The boundless energy of children is exhilarating -- and sometimes exhausting! But experts say it's your child's always-on-the-go attitude that helps her develop the motor skills and body confidence she'll need throughout her life.
"Participating in physical activities gives kids the chance to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments," says Linda K. Bunker, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It also helps ward off future self-image problems -- even eating disorders, she adds.
It's never too early to get little ones in motion. "Most of the developmental markers for young children involve movement," says Judy Young, Ph.D., executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) in Reston, VA. "The first skills they depend on are physical -- sitting up, walking, picking things up -- and are essential for helping them feel safe and in control of their environment."
Fortunately, it's not hard to help kids master movement. "Parents simply need to give children the chance to explore their surroundings, not direct them to move," Dr. Young explains. Experts offer these fantastic ways to encourage kids of all ages to experiment with their abilities -- and have plenty of fun too!
Set babies on the floor, and place toys in front of them that encourage them to stretch, grab, and later, crawl, advises Dr. Young. She and Dr. Bunker also give infant movement classes a thumbs-up for providing a safe environment for babies to explore. Avoid leaving little ones in playpens and carriers for more than 20-minute stretches, says Dr. Bunker: "Competence builds confidence, and children won't have it without practice."
Kids love to climb at this age, so you can help them master maneuvering short flights of stairs, says Dr. Bunker. Move to music or act out stories; play catch with soft balls to work on hand-eye coordination. And be patient: "Some of the best movements for kids are ones that aggravate parents," Dr. Young notes. "It may bother you if your child keeps climbing on and off your lap, but this requires a lot of effort and is an admirable feat."
Help your child graduate to more complex movements by trying to balance on a crack in the sidewalk or jump over it and back. Consider a beginning dance or gymnastics class, or set up a soccer game using a beach ball, suggests Dr. Bunker. "Even the exercise balls adults use are great for kids," she adds.
Team sports are a good bet now, since children are better able to understand rules and the responsibility of playing a position. But don't feel pressured to sign up: Activities like jumping rope, bike riding, and swimming are excellent ways to get moving. "Being active together helps establish the expectation in children that exercise will be a daily habit," says Dr. Young.
Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the February 2003 issue of Child magazine.