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Children and Fitness

Child Riding a Bike

I'm sure you recognize your child's need for planned, purposeful activity. Experts used to think that children would naturally get enough exercise on their own, and that may have been true when daily labor involved self-transport and physical labor. But today's entertainment-oriented children are not inclined toward physical exertion unless attracted to competitive sports (which don't always provide consistent or well-rounded programs of exercise).

Research that Relates

Dr. Joseph Zanga of the American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out that he sees a generation of children working as hard as they can to avoid physical fitness. Life no longer requires physical exertion or even the burning of a great number of calories. Children look forward to watching TV and eating "junk food" (high fat/low nutrition). This explains why the number of overweight children has doubled in the last twenty years.

Dr. Charles Kuntzelman of Spring Arbor College in Michigan studied seven- to twelve-year-olds and found that 98% had at least one heart disease risk factor (e.g., high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, excess body fat). Furthermore, 13% had five or more risk factors. Kuntzelman has been able to reduce these risk factors in the children enrolled in his program. His exercise prescription for children is twenty to thirty minutes of heart work, three to four times a week.

Dr. Cynthia Hasbrook, professor in human kinetics at the University of Wisconsin, points out that parents and teachers should avoid the bootcamp approach. A pushy parent hollering from the bleachers or insisting on four more pushups can turn a kid away from exercise for life.

Children should be taught skills which can be used later in life. A child who cannot play games will have a hard time staying fit. Parents often underestimate how dearly children want to play well. A study of two thousand children ages 10 to 17 found that over 50% of grade school children worried about "making a mistake" and "not playing well." The development of skills gives a boost to a child's self-image.

Any physical workout requires motor skills: running, jumping, throwing, catching, skipping, striking, swinging, and so forth. These are "the basic vocabulary of sport" according to Dr. Vern Seefeldt, director of Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University. Motor skills can be taught at a young age.

Age-Level Expectations

Even though children develop at different rates, the following guide should clarify what to expect at various age levels without pushing too hard.

Birth to Two Years

Physical contact with parents is the first step toward developing motor skills. Even when changing a child's diapers you can move his legs or arms. As children get older they enjoy being tossed in the air (carefully) and wrestled with. Take every opportunity to stimulate them physically.

Between the ages of nine months and two years, children generally move from crawling to walking and eventually to running. Moving around on his own requires a child to concentrate as hard as a tennis pro does in executing his serve. Offer guidance instead of scolding to explorers. Arrange their environment so that they can move around safely.

Ages Two to Seven

This age span is the critical skill-gathering time. Games of catch in the yard and jogs with Mom or Dad are important. Many parents assume that children are so naturally active that they develop skills on their own. This is not true. When a group of children are turned loose in a room full of equipment, they will play at first, but when the novelty wears off, they end up sitting around talking. They need to be directed into games that develop their skills and keep them active.

Ages Eight and Up

During this time, children are usually introduced to team sports. However, children get more long-term fitness benefits from individual achievement sports such as swimming, gymnastics, or track. Parents will need to encourage these sports as well as cycling, running, and hiking. These types of activities are not developed in the gym class. Children who know only how to quarterback will not grow up with a sport that is useful for life.

Most experts believe organized team sports with rules, coaches, and peer pressure should not take place until at least age ten. Most children under the age of twelve or thirteen will have a hard time handling losing. The child has to be old enough to understand that his value in the eyes of the adults close to him does not depend on the results of a game.

Games that Develop Skill

Soft Ball Tag (for running, throwing, skipping, hopping, and kicking)

The player who is designated as "It" tags runners by throwing a soft foam ball or rolled-up paper wad. When tagged, the child must do three sit-ups to get back into the game. Variation: The player who is "It" must kick the ball instead of throwing it, and the other players must skip or hop.

Snowball Fight (running, kicking, throwing)

Make a line on the floor. Kids stand on one side, parents on the other. Each team has a large supply of paper wads. Object: To clear your side of paper wads by kicking or throwing them to the other team's side.

Jump the Shot (jumping)

Children form a circle, and the parent stands in the middle holding a rope with towel or rag tied at other end. The rope is turned in a circle under the children's feet. Each child tries to jump over the rope as it moves by him.

High Water, Low Water (running, jumping coordination)

Two players hold a long rope, gradually lifting it higher. After each raise, others must run and jump across it.


Parents can adapt these games and activities or develop their own. The important thing is to promote fitness exercise. Doing so is more than mere recreation; it is a part of a child's education.


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