Kids need the right experiences at the right times to develop all their potential. When it comes to the development of their movement skills and physical literacy in particular, they need plenty of active play to develop gross motor skills in their early years, followed by well-designed physical activity programs through their elementary years.
But what exactly should they be doing at different ages and stages of their growth and maturation? Are there any special “must haves” when it comes to physical activity or sports?
Experts in child development offer a range of suggestions, especially in the early years, as do teachers and coaches for the elementary school years. Here are a few foundational activities, sports, and games for kids that are seen to provide excellent development in movement and physical literacy, as well as health benefits.
Ages 1-3 years
In the first year of life, your child’s activity needs are as simple as they are important. If you give them tummy time and play simple activities to ensure they are active every day, they will get all the movement development they need. Later, as they start to walk and enter the toddler stage between their first and third birthday, you can introduce a greater variety of activities indoors and outdoors.
After your child starts walking, give them opportunities to walk indoors and outdoors on different surfaces ranging from pavement to grass and sand. Walk uphill and downhill together. In warm weather, walk in bare feet. As your child gains strength, confidence, and coordination, try walking along lines on the pavement and stepping over cracks.
After your child’s second birthday, continue the same activities as above, but now encourage early running and hopping.
Get a large, soft ball made of fabric or foam and roll it to your child. Prior to age two, you can try sitting opposite each other on the floor and using your hands. After age two, you can try rolling and kicking the ball to one another while standing. If your child still prefers to pick up the ball with their hands rather than kicking, that’s okay.
Let your child kick their feet in the bathtub and splash water. Outdoors in summer, let them do the same in a small play pool. Encourage them to get their face wet as well, so they become accustomed to the sensation.
Stand opposite your child, no more than one metre away, and again use a large, soft ball to play catch. Show your child how to make a basket with their arms, then gently toss the ball into their arms.
Sometime between your child’s second and third birthdays, introduce them to simple riding toys with wheels. These could be simple toy trains or cars that they sit on, or they could be tricycles or glide bikes. Just remember to always fit your child with a helmet for safety.
Ages 3-6 years
Between age three and six years, most activity should still be simple, unstructured, and play-based, but you can start to register your child in loosely structured programs for some activities. It’s important to have a mix of moderate to vigorous intensity activity.
Remember when your child was kicking and splashing in the bathtub and the play pool? Now is a good time to visit your local swimming pool and enjoy family swims together. Start in the children’s pool and stay close to your child at all times. Your child doesn’t need to “swim” at this point—it’s enough if they simply learn to enjoy being in the water and occasionally dunk their head. As they become more comfortable, you can register them for introductory swimming lessons.
Assuming your child has done lots of walking and running already, they have enough balance to get started on ice skates. Physical literacy includes developing a wide range of movement skills on all kinds of surfaces, and your child is ready to experience snow and ice. Most recreation centres offer good introductory skating programs for kids at this age.
Skiiing can be an expensive sport, but many ski resorts offer special pricing for children who are just starting, including equipment rentals. Like ice skating above, this is a great time to introduce your child to sliding and gliding on snow.
Gymnastics is one of the best activities for developing all-round movement skills. This is a great age to register your child in an introductory gymnastics program and make the most of your child’s early development of the ABCs of physical literacy. One of the most elementary skills in gymnastics is learning how to tumble by tucking the head, knees, and arms in a forward roll. This is just one of many gymnastics skills that are useful in a wide range of sports and activities.
Riding a bike is a rite of childhood. It also provides the foundation for all cycling sports as it builds balance, coordination, and strength on two wheels. This is a good age to introduce your child to a two-wheel balance bike to practice balancing and gliding. The balance bike also provides a good introduction to riding a two-wheeled bike with pedals.
Around age five, some children are ready to participate with genuine interest in simplified sport programs. The key is to find programs that focus on fun and early skill development, not trophy competitions driven by coaches and adults. Not all community sport programs are equal, so ask questions and look for programs that follow the Active Start and FUNdamentals guidelines of the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) pathway for that sport. Soccer and hockey programs that follow the LTAD model are good, as well as introductory tennis and baseball programs such as Rally Cap.
Whether or not your child participates in organized sport and activity programs, you should always make time for unstructured, fun family play at home. Make obstacle courses indoors or outdoors, at home or in your local park, or play follow the leader. Compete playfully with simple running races, crawling races, and hopping races. Make sure everyone gets a chance to win at least once or twice. These are just a few of the fun activities that you can try at home.
Ages 6-9 years
During the early elementary school years, children should be refining the gross motor skills that they learned as toddlers and preschoolers and developing their fundamental movement skills and sport skills. Again, your child should still enjoy lots of unstructured free play at this age of moderate to vigorous intensity, but structured club and school programs become equally important.
This is a great time to register your child for introductory gymnastics if you haven’t done it already. Gymnastics is perhaps the single best activity for developing your child’s ABCs of physical literacy. Kids in this age group don’t usually compete, and it isn’t necessary for your child to train for the Olympics. The best programs are simply about having fun while learning different movement skills and developing strength and coordination.
If your child enjoyed lots of family swims at your local pool as a toddler and preschooler, this is a good time to get them registered in actual swimming lessons. Again, like gymnastics, it’s not necessary to train for an Olympic medal. Swimming is simply a good all-round activity that is healthy, fun, and provides a basic skill for pursuing different water sports ranging from sailing and surfing to water polo and diving.
Soccer is now the number one participation sport in Canada with over 700,000 children and youth playing the game across the country. Next to gymnastics, it’s probably one of the best activities for developing children’s all-round movement skills and physical literacy. Just make sure that you find a program that follows the FUNdamentals guidelines [PDF] of the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) pathway for soccer at this age.
Play different sports
Resist the temptation to let your child specialize in one activity at this age. Research has shown that children shouldn’t specialize until their teens for most sports. Instead encourage your child to try different sports and activities to discover different interests and learn different skills. Summer camps and spring break camps provide excellent opportunities to try different things with minimal commitment of time and money. And don’t forget non-traditional sports like rock climbing and skateboarding, or martial arts and dance!
It’s also important for your child to learn how to be active year-round. Help your child to explore different winter activities whenever possible, such as skating, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and tobogganing.
Age 10-12 years
By age 10, your child’s selection of sports and activities should be entirely about their interests and preferences, rather than those of the various adults in their lives such as coaches, teachers, and parents. If your child has tried a variety of activities and sports prior to their tenth birthday, they’ve probably started to show a preference for two or three of them. If you can manage it as a family, try to support them in two or three sports and activities through the year. By the time they’re 13 or 14 years old, they can start to think about specializing in one of them if necessary.
By giving your child a good foundation in diverse movement skills and activities, you’re giving them the best chance of staying active as kids and teens.