Get Up & Grow Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood directors/coordinator book

Section 2: Physical Activity Physical Activity

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Section 2: Physical Activity

Physical Activity


Currently, there are many aspects of everyday life in Australia that make it easy to be physically inactive. Many families rely on cars for transport and use labour-saving devices (escalators, remote controls), and screen-based entertainment is among the most popular forms of leisure. This is a cause for concern, due to increasing evidence of a relationship between lack of physical activity and lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
It is important to encourage physical activity in early childhood for two reasons. Firstly, children under the age of five who are very active are more likely to stay active throughout childhood, and early development of good habits may form a foundation for later years. Secondly, regular physical activity during early childhood can impact on immediate and long-term health outcomes.
The increasing incidence of weight problems (overweight and obesity) in childhood reflects the levels of physical activity and sedentary behaviour of entire communities. Early childhood settings are an ideal place to develop good habits in young children and influence the behaviours of families. Parents, staff and carers can work together to share the responsibility of making physical activity a priority both inside and outside the home.
For children under five years, active play is the best form of physical activity. Active play includes unstructured ‘free’ play and structured ‘planned’ play (both indoors and particularly outdoors), active transport (such as walking to a destination, rather than driving) and certain everyday tasks. Children’s activity patterns are very ‘stop–start’ in nature, and so physical activity within the setting should be spread throughout the day. A setting’s program should also consider how often children are sedentary or inactive, and quiet times.
The benefits of active play go beyond just the physical, to include the development of social and language skills, as well as brain development.

Birth to one year


For healthy development in infants (birth to 1 year), physical activity – particularly supervised floor-based play in safe environments – should be encouraged from birth.

The importance of movement from birth to one year

From the time they are born, babies learn by interacting in a variety of ways. In particular, learning comes from how they relate to their physical, social and cultural surroundings. Giving babies daily chances to move freely helps to:

keep their bodies and minds active

develop their senses, often through natural curiosity

develop good posture, strength and balance

make them feel loved, happy and safe

develop language and communication skills

teach them about their body and the world around them

encourage interaction with others.
For babies who haven’t started walking yet, being physically active means having daily opportunities to move around on their stomach or back in a variety of free spaces, without being constrained by wraps or clothing. It also includes practising movements such as reaching, grasping, pulling, pushing and playing with other people, objects and toys.
Babies both enjoy and thrive on interacting with people, so it is important to make time to spend with babies, including time playing with them.

Promoting movement in babies from birth to one year

Babies need a variety of different play activities and environments throughout the day. Play activities that stimulate the senses also have the benefit of developing other skills.

Tummy time

Tummy time is important for strengthening head, neck and trunk muscles, and encouraging free limb movement.
Suggestions for equipment:

A variety of floor surfaces such as carpet or vinyl, blankets, fabrics and objects to encourage reaching and grasping.

Getting around

Play spaces need to encourage babies to practise new movements, and use large muscles for kicking, crawling and pulling themselves up to standing. Placing objects just out of reach encourages babies to move towards them.
Suggestions for equipment:

Sturdy benches, tables, tunnels, hoops and balls.

(Note: Experts advise against baby walkers and baby exercise jumpers due to the risk of injury, and because evidence shows they can restrict the muscle development required for independent walking.


Noises during play help with areas of brain development linked to hearing, and can also encourage movement.
Suggestions for equipment:

Rattles, music, balls with bells, wooden spoons and saucepans, and containers full of rice.


Babies need to hold and feel a variety of objects, to help develop their touch recognition.
Suggestions for equipment:

Soft balls, scarves, stockings filled with scrunched-up paper, rolled-up socks and pom poms.


Moving objects that babies can ‘follow’ with their eyes can help develop eye strength and encourage movement.
Suggestions for equipment:

Swinging or bouncing objects, bubbles, fabric or cardboard books, toys that surprise (such as ‘Jack in the Box’) and games like ‘Peek-a-boo’.

Outdoor play and babies

Playing outside can help babies to learn about different surroundings and feel comfortable with the world around them. Some experiences that outside play provide include feeling grass, hearing cars and birds and looking at the sky.
Everyone should be encouraged to show, talk and sing to babies about what they see, hear or feel, to help them enjoy outdoor experiences. If there are no outside areas at a setting, it is important to encourage taking babies to parks or other local outdoor areas whenever possible.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers: One to five years


Toddlers (1 to 3 years) and pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day.

The importance of movement for one- to five-year-olds

A child’s job is to move freely and be active every day! The skills developed between one to five years of age range from learning to walk through to running and throwing a ball. Children need time to learn a range of movement skills. In fact, at no other time in life are so many physical skills learnt.

