Getting enough exercise is important for everybody - even the youngest of us.
So last February, for the first time, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education released physical activity guidelines for infants and toddlers.
“What happens when you’re young can actually become a habit you continue for a lifetime,” said Dale Zappe, a physical education teacher at Hartford Elementary School in Chandler.
Regular exercise can provide learning benefits, as well as health benefits.
“There is a definite correlation between kids who are active at a young age and their ability to learn,” Zappe said. “Exercise helps their connections in the brain. It helps them put it together - to write better, think clearer.”
Exercise for infants doesn’t mean baby calisthenics. It means structured activities such as peekaboo and pat-a-cake, or the parent or care giver helping the baby move from a sitting position to a standing position. Infants need unstructured exercise, such as crawling on their own, too.
Toddlers and preschoolers go on to more advanced exercise - running, jumping, kicking.
The association recommends both structured activities - such as singing, acting out the hokeypokey or touching each body part as they sing “Hands, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” - as well as unstructured activities, such as riding bikes or climbing on playground equipment.
The guidelines state that toddlers and preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time, except when sleeping.
Preschoolers should practice movement skills in a variety of settings, according to www.kidsrunning.com. “Instruction and positive reinforcement is critical . . . to ensure that children develop most of these skills before entering school.”
Once the seed is planted, the love of exercise takes root, Zappe said. At Hartford, he introduces kindergartners to soccer by having them play with the soccer ball, dribble it, even throw it at him.
“Then I’ll look out at recess, and they’re playing with the soccer ball. They’re not playing soccer, but they think they are, and they’re having fun,” Zappe said. “It’s the power of suggestion.”
Exercise helps children cope with frustration and stress in a positive way, he said. They also are better able to listen and focus in class.
Just about any kind of physical activity is better than none at all, experts say, pointing to a rise in obesity among children.
“But it doesn’t have to be structured activity all the time,” Zappe said. “Kids need to be kids.”