Is It the Early Childhood Professional's Job to Worry About Fitness?

10/17/2011 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2011

Should the physical fitness of young children be the concern of early childhood professionals? Or is it a matter for the family, and the family alone, to worry about?

Michelle Obama believes it's the former. And, given the alarming facts surrounding the childhood obesity crisis, I have to agree with her. The state of children's fitness is clearly the responsibility of all who are involved with children. And while I'm delighted that Mrs. Obama has introduced Let's Move! Child Care, I know it will take more than an initiative to make a difference. Having worked as a children's physical activity specialist for over 30 years, I'm aware that early childhood professionals believe that they don't have the know-how, and they're sure they don't have the time, to fit fitness into the curriculum.

The former is easily remedied. And they're wrong about the latter.

At the top of the Let's Move! Child Care checklist is the recommendation that children have one to two hours of physical activity throughout the day. This aligns with the recommendations of other organizations, including the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, whose guidelines state that:

  • Toddlers should accumulate at least 30 minutes a day of structured physical activity and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity.
  • Preschoolers are encouraged to accumulate at least 60 minutes a day of both structured and unstructured physical activity.
  • But early childhood professionals look at suggestions such as these and think, "Yeah, right." However, that's probably because they're considering the mind and body to be separate entities, as educators too often do. They can't fathom how they can attend to the children's bodies when there's so much they're supposed to be stuffing into their brains. What many don't realize is that, especially for young children, the brain and the body are inseparable. In fact, the three developmental domains -- cognitive, social/emotional, and physical -- are intertwined in the early years. Young children can't learn something in one domain without it impacting the others.

    Here, then, are some suggestions for fitting fitness into the early childhood program.

    • Use movement across the curriculum. Young children are experiential learners, and brain research has shown us that the functions of the body contribute to, rather than detract from, the functions of the mind. When children have opportunities to get into high, low, wide, and narrow shapes, they increase their flexibility (one of the five health-related fitness factors). They also learn about mathematics because these are quantitative concepts. If they practice these shapes with partners, the concept of cooperation, a social studies skill, is added. When children jump like rabbits and kangaroos, they develop muscular strength and endurance and, depending on how continuously they jump, cardiovascular endurance. But they're also exploring the math concepts of light/heavy, big/small, up/down, and high/low. Word comprehension is promoted as the children physically experience these terms, so emergent literacy is additionally addressed. Regardless of the content area or concept under consideration, there is a way for children to experience it physically, which benefits them because they learn best by doing -- and the doing promotes physical fitness.

  • Take brain breaks. We have research going back to the 1880s showing that individuals -- but particularly children, due to their stage of brain development -- accomplish more when they have breaks. If a break lasts at least five to ten minutes and consists of moderate-to-vigorous intensity movement, it qualifies as a fitness bout. A brain break can be any kind of physical activity that gets the blood flowing (and glucose, water, and oxygen to the brain) and provides a change of pace.
  • Use transitions to promote fitness. Several times over the course of a day, children move from one activity to another, so they may as well move in ways that are both functional and fun. Teachers and caregivers can promote flexibility by challenging children to move in a tall, straight shape or a crooked shape; to tiptoe; or to move on three body parts. They can enhance muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance by challenging the children to hop, skip, or jog lightly. As with using movement across the curriculum, the possibilities are endless, given a bit of thought.
  • These are all examples of structured physical activity. We can't forget that the children also should be engaging in unstructured activity, which involves free choice on their part, as well. Unstructured physical activity is typically best experienced outdoors, where the children can run and jump and expend energy. While time spent outdoors has traditionally been considered "break" time -- an opportunity for children to play without interference from adults and for teachers and caregivers to relax a bit -- more and more early childhood professionals are realizing the potential of the outdoors as an extension of the indoor setting, with that time viewed as yet another opportunity to enhance children's development.

    If this is to happen, teachers and caregivers must become involved in children's outdoor play. This isn't to say they must go to the extreme of preparing formal lesson plans for every outdoor session, but many activities begun indoors can be continued and extended outdoors, including movement activities. Also, during playtime, adults can and should interact naturally and informally with the children, offering guidance and suggestions to extend the children's play, and therefore their learning.

    For more ideas, I refer you to two interviews I've conducted for Body, Mind and Child: "Fitting Fitness into the Curriculum" and "Why Play Time Is Not Break Time".