Toddlers are busy people, but this does not mean that they are getting enough exercise. Evidence suggests that toddlers are more sedentary than ever before, which puts them at risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cognitive decline in later life. Inactivity has also raised concerns about their psychological welfare, behaviour and learning ability. Researchers have found that physical activity levels in 3-year-olds are well short of the recommendations for their age.
When toddlers are encouraged to be physically active, they learn how their bodies work, build muscles, strength and endurance, burn off excess calories and sleep better at night. Exercise also builds confidence and self-esteem and it gives toddlers a great sense of well-being.
Exercise is a valuable tool for brain function. It increases the number of neurons in certain parts of the brain, which sets the stage for learning. If parents and practitioners want children to do well at school, they need to encourage them to be physically active. The minimum requirement is about 30 minutes of structured exercise, preferably outdoors, and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity in a safe place every day.
If physical activity is encouraged from an early age, toddlers are more likely to become active adults. The key is to make exercise an important part of the daily routine and a fun, interactive and safe experience.
Exercise increases blood flow to the tissues and organs of the body such as the lungs, kidneys, liver and heart. Exercise strengthens and improves elasticity of the joints, and flexibility and contractibility of the muscles, which relieves tension during growth spurts. Greater blood flow also transports oxygen and nutrients to the brain and aids the removal of waste from critical regions that effect mental function. Exercise also builds pathways in the brain that aid learning and development.
Exercise brings a whole range of other benefits. Some of these include:
A stronger immune system Strengthening of the cardiovascular system Weight control Better sleeping patterns Reduction of stress and frustration Improved health and well being Increased large and small muscle coordination
Improved balance and control Better behaviour Increased motivation, concentration and creativity A love of physical activity from an early age Improved brain function
About 7 percent of toddlers struggle with balance and coordination activities involving arm, leg and body movements. Exercise is essential in helping them to overcome any difficulties.
In their second year, most toddlers can climb up and down stairs using a variety of strategies to get from the bottom to the top and vice versa. They may walk well (even backwards), roll objects across the floor, turn handles to open doors and push a chair in position to obtain out-of-reach objects.
In their third year, most toddlers can run, throw overhand, and go up and down stairs by alternating their feet. They can also use their hands to drink from a cup, eat with a spoon and take off their socks. By the end of their third year, they may be able to draw a circle and a straight line, which will eventually leads on to writing.
These fundamental movement skills depend on exercise opportunities and the continued process of muscular and neurological maturation.
The brain of the two-year-old has grown to approximately 75 percent of its eventual adult weight. Some of this brain growth is due to an increase in Purkinje cells in the cerebellum (lower part of the brain), which regulate and control fine movements, balance and posture. The cerebellum also interacts with the nervous and vestibular system (inner ear) to maintain balance when crawling, walking and running. Exercise helps these systems to work in harmony with each other.
Exercise stimulates the motor cortex (frontal lobe - from ear to ear), which is involved in the planning, control and execution of voluntary muscles in every part of the body. Muscles in the right side of the body are activated by signals from the left side of the motor cortex and vice-versa. Complex movements such as crawling and running, stimulate the motor cortex, which in turn develops both sides of the brain. The left hemisphere is responsible for logical thinking, sequencing, speech, spelling, and word and number recognition. The right hemisphere specialises in emotions, exploration, experimentation, inventiveness and creativity.
Physical activity strengthens existing brain circuits, removes excess chemicals that can harm brain development, helps brain cells to survive and promotes the growth of new ones. Numerous studies have linked exercise with new neuron growth in the hippocampus, a region of the brain implicated in learning, memory and spatial reasoning. Exercise also improves the ability of the hippocampus to handle stress, which protects the brain from damage and disease.
Movement accelerates development of the occipital lobe (above the cerebellum), which is the visual processing centre of the brain. Exercise also releases key chemical messengers which regulate fine motor movement and coordination.
Large motor skills
Exercise that involves the large muscles of the body, and the arms and legs, is important for crawling, walking and running, jumping and lifting. However, the age at which toddlers achieve these skills depends on muscle development in different parts of the body. Muscle development proceeds from head to toe, from the arms to the hands and then the fingers. These developments go hand-in-hand with the growth of the brain pathways that become increasingly specialised in movement control.
