A Parent Guide to
Physical Development in the Early Years

Ideas to nurture physical development at every age.
  • In the early years of their life, it’s vital we give children lots of physical activities as they learn about their bodies and build strong muscles.
  • Early years expert Ruth Swailes explains why it’s so important we focus on physical development with your little ones.
  • Running through the different ages, Ruth gives us lots of ideas to try at home with children as they develop.

For many parents, being cooped up in the house all day with limited opportunities to go outside and burn off some energy has been the greatest challenge of this crisis so far. A lot of the things we usually rely on to keep active become more difficult when we’re observing social distancing. Going out into the garden gives a bit of much-needed respite, but not everyone has this luxury.

Physical activity is vital for children’s well being, and research tells us that it also impacts on children’s learning in later life. So it’s important to make sure that staying at home doesn’t mean staying still.

We know that parents might be looking to practitioners to support them with activities and ideas if they are self-isolating. With that in mind, here are some suggestions which might help.

For children under one

Babies should be encouraged to be active wherever possible, and if they’re not yet crawling, I’d recommend you encourage tummy time for at least 30 minutes throughout the day. It’s best to do this in frequent, small bursts.

By placing toys just out of your baby’s grasp, you will encourage them to stretch and move their limbs — try getting down on the floor alongside them to encourage and support them. Tummy time helps to build the muscles babies need for crawling and sitting, and will help with building their core strength.

Encourage babies to reach and grasp toys, pull and push through play activities. Laying babies on their back allows them to kick their legs. If your baby is crawling, encourage them to do so as much as possible.

Children aged one to two

The NHS recommends that children between one and two years old should be active for at least three hours every day. But if you’ve got limited access to the outdoors, this can be very challenging. The safest social distancing option would be to get out into the garden — this gives children a space to roam and explore, no matter how small.

If you don’t have a garden, England’s COVID-19 guidance has more leeway to get out and about. We can now go outside to exercise for unlimited amounts of time, as long as we maintain social distancing — and doing so can be easier at certain times in the day. In my own experience, I’ve found that local parks can be quite busy from mid-morning onwards, but are often quieter before 10:00 AM and after 4:00 PM. Popular walking paths tend to be quieter in the middle of the day, as dog walkers often go out in the morning or early evening.

At this age your child may struggle with the idea of social distancing, so you will have to make sure that you help to maintain this for them. Finding a large, uncrowded open space always helps, as it means fewer issues in holding social distance with other people.

In normal circumstances, I would recommend young children use climbing equipment to build core and upper body strength, which are so important for gross motor development. But right now, these are off-limits, as plastic and metal components have been shown to harbour the coronavirus for several days. Luckily, there’s a corona-friendly alternative — young children usually love to climb on small walls and trees. If this is possible and you’re able to supervise and support, this is a great option.

Lifting, moving and sorting objects is another great outdoor option for these times. It’s critical for gross motor skills, and learning to orient oneself — young children don’t always know where their body is in space, and lifting heavy objects can help them learn how to manipulate objects and orient themselves. Having access to a wheelbarrow or cart can make this more engaging for the little ones — moving stones, branches and logs is a fascinating pastime for them, and they often pursue this activity for a long time. This activity supports the development of the upper body strength and shoulder control, and later in life it becomes very important for writing skills.

If you can’t get outside to move things about, ask your child to help put the shopping away. Those tins and packets are quite heavy for little arms to carry, and children love to help.

Children aged two to three

For the little ones between two and three years, the NHS suggests 180 minutes of light activity every day. This could take many forms — walking, running, hopping, jumping, climbing or simply standing. If you have a garden, providing footballs, jump ropes and chalk to make hopscotch and other games can be a good starting point. But again, not all of us have this option.

Whether you’re in your garden or making use of a local park or natural area, it always helps to give children some structure to help them stay engaged and active. Relay races, “Simon says” games, or creating your own simple obstacle courses are all ways you can support your child to be as active as possible. Simple activities such as scooting on a wagon, rolling down a hill, chasing one another about, and ball games will all develop physical strength and help you to burn off energy.

Children aged three to four

Children at this age should have at least 180 minutes of active play each day, including 60 minutes of vigorous activity, spread throughout the day. Children under the age of five should not be inactive for long periods of the day — then again, it’s a rare four-year-old who can stay still for long! As you get out and about, your child may also be able to understand the need to distance socially a little bit more, if you explain it carefully.

All the suggestions for children aged 2-3 years will still be useful and enjoyable for your 3 to 4-year-old. Plus, at this age, there are even more options. Riding a bike, playing in water, chasing games and ball games, are all good ways for this age group to get moving. You can also start to introduce more structure: Scavenger hunts, for example, introduce a competitive element into finding objects outdoors, which stimulate children’s curiosity in the world around them. You could also try races to the next tree on a favourite walk, games of tag, silly walks, skipping and jumping home instead of walking.

Inside or outside?

If it’s a rainy day, you can still keep active at home. You could play with blocks and bricks, enjoy messy play, spread out on the floor and paint and use crayons on large pieces of paper, or dance, climb, build dens, or play hide and seek. Playdough and plasticine play can also help build manual dexterity and support manipulation. All of these require good motor control, and will keep everyone entertained for hours.

But especially as summer comes around, your child will want to be as active as possible, and the recent lifting of some restrictions means that they will now be able to get out more.

This will be good for mental health and well-being as well as physical health — being outdoors has proven benefits for children’s mental and physical health, and it helps develop the physical skills they’ll use when they head back to their child care settings. Getting children outside means they’re also much more likely to be tired by bedtime, allowing parents some much-needed downtime for their own wellbeing. That’s got to be a positive for everyone!

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