Studies of children under five years of age have shown that active play helps them to:
improve the health of their muscles, bones and heart

develop new movement skills and imagination, and learn about their bodies

build self-confidence and cope with stressful situations

enjoy being active

improve their communication skills, including how to solve problems and make decisions

learn how to interact, share, take turns and care about others.

Active play

Young children naturally look for adventure, and want to explore. The best active play opportunities encourage children to be spontaneous and imaginative. The pace of activity can range from light actions (such as building or playing on the floor) through to vigorous actions (such as running or jumping). Daily chances for active play also encourage children to use small and large muscle groups in creative ways, and most importantly allow children to take control of their own play.
The ability and development of a child should direct the types of activities and play that are appropriate and interesting to them. Every child should be encouraged to be active, regardless of ability!
The following activities all need to be included in a setting’s program:
Unstructured ‘free’ play

Structured ‘planned’ play

Active transport

Everyday physical tasks

Unstructured play

Unstructured play is creative and spontaneous play that gives children the freedom to move at their own pace and decide how they will play, what they will do and where it will take place. Encouraging unstructured play helps children feel more comfortable:
trying, and learning new skills

moving in their natural ‘stop-start’ pattern

being challenged, and adapting to a range of different environments

expressing themselves

taking appropriate risks.
Examples of unstructured play include free play in playgrounds or sandpits, dancing to sounds and music, and other imaginative play such as dress-ups. ‘Rough and tumble’ play can sometimes be part of unstructured play, particularly for boys. Although there is evidence that boys may play differently to girls, both boys and girls need equal access to all play spaces and play items.

Structured play

Structured play is planned play that may take place at set times, have certain rules or need special equipment.
Examples of structured play include:
creative movement and dancing classes

action games and songs, such as ‘Hokey Pokey’

guided discovery sessions – problem-solving activities where adults prompt children to figure out the best way to perform certain movements.

Active transport

Active transport involves using physical activity – such as walking, pedalling a bike or using a scooter – to travel. Families need to be encouraged to use active transport rather than always using a car, and to encourage young children to walk rather than sit in a stroller. Young children are quite capable of walking or pedalling, even if it is just for short bursts at a time. As they get older and stronger, the distance and amount of time children walk or pedal can gradually increase. Active transport also provides a great chance for children to learn about road and pedestrian safety. Remember to supervise children when participating in active transport.
Examples of simple ways adults and children can use active transport include:
parking the car further away and walking to a destination

using a form of public transport that involves walking to and from the stops

cutting down the amount of time spent in the pram or stroller, and encouraging children to walk instead.

Everyday physical tasks

Children enjoy helping adults with many everyday physical tasks. These activities do not need to be restricted to chores, and can also include spontaneous games.
Examples of everyday physical tasks include:
helping with the gardening

tidying up inside and outside play spaces

helping to set up activities and meal areas.

Promoting active play for one- to five-year-olds

Not all children are naturally active or creative, and some will need to be guided more than others. They may need to be shown how to enjoy using different equipment, how to try the same action as someone else or how to use music and sounds to make play more fun. Encourage staff to sometimes join in with children’s play.
Active play opportunities should encourage children to:
use big muscle movements

practise a range of different movements

use their imagination

experience a variety of play spaces and equipment

feel good about what they can do

make up their own games and activities

set up their own play area

have fun!

Making the most of simple play prompts

Regularly ‘prompting’ children to move in different ways helps to challenge them and constantly improve their skills. This can involve prompting children to change:
How their body can move
- ‘How fast can you…?’

Where their body can move
- ‘Can you do that sideways?’

What their body can do
- ‘Can you do this with one leg and then the other?’

Who they can move with
- ‘Can you both do that together?’

Prompts should encourage a range of activities that include upper body, lower body and full body movements in indoor and outdoor play spaces.

Equipment ideas to promote active play in one- to five-year-olds

Items used in active play can either be toys or everyday items. Items should always be appropriate to the development of the child – for example, streamers are ideal for four- and five-year-olds, however may be unsafe for children under two to play with on their own. In play spaces shared by many children of different ages, be sure to consider the safety of all children – through the types of play equipment used, as well as the access and storage of equipment.

Upper body movements

Objects to hold, wave, shake, bang, throw, hit or catch.
Suggestions for equipment:

Balls, pompoms, mini beanbags, bats, rackets, quoits, tambourines, streamers, empty containers, pots and pans.

