In the first few years of life children’s physical development is extremely rapid, compare a newborn and a 5-year-old and you will see HUGE differences. However, physical activity and exercise is taking on renewed importance as obesity figures soar. Emerging statistics following the Covid-19 pandemic suggest that more children than ever before are starting school overweight, or obese.
Physical activity helps children to strengthen their hearts, lungs, muscles and bones and to maintain healthy body weight. Keeping body weight healthy is important because obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems like asthma or sleep apnoea, anxiety and depression and even cancer. The recommendations for the amount of physical activity children should engage in varies from a country from country, but one recommendation suggests that once children are able to walk unaided, they should be physically active for at least 180 minutes, that is 3 hours, a day. Adults should limit the amount of time that young children spend being restrained in car seats, prams, highchairs and so on, and before babies can walk they should still be encouraged to be active, by crawling, reaching and grasping for toys, or engaging in tummy time.
Physical activity also gives children developmental opportunities. Physical skills are often broken down into 2 broader categories; gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are those which involve big movements, and large muscle groups. Young children will learn to move, roll over, reach and grab, push-up, crawl, pull up and walk and hone their balance, coordination and control. Fine motor skills are small-scale movements that require precision and control and use much smaller muscle groups, for example, the muscles in fingers, hands and wrists.
Physical activity is intrinsically bound up with effective learning in the first few years of life. A young child can learn only what their brain is ready for and in the early years of childhood that is based largely in experiences we can with our bodies where we encounter the tangible, physical, and sensory qualities of the world. Physical activity allows children to engage in hands-on, experiential learning, often linked to sensory input. In 1919, Early childhood educator, Margaret McMillan said “To move, to run, to find things out by new movement, to feel one’s life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood.” As well as mastering physical skills and learning about abstract concepts such as ‘number’ through experiential, hands-on learning, physical activity is important in helping children to process all sorts of thoughts, feelings and learning. For young children movement is thought in action and so as children move around in physical activity their brains sort through, process, make sense of and ‘file’ their thoughts. When we see children pacing, spinning, and rocking, it’s likely that they are working on processing some of their thoughts, experiences and learning.
Physical activity often leads us to spend more time outside, which is beneficial for all humans; it increases our production of Vitamin D and serotonin, the happy hormone, which leads to an overall sense of wellbeing. Being outdoors also helps to reset our circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep patterns; good sleep patterns and habits are important for young children’s overall health.