From the moment she could hoist herself up, my daughter Layla has loved to climb. She's as happy hanging from the monkey bars as she is swinging on a doorknob. Her twin brother, Nolan, is far more contemplative. He takes the time to line up a ball before he kicks it and carefully studies the fastest way to get down a playground slide. But they share one key thing in common: They both love to move.
I'm not trying to raise an Olympic gymnast or a future major leaguer. But in light of our nation's scary childhood-obesity
crisis -- the rate more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and tripled for 6- to 11-year-olds since 1980 -- I want to instill in my kids a lasting love of physical activity.
The benefits of promoting athletic skills such as running, jumping, climbing, throwing, and catching go well beyond helping kids maintain a healthy weight. "Athletics help a child's muscles and bones develop properly and stimulate her brain," says George Graham, Ph.D., former professor of kinesiology at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. One Harvard University study published in the Journal of School Health found that kids who are physically fit get higher test scores. Research also suggests that children who play a sport tend to have greater self-confidence, are more likely to stay in school, and have fewer behavioral problems.
Regardless of your young child's natural talent on the field or the court, the best thing you can do is introduce him to as many physical activities as possible. "One kid may enjoy playing tag while another prefers running after a ball. You never know what's going to make him happy," says pediatrician Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., the CEO of PediatricsNow.com. Our age-by-age guide will get your child ready for the field, diamond, court, pool, or track -- anywhere but the sidelines.
Your child's first year is all about mastering new moves, from turning her head to turning your home upside down once she learns to creep, crawl, and eventually walk. "A baby makes tremendous advances in her physical skills and movements, and these will be the foundation of her athleticism as she gets older," says Dr. Graham.
Make a connection. Help your baby learn to interact with the world. "Ring a bell so she'll turn her head toward you," says Dr. O'Keeffe. And when she's starting to roll over, try talking or singing to give her an incentive to turn toward you.
Let him be free. Most babies spend lots of time in a stroller, swing, play yard, or car seat. "Your child needs a chance to let loose in order to master new movements, such as rolling over and pulling up," says Rhonda Clements, Ed.D., director of the Master of Arts in Teaching in Physical Education and Sport program at Manhattanville College, in Purchase, New York. Place your infant face up in a baby activity gym every day so he can reach for low-hanging objects. And don't overlook tummy-time opportunities: Babies need to get used to being on their belly (even if they don't like it) in order to develop crawling skills. During your baby's first few months he should have several five- to ten-minute sessions on his tummy every day -- though it's fine if they wind up being shorter at first.
Build her balance. Once your baby can sit up, gently move her from side to side or lift her up and down to boost her sense of stability, suggests Jane Clark, Ph.D., dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, in College Park.
Try games. Hold up a soft pillow and let your baby kick against it, or put a bright toy just out of reach to coax him to crawl. Check out our exclusive video series at parents.com/playing-with-baby for more activities to get your child moving.
Once your child is mobile, he'll start to run, jump, throw, catch, kick, and grasp. But he may get frustrated easily or become bored within a few minutes. That's why you should focus on short activities that will help improve his agility.
Blow bubbles. What toddler doesn't love chasing them? And it's not just fun. When she tries to catch or pop bubbles, she's practicing her hand-eye coordination as well as her running and jumping skills.
Throw a colorful scarf in the air. As your child watches it float down toward the ground, he'll be developing the ability to track an object's movement, a skill that comes in handy in many sports, from soccer to baseball to tennis.
Have a ball. Kids this age are fascinated by the way balls move, so keep a variety handy (such as a beach ball, a kickball, and a small rubber ball). By playing with them, your child will get a sense of how they roll and bounce.
Let her walk on your bed. Stepping across an unstable surface, like a mattress, is a great way to improve balance. So is having her mimic a tripod by placing both hands on the floor and lifting one leg.
Act like an animal. Take turns pretending to be different creatures, and imitate how each one gets around: Try crawling like a kitty, swinging your arms like a chimp, and hopping like a bunny.
By age 3, children usually have greater confidence in their movements and strong opinions about what activities they want to do. Introduce your kid to different sports, and bring along a friend (a preschooler is more inclined to be active when she has good company).
