When my kids and I go shopping, I always park in a distant corner of the lot -- even if closer spaces are available. We pile out of the car and hike across the pavement, jumping over puddles and balancing along the curb. I don't park far away because I've read articles about squeezing in fitness (I have) or because I'm safeguarding a fancy car (I'm not). It's because that's what my parents did when I was a kid. With bike rides to the library, weekly hikes, and all those fun treks to the store, my parents had made it clear that being physically active was a high priority for our family. And now my own children are taking it in stride too.
"When parents promote fitness as an important family value, preschoolers are more likely to remain active throughout childhood -- even as many of their peers turn to television shows and computer games," says Michelle May, MD, an advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians' Americans in Motion fitness initiative. "One in seven preschoolers is already overweight, and the number rises in the elementary- and middle-school years. Prevention begins at home."
According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, preschoolers should have several hours of free play daily plus 60 minutes of supervised, structured physical activity. Even if your child always seems to be on the go and her weight is healthy now, it's still important to keep activities -- especially the structured kind -- fresh and exciting. A smart strategy: Present your child with a realistic challenge. "It's one thing to say to preschoolers, 'Let's see you jump,'" says Jennifer Romack, PhD, professor of kinesiology and specialist in preschool motor development at California State University, Northridge. "But it's another to say, 'Ooh, this is going to be tricky. Let's see if you can jump and then land super, super quietly. And the next time, let's see if you can do it like you're jumping in peanut butter.'" To help foster family fitness, especially during the winter months, Dr. Romack and other experts came up with these enticing games -- most of which can be played indoors. On your mark, get set, go!
With these activities, your child will strengthen his large muscles and bolster his stamina.
Animal Kingdom Ask your preschooler to walk like an elephant, leap like a frog, or fly like an eagle to get her whole body in motion.
Sing Strong Transform familiar nursery rhymes or songs into simple fitness activities. For example, sing "Hickory, Dickory, Dock," and have your child pretend he's a mouse running and a clock swinging its arms.
Tree Dancing Pick a tree and ask her to jog up to it, then gallop around it. See how many different ways she can "play" with the tree -- can she jump over its roots? Swing from a low branch?
Use soft balls, sticks, beanbags, cones, or other objects to make playing even more interesting. These games improve hand-eye coordination and strengthen muscles.
Which Way? As you roll a ball toward your child, call out directions on how to kick it -- softly, hard, far away, toward you, toward a friend.
Stick with Me When walking on sand, dirt, or snow, trail a stick after you as you turn, double back, and move in a zigzag pattern. Ask your child to follow your trail. Then give him the stick and let him lead.
Carnival Fun Ask your preschooler to help you draw a funny face on a large cardboard box, then cut out big circles to toss beanbags through. Or label holes with the letters of her name and see whether she can throw bags through in the right order.
Get your kids climbing, reaching, and twisting; they'll strengthen their muscles and increase flexibility.
A to Z Fitness Alphabetize some moves -- for example, "B is for bend; way down, touch the tip of your toes!" or "G is for grab; see if you can grab this big flag!" Sing "The Alphabet Song," and ask your child to chime in with his own suggestions.
Set the Pace Have your child show you how slowly a turtle moves and how fast a bunny runs. Then explain that you'll call out "Bunny!" or "Turtle!" and see whether she can move accordingly, quickly changing her tempo when you switch animals.
Wheelbarrow Obstacles Set up a simple obstacle course on a soft surface. Hold your child by the ankles and let him slowly walk on his hands, navigating the challenges.
When you add some zip to your child's toy box, he'll be motivated to move.
Specially designed pucks allow your kids to play this traditional lawn sport indoors. ($20; areyougame.com)
Ready Set Learn! Paz's Jump & Dance Mat
When your child boogies down, lights and sounds come on-encouraging her to keep going. ($30; shopping.discovery.com)
Playskool Kid Motion Easy Dunk Basketball
The backboard can hang on a doorknob, so it's easily portable and the perfect height for preschoolers. ($15; hasbro.com)
Step to It
Players pick cards that require them to walk, hop, and jump around the house. ($9; amazon.com)
Genius! See what other low-tech, high-fun ways parents have found to keep their family energized.
We make snow villages, using sand buckets, construction vehicles, and other common summer toys.
-- Mia Zimmerman
We turn on the karaoke player in our basement, and everyone starts singing and dancing.
-- Joseph Saitta
Yardville, New Jersey
On weekends, my daughter and I walk to a park for ice-skating. Then we enjoy hot cocoa afterwards.
-- Tina Lesch
St. Paul, Minnesota
After dinner, our family walks around the neighborhood. If it's too cold outside, we walk through the mall.
-- Jillian Sasso