policy in place that spells out children will play outdoors daily unless the weather is unsafe helps in the understanding of this expectation.

Research shows that it is not “a must” to have expensive equipment or gymnasium facilities for people to be involved in activity. An important goal is to make the activity fun so that the children enjoy it. This means providing a variety of activities since not everyone will enjoy all activities. Not every child will become an athlete though some will enjoy sports more than others. However, every child should have the chance to explore many ways to be active. Child care providers can have a significant impact on these early experiences in being active that can set children up for a lifetime of healthy habits.

One of the most common barriers for adults to be physically active is lack of time. The thought of planning for 60-90 minutes of activity for themselves or for children each day can be overwhelming. Evidence shows that even ten-minute bouts of activity can yield benefits when they add up over the day. Children therefore can and should have a mix of structured and unstructured time to be physically active both indoors and outdoors.

Enjoyment is key. If the children see that the caregivers are having fun, they will perceive the activity as being fun. Research shows that when providers are active with children, the children tend to be more willing to participate. Everyone can benefit!

Here are a few other things to keep in mind from Caring for Our Children.

Caregivers/teachers should:

  • Lead structured activities to promote physical activity two or more times a day.
  • Not sit during active play.
  • Provide prompts for children to be active such as “Good throw.”
  • Wear clothing that will enable safe and easy movement.
  • Not use restriction of physical activity as a punishment.
  • Encourage children’s activities that are developmentally appropriate and safe in a given setting.
  • Participate in training that will assist in the development of new ideas to promote activity.
  • Limit screen time (none for children under age two) and less than two hours total of all screen time (DVD, computer, TV) for children older than two including time spent in these activities at home.

Children with physical limitations are often at increased risk for overweight and obesity due to lack of mobility. It is important to work with the child’s healthcare provider to determine activities that are appropriate or that can be modified to meet certain ability levels. Many activities can be adapted so that some movement can be encouraged. Since physical activity for children with disabilities promotes physical, emotional and social well-being, developing strategies that are specific to individual circumstances is important.

Some important items to consider when identifying appropriate activities are:

  • Overall health status of the child
  • Individual activity preferences
  • Safety precautions
  • Appropriate programs and equipment

More helpful information about children with special needs

The most powerful message that a parent or provider can give is not so much what they say, but what they do. Children observe everything so being a strong role model is critical in helping children to establish healthy habits. Remember, being more physically active will not only benefit the children but caregivers and parents as well.


  • American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, and the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. 2013. Stepping Stones to Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs, Third Edition. United States Department of Health and Human Services.

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Energy in the balance: Promoting physical activity

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