Lower body movements

Objects to move over, through or around.
Suggestions for equipment:

Hoops, tunnels, foam noodles, cones, tyres, boxes, coloured carpet squares, chalk marks and piles of leaves.


Objects to climb on or up. Always consider safety when planning climbing activities – however, let children take appropriate risks.
Suggestions for equipment:

Climbing frames, low branches, ladders, ropes, stepping stones and boxes.


Balancing activities do not need to be high, although ability needs to be considered when setting up equipment.
Suggestions for equipment:

Beams, wobble boards, planks of wood, logs, chalk lines and stepping logs or stones.


Building can include stacking items, or making constructions such as cubby houses.
Suggestions for equipment:

Wooden blocks, sand, buckets, boxes, planks of wood, tyres, old linen and furniture.

Creative movement

Encourages children to use all of their body or parts of their body freely, and in ways that feel good.
Suggestions for equipment:

Music, musical instruments, bells, rattles and streamers.

Outdoor play for one- to five-year-olds

Children who spend more time outdoors will generally be more active. Access to a covered outdoor area allows children to be active in all weather conditions, and being outdoors in cooler weather does not cause the common cold. Outdoor areas usually provide children with more space, and a variety of surfaces and equipment. Children can use larger muscle groups and experience moving in a whole range of different shapes, speeds and directions. Outdoor play also allows children to be messy and noisy.
Outdoor play gives children opportunities to:
make big movements

try new movements

have ‘rough and tumble’ play

improve their balance, strength and coordination skills

seek adventure and watch and explore nature

extend their creativity

learn from their mistakes

manage their fears and build toughness.

Reminders for outdoor play…

Be SunSmart ©

Abide by sun protection policies – sunscreen, shelter, hats and suitable clothing.

Make sure that staff supervise children when around water, heights, steps, fences, animals or small objects.

Encourage parents to dress their child in clothing and footwear that is suitable for being active.

Make sure children drink plenty of water when playing outside, particularly in hot weather.
Join in

Encourage staff to interact with children and support them in outdoor play. Make sure that play is still led by children.

Taking ‘chances’ in outdoor play

Although outdoor play may appear risky, children need opportunities to play freely and explore outdoor play spaces. Allowing children to get to the next level of exploration helps them to test themselves and manage new tasks. As with ‘rough and tumble’ play, playing outside is important for the development of both girls and boys. What some adults may see as consequences of ‘risky’ play could actually be side effects of fun play experiences, such as:
being messy and loud

getting grubby

getting small grazes, bumps and bruises

dealing with heights, different surfaces and new play areas and items.

Parents should be encouraged to allow their children to participate in risky play, and be educated to understand that the benefits may outweigh the risks.

Preventing risky play can mean children may miss out on important benefits, and can lead to:

low physical and mental health

poor motor skills and imagination

lack of independence and social skills

poor problem-solving skills and lessened ability to take on challenges

a poor sense of self-belief.

Active play and children with disabilities

Children of all abilities benefit from experiencing physical activity and play. Engaging with parents is particularly important when working with children with disabilities. It is crucial to find out from parents the details of their child’s disability, and how it affects everyday functions and abilities. It is also important to discuss the child’s interests, dislikes and capabilities as well as what the parents’ goals are for their child. Ask whether it is possible to contact the child’s health professional for more information. Staff can help by being patient and generous in spending time with children with disabilities.

Considering children from all cultures

Australia is home to people from over 200 countries, providing children with many opportunities to learn about all cultures. Different cultures have varying sensitivities that need to be respected.
Being aware of different cultures and customs includes:
asking parents or community leaders to share their culture, including traditional toys, costumes or dances

incorporating any traditions and languages into games if possible

working with parents to ensure the setting is inclusive and respectful of their cultures, keeping in mind issues such as body contact or dress.

Safety recommendations

Each state and territory has its own guidelines and recommendations for making indoor and outdoor play spaces safer and in line with Australian standards.
Most of these guidelines consider:
equipment height and fall zones

play surfaces

handrails, guardrails and barriers

safety on swings

any potential to be trapped or caught.
Settings need to abide by the regulations relevant for their specific location.


Staff, carers and setting

Equipment is reviewed for variety, safety and creativity.

Environment is caring and positive, involving children, families, staff and carers.

Staff and carers are trained and supported.

Staff and carers act as role models when it comes to physical activity.

A variety of resources and information is made available to families.


Unstructured play, structured play, active transport and movement in everyday physical tasks are all included in the program.

Play activities promote creativity and are developmentally appropriate.

Active play opportunities, including outdoor play, are spread throughout the day.

Program is creative.

Program allows for children to be active, regardless of their ability level.

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