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Understanding High-Energy Kids

At age 4, Sherry Jankowski's daughter, Courtney, reminded her of a certain battery commercial. "She was like that little toy bunny -- she just kept going and going," says the Fort Irwin, California, mother. "I tried to keep up with her, but I was worn out long before she was."

Sound familiar? Then you'll be happy to know your kid's high energy is perfectly normal. "At 4, a child has gained control over her body," says Ken Haller, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. "This gives her a feeling of independence, and it naturally leads to more active behavior."

Within a short span of time, your 4- or 5-year-old may start skipping, dancing, spinning around, somersaulting, climbing on the furniture, jumping off steps, and walking heel to toe along a crack as if on a balance beam. She is probably able to stand on one foot and hop several times in a row without losing her balance. And she may no longer need you to push her on the swing, now that she's mastered the art of pumping.

In addition, each successful new accomplishment boosts her confidence and spurs her desire to test and expand upon her new abilities, says Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, and coauthor of Touchpoints 3 to 6.

Managing the Motion

Keeping pace with a high-energy child can be exhausting. But reining him in isn't the answer. Instead, find positive ways to redirect his spirit, and eliminate anything that may hype him up further. Here are six strategies.

  • Start her in a sport. This is a great age to join a peewee soccer league or begin a gymnastics, dance, karate, or swimming class. Any of these activities can improve your child's coordination and her ability to focus. Let her choose the program she wants, but make sure it's not overly structured: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that classes for preschoolers should have at least 30 minutes of free play and offer no more than 20 minutes of instruction.
  • Get new gear. Sure, your child loved his tricycle at age 3, but he may have outgrown it. Consider getting him a two-wheeler with training wheels. Likewise, let him experiment with a hula hoop, flying disk, batting tee, junior tennis racquet, hoppity horse, and balls of varying sizes. You may also want to buy your child his own tape player so that he can dance to the music of his choice whenever he likes.
  • Play together. On your next visit to the park, bring along roller skates or a kite she can fly. At home, pretend to "paint" the side of your house using a brush and a bucket of water, or blow bubbles for your child to chase. When the weather keeps you indoors, play a game that will get her moving such as Cranium's Hullabaloo or Hasbro's Elefun.
  • Turn off the TV. Think television soothes your high-energy child? Just the opposite. Action-adventure cartoons and game systems can overstimulate him, making it more difficult for your preschooler to sit still. The AAP recommends two hours total screen time per day -- including TV, video games, and computer use -- and avoiding all three before bedtime.
  • Watch her diet. Sugar intake alone doesn't cause overactivity, but studies suggest that candy and sweetened beverages on an empty stomach can make a child jumpy. It's also important to cut out caffeine, a stimulant in colas and other sodas, iced tea, and chocolate. Your child has enough natural energy without getting more from chemicals.
  • Reward good behavior. "Limit-setting is particularly important at this age," says Rebecca Unger, M.D., attending pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. If your child tends to run wild in the supermarket, make a deal with him: If he helps you find items on your shopping list, you'll take him to the playground afterward. And always follow through on your promise.

Kids get hyped up when there's nothing to do. Keep them busy with these mom-tested ideas.

  • Bring out her inner artist. Before a zoo outing, Martha Jackson, of Thousand Oaks, California, and her then 5-year-old daughter, Natalie, would tie pieces of construction paper together with string to make a zoo journal. "She loved drawing pictures of her favorite animals," Jackson says.
  • Promote pretend play. Georgia Heard, of West Palm Beach, Florida, created a dress-up box filled with a firefighter hat, a pirate patch, plastic armor, and other costumes for her 4-year-old son, Leo. "He's inventing stories, using his body, and entertaining himself at the same time," she says.
  • Rotate toys. Sherry Jankowski would hide some of Courtney's playthings in a closet, then take out fresh ones whenever her daughter tired of those in her room. "This trick makes old toys seem new again," she says. Want to give your child even greater variety? Set up a toy exchange with the neighbors.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.