The following activities will encourage toddlers to exercise their bodies and brains at the same time:
Climbing frames Stepping stones Balance boards Ride-on toys Toys that can be pushed or pulled around obstacles such as cones or chairs Games that involve throwing, catching, fetching, rolling and kicking Treasure hunts Tunnels or blankets that can be crawled through or under Musical games such as ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’ and ‘Pass the Parcel’ Bubbles and balloons Television programmes that encourage toddlers to dance and move along with the characters
Fun activities that don’t require any equipment include animal movement games, which get toddlers crawling, crouching, bouncing, touching toes and jumping. Tag or chase also appeals to toddlers, especially if it involves tickling when caught. Dancing, clapping and marching to music and climbing on and off furniture also give toddlers the exercise they need to stay fit and healthy. The play is enriched when the adult joins in or becomes an enthusiastic spectator.
Fine motor skills
Fine-motor skills relate to the development and control of small muscles in the hands and feet. Small-muscle development is crucial for activities such as grasping, squeezing, cutting, threading, throwing, drawing, and walking. Fine motor skills take longer to develop than gross motor skills, which is why toddlers are unable to do up buttons and use scissors. These skills develop gradually with repetition and practise.
Clay and dough, painting, colouring, threading pasta on a string, action rhymes, jigsaws, building blocks and craft activities are especially good for developing hand agility and muscle strength. Sand play, using a rolling pin or cutters or a knife and fork, pegging, pouring water, squeezing sponges, washing cups and other objects also improve grip strength, manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.
Getting toddlers to wriggle, scrunch and stretch their toes improves blood circulation and activates nerves that stimulate the brain and internal organs. Going barefoot also strengthens small muscles in the feet, stretches ligaments and builds arches, which aid balance, posture and coordination. If their feet are in good shape, and they are allowed to set their own pace, toddlers are capable of walking up to two or more miles a day. Walking also brings oxygen-rich blood and glucose to the brain, which improves concentration, memory and thinking skills.
The seasons offer opportunities for all sorts of outdoor activities as well as fun and family bonding. The autumn for example, provides opportunities for toddlers to engage in fruit and vegetable printing, leaf rubbing, apple picking, raking, sweeping and jumping on leaves. The fresh air is good for their health and the exercise will help them sleep better at night.
In the winter, toddlers can build a snowman, throw snowballs and go ice-skating with an adult. Cold muscles are more susceptible to injury, so toddlers should be dressed warmly in hats, gloves and multi-layers of clothing. In the spring, feeding the ducks, running around on new grass and going on a treasure hunt or nature walk will help toddlers to coordinate their feet and hands. In the summer, fetching and carrying buckets of water and running under sprinklers will encourage them to exercise and stay cool at the same time. However, toddlers will need to drink plenty of water to avoid fluid loss.
On a wet day, put on boots, raincoats and hats so that toddlers can splash in puddles and look for earthworms wriggling about in the rain. If keeping dry is a problem, turn a tarpaulin or parachute into an umbrella and get them to walk underneath. In windy conditions, toss a Frisbee, fly a paper bag kite or tie a balloon to a tree. Toddlers will have fun chasing after them and they will get fit at the same time.
Toddlers enjoy going to the park where they can climb, slide and run about. They also benefit from swimming, which strengthens muscles, improves coordination and lung capacity and aids development of the brain. However, toddler safety is paramount. Falls from climbing frames, followed by swings and then slides, account for about 75 percent of injuries. Even falling a small way can cause serious injury.
Surface area is also an important safety feature, because most injuries are the result of falls on a hard surface. The severity of injury can be reduced on impact absorbing surfaces such as bark and rubber.
After motor vehicle related accidents, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death among toddlers. Approximately 75 percent of deaths occur in home swimming pools. In 9 out of 10 cases, parents and carers claimed that they were supervising the child or had not been out of sight for more than a few minutes. However, adults should always be close enough to reach toddlers and not engaged in other activities while supervising them.
Being active is vital for brain and body health and an important part of toddler development. Exercise encourages whole body movements, which are essential for overall health, and fine muscle development, which is crucial for later hand writing skills.
Toddlers also need a safe environment to grow up in. A sound and effective safety programme is therefore essential for nurseries and pre-schools to safeguard them and to prevent accidents.
Making exercise an important part of daily life avoids the pitfalls of a sedentary lifestyle which increases the potential for disease in later life. Making provision for exercise also gives parents and practitioners the opportunity to spend quality time with toddlers and to keep them healthy, happy, and safe.