Create an obstacle course. When hosting a playdate, clear some space in your basement or backyard, and stack objects to jump over or crawl through. Add stuffed animals or toys to run around and a few Hula-Hoops to walk through. Time how long it takes your child and a friend to finish, and challenge them to break the "course record."
Play balloon ball. Blow up a balloon partway and see whether your child can whack it with a junior racket (or just with his hand). He's probably not ready to hit a fuzzy yellow ball, but this exercise will improve his hand-eye coordination.
Set up target practice. Place a large basket or an empty garbage can on the floor, and have your child stand a few feet away. See whether she can toss a Nerf ball or a crumpled-up piece of paper into it. As her accuracy improves, have her take two steps back and try again.
Get a jump rope. Your child can't jump by himself yet, so think of some other fun games to play together. Make a circle with the rope and it becomes an imaginary puddle to leap over. Turn it into a straight line and have him jump over it side to side like a skier tackling moguls. Or see whether he can walk across it like a tightrope to test his balance.
Try a class. Noncompetitive programs in dance, gymnastics, and soccer provide structure and build basic skills. One class all kids should try: swimming. "It's never too early to get a child comfortable in the water, and by age 4 she may be able to float and start swimming on her own," says Dr. Clark.
Let him run. "Preschoolers love to chase people and try to get away, and these are great skills to develop for sports like basketball and soccer," says Dr. Graham. Play tag, have your child run away from "Mommy monster," or round up a group of his friends for some relay races.
By first grade, most children can gallop, skip, jump, throw, and catch, and their athletic interests are emerging. While it's fine to let your kid choose his favorite sport, experts say you should encourage him to try a variety of activities at this age. If he idolizes a superstar like LeBron James or Tom Brady, remind him that professional athletes do training beyond their main sport. Focus on fun more than performance, whether it's joining a flag-football league or just shagging pop-ups in the school yard.
Practice jumping. Teach your child to jump rope the easy way. Have him begin with it behind his body and then flip it over his head without jumping. Once he can do that, see whether he can hop over the rope and flip it around again. Keep going until he can jump a few times in a row without missing.
Do some drills. Set up a soccer ball about 10 feet from a net (or just use two nearby trees) and have your child try to score goals. Each time she's successful, have her take a few steps back. Or, if you're playing catch, start close to each other and move back until you reach the limits of her throwing range.
Sign up for a team. Check out a local recreational league if your child seems ready for competition. Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in size and ability at this age, and it's a coach's job to make all of the players feel important. "The emphasis should be on letting every child have fun and participate, not whether the team wins or loses," says Bob Bigelow, a youth-sports reformer and author of Just Let the Kids Play. If your kid spends most of his time warming the bench, then the program is probably too competitive for him.
Encourage individuality. If your child is not a natural team player or recoils from competition, find out what types of exercise make her happy -- whether it's playing hopscotch, dancing to her favorite singer, or even playing Wii U sports games -- and use them to help her stay active. "The bottom line is that you want your child to keep moving and have fun doing it," says Dr. Graham. "The rest will come."
Every parent wants her kid to find a game that's perfect for his personality. How to make the call? Observe the way he plays and moves, and steer him accordingly, says Jordan Metzl, M.D., author of The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents.
If your child gets along well with other kids, loves running around, and lets off steam by kicking whatever he can: Try soccer.
If your child dances around the living room, has good balance, and displays upper-body strength on the jungle gym: Try gymnastics.
If your child likes playing catch and using her toys as projectiles: Try baseball or softball.
If your child loves taking baths and doesn't panic when water gets in her eyes: Try swimming.
If your child is always hopping and skipping around and possesses good hand-eye coordination (he can pour his own juice without spilling, for example): Try tennis.
If your child is always up for bouncing a ball on the driveway, can toss her laundry into the hamper from several feet away, and is happy to be part of a team: Try basketball.
If your child slides across the clean kitchen floor without slipping and could play all day outside in cold weather: Try hockey.
If your child jumps on you when you walk through the door, likes to roughhouse with other kids, and doesn't mind wearing a helmet: Try football.
While every kid is different, physical milestones tend to follow this timeline.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Parents magazine.