Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 18, 2022.
Here’s a secret from the pros: ensuring your child is active and engaged in a positive and educational way during the day does not require flash cards or lesson plans. It’s a lot easier than you may think to inspire kids to spend more time engaged in physically active play.
According to early childhood education expert Dawne Clark, the key is to create an enriching environment for your child that invites physically active play.
Simple, inexpensive changes to your home environment can nudge your children to engage in physically active play and gain the many benefits that come from doing so—and it’s lots of fun too.
The importance of the early years
About the expert
Dawne Clark, professor emerita at Mount Royal University in Calgary, has been involved in research to improve early childhood education for over 35 years. In her present studies, Clark and her research team are looking at the impact of physical literacy programming on children five and younger in childcare centres.
To be healthy, children must learn to move with pleasure and confidence early in life. When they do, they benefit physically, intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally throughout their lives.
“Young children learn best through joyful, active, exciting, physical play, especially with others,” says Clark. “Through active play, children prepare themselves to be successful learners in school, they learn to regulate their emotions, and how to relate to others.”
The early years, between birth and five, set the trajectory for the rest of a child’s life; therefore, healthy lifestyle habits need to be developed during this time,” Clark says.
Here are some simple techniques early childhood education (ECE) professionals use that can help busy, multi-tasking parents encourage young kids to keep busy in active play at home.
You don’t need to be a PE teacher to help your child benefit from physical activity
Through her studies, Clark realized that many early childhood educators (ECEs) are not intuitively comfortable encouraging kids to engage in active play.
“They feel they lack the competence, the skills, and the knowledge to get kids to play safely—like many parents,” she says with a smile. “That’s why a big part of our work is to help ECEs acquire the knowledge they need. And the first thing ECEs learn is that they do not need to become phys-ed teachers to get kids moving and be active.”
The key is to set up the environment in a way that invites children to engage in active play throughout the day, Clark says. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying special equipment. Found items from around the home and inexpensive materials like painter’s tape and milk crates can be used to create new opportunities for physically active play.
There’s no need for lesson plans, or even to instruct the children, Clark stresses. Set up the environment right and it will nudge kids to play on their own.
The power of the right “nudge”
Remember walking to school when you were young and finding an empty can on the sidewalk? Most kids can’t resist the urge to kick the can like a soccer ball. In this case, the empty can is what psychologists call a “nudge”—an incentive that invites someone to act in a certain way.
Simple changes to your home environment can nudge kids to play more. For example, in one of the child care centres that participated in Clark’s physical literacy studies, educators taped a hopscotch diagram to the floor in the hallway. The result?
“Children would intuitively hop and skip on their way to the washroom, and develop their balance while having fun,” Clark says.
The beauty of nudges is that they’re a subtle invitation that respects your child’s choice to play. And even better, they don’t require you as the parent to direct your child or buy expensive equipment. This means that you can focus on your work while your child engages in active play.
“Children love to explore their boundaries and competence by climbing higher or running faster than they have before, but rarely will they take risks they are not yet ready for,” says Clark.
“That doesn’t mean, though, that children don’t require supervision or regular check-ins by adults to see what they are up to. A healthy, active childhood means that children will fall and scrape themselves. These experiences teach them how to make good decisions and play more safely.”
As Clark points out, the key is to create an environment that fits your child’s level of skills and risk-taking. A 12-year-old might be left on her own to use simple tools to build a fort outside, for example, but a five-year-old would need to be monitored and instructed how to do this safely.
5 ways you can “nudge” your children to be active at home
1. Use painter’s tape to get kids moving.
Painter’s tape comes in great colours and doesn’t stain or mark surfaces. Create pathways to jump, hop, and crawl along; mazes; hopscotch; stepping stones leading from the kitchen to the bathroom and bedroom; and push and jump walls with handprints on the wall high enough to require children to jump, or at chest level so they can push themselves against the wall (isometric exercise).
2. Let kids play with “junk” outdoors and indoors
Create an adventure playground outdoors by raiding the garage or shed for loose parts: buckets and garden spades to pile and build with snow, tubes, wheels, tires, rope, wood (planks and logs), PVC pipe, tennis balls for ball runs, and construction tools for older children or younger kids when supervised by an adult.
Create an activity centre indoors by searching the house for items like cardboard boxes, blocks, markers, and scissors to build a city; sheets and cushions to create a fort; buckets and rolled-up socks or soft balls to practice rolling, tossing, and kicking; and pots and pans, kitchen containers, and large spoons for musical instruments.
4. Use pictures and videos to inspire kids to move
Developing skills can be as simple as walking from the living room to the bathroom. Simply print one of our many activities for kids like the Bear Crawl, Galloping Horse or Crab Walk, post one of them in the hallway using painter’s tape (so it won’t mark walls), and ask your kid to imitate the animal as they walk from the living room to the kitchen.
You can do the same by posting images of Balance Poses and join your kids in a mini “yoga break” that develops balance. You can also try using our printable activity dice or an illustration like the one we made showing six easy games kids can play with a pair of socks.
5. Play outside
Active play offers so much more than physical well-being
“Take your children for a walk outdoors every day and you will all eat and sleep better,” says Clark. “Dance and twirl with your children when you are anxious, and you will all experience a feeling of calm. Wrestle and roll and romp. Provide the nudges for your children to be physically active both outside in the yard and inside the home and you will notice that they are calmer and there are fewer challenging behaviours.”
“Active play is important for everyone; it helps to reduce stress and anxiety and may even provide good memories of when you were all sheltering at home together.”