Physically Active for Life
Article by Steve Sanders, Ed.D.
This fall millions of three, four, and five year old children will attend preschool and kindergarten. Good early childhood programs can enhance a child's ability to learn, to communicate ideas and feelings, and to get along well with others. Children who attend quality preschool programs are more likely to succeed in school and in life. Providing a high quality education for young children is a key to a child's future success. Foundational skills needed to achieve academic success include social development, cognitive development, and physical development. In most early childhood settings social and cognitive development are emphasized and physical development of children is left to chance. Until recently few programs have provided quality physical activity programs for young children.
Why Quality Physical Activity Programs Are Important
Over the past 40 years our culture has changed dramatically. Once a physically active nation, our society now actually discourages physical activity. Our communities are centered on the automobile - discouraging walking and bicycling by children. Those activities dropped by 50% in children ages 5-15 since 1977. Because of concerns about safety, children spend less time outside playing. New technology (TV, computers, hand held children's electronic games) conditions young people to be less active. Schools have provided less time for physical activity programs by focusing more on traditional academics, and many communities have failed to invest in close-to-home recreational facilities such as parks and recreation centers.
We know that physically active children have a greater chance of being healthy for a lifetime. The lack of physical activity and appropriate nutrition in children has serious consequences. Science and medical professionals now suggest that ours may be the first generation in history where parents outlive their children. The obesity rate for children in the 1960s was about 4%. Forty years later the rate is now almost 25% in children and estimated at over 50% in adults. There are many benefits of regular physical activity for children. Daily physical activity helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints; helps to control weight, build lean muscle, and reduce fat; prevents or delays the development of high blood pressure; reduces feelings of depression and anxiety; and through its effects on mental health, physical activity may help increase students' capacity for learning.
What Parents Need To Look For
We know that children learn by moving through their environment and that physical development thus influences development in the cognitive, language, social and emotional areas. A quality preschool program encourages young children to develop physical skills through a variety of different activities. Children who develop physical skills are more likely to be physically active throughout their lives. When selecting child care or preschool for children, parents need to ask specific questions of center directors and teachers about the physical activity curriculum and learning activities provided by the center. We know that children's enjoyment of physical activity is influenced by several factors including the extent to which they are guided by competent, knowledgeable adults, and the opportunity to choose activities that are most appealing to them. It is also important that children are taught necessary skills, develop confidence in their physical abilities, and are supported by cultural norms that make participation in physical activity desirable.
Does the center have a physical activity curriculum that promotes skill development in running, jumping, galloping, skipping, balance, throwing, catching, kicking, climbing, and striking? Does the curriculum include activities where children learn about movement concepts including general and self-space, pathways, directions, levels, speeds, and body part identification. Are rhythms, beats, cadence, and musical patterns discussed during musical activities and dancing? Are teachers trained to provide developmentally appropriate physical activities to preschool children? Is there a scheduled time each day of at least 30 minutes for children to practice physical skills and obtain appropriate instruction, and in addition does the program provide opportunities for free play so that children can continue to practice and refine skills presented during physical activity lessons?
Does the preschool follow the Preschool Activity Guidelines outlined by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education which suggest Preschoolers should accumulate at least 1 hour of daily structured physical activity, and they should engage in unstructured physical activity whenever possible and should not be sedentary for more than 1 hour at a time. Preschoolers should develop competence in movement skills that are building blocks for more complex movement tasks. There should be inside and outside areas that meet or exceed recommended safety standards for performing large muscle activities, and individuals responsible for the well being of preschoolers should be aware of the importance of physical activity and facilitate the child's movement skills.
Does the center comply with developmentally appropriate practices for movement programs by providing the appropriate movement equipment for every child? Does every child have ample practice opportunities to develop skills (every child has their own appropriate size ball to throw, and games such as Duck, Duck, Goose, musical chairs and other activities that eliminate children are excluded from the physical education curriculum)?
Without providing the opportunity for young children to develop a foundation of physical skills, we as a society continue to risk the health of our nation. By providing opportunities for children to develop skills and positive attitudes about the importance of physical activity throughout life, we provide the educational tools for children to become both academically successful and physically active and healthy throughout their lives.
For more information on physical skill development, including specific activities to help children develop skills, log on to PE Central at http://www.pecentral.org or go to the lesson ideas at http://www.pecentral.org/lessonideas/elementary/preschoolmenu.asp.
For more information on appropriate physical activity programs for preschool children:
NASPE (2000). Appropriate practices in movement programs for young children ages 3-5. Washington, DC: AAHPERD.
About the Author
Dr. Steve Sanders is Chair of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Tennessee Technological University. He is the Editor of the Preschool Section for PE Central (http://www.pecentral.org), a nationally acclaimed physical education website, and author of the books Designing Preschool Movement Programs (1992), and Active for Life: Developmentally Appropriate Movement Programs for Young Children (NAEYC, 2002).
Published: July 2003