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Let’s talk about the importance of play and exercise for early years children. Research shows clear links between physical activity, health and wellbeing in both children and adults. As parents and practitioners, we have a big influence on the play behaviour of the keiki in our care, especially those under the age of 5. So how can we best encourage physically active play in early childhood?

One of the best ways, we believe, is in the provision of environments and equipment that support quality active learning and physical activity.

So what do we mean by physically active play?

There’s the obvious things like running and climbing often associated with outdoor play, but we would also include other types of movement, creative play, self-expression and exploring the world. Physically active play is valued at pre-school age in particular for a variety of reasons, including:
– the learning opportunities it can offer in a range of areas
– the associated health benefits and physical development
– the children’s enjoyment, overall health and wellbeing.

One of the key aspects of good physically active play is in refraining from becoming too risk averse. It’s important to understand that children need the opportunity to take risks and challenge themselves during playtime. Parents should feel confident that staff are able to manage children’s safety and follow procedures appropriately, which should help them to balance safety with challenges.

There is a variation of approaches practitioners can take to active play. Most important of these is free-flow play, where children are able to move freely between areas and activities both indoor and outdoors. This kind of play can trigger positive effects such as developing new skills, staying healthy and developing independence and autonomy.

How important is access to outdoor space?

Having opportunities to be active can be particularly important for children who don’t have a garden or outdoor space at home. In this instance, parents can take children on visits to playgrounds, parks or other green spaces, providing access to purposely designed play facilities and offering the opportunity to play ball games, run or cycle for longer distances. For children who live in inner city environments with limited or no access to outside space at home, this is particularly important.

What about the nature and extent of physical activity children engage in?

Data shows that children spend approximately half of their playtime engaged in some form of physically active play with around half of that taking place outdoors. In fact, it’s unusual for children to be outdoors without being physically active and their outdoor play is often more vigorous and longer-lasting than when indoors.

When it comes to indoor play, the physical layout of the setting can have a substantial impact on both the type of play children engage in and how active they are; for example, being able to move independently and freely through the setting (free-flow) encourages more physical activity.

Ensuring that there is a wide range of play equipment available, both inside and outside, supports physically active play in a variety of ways – although research actually shows that children spend just as much, if not more, time in active play without equipment.

What kind of influence can we have on physically active play?

It is important if not essential that children are provided with an environment where physically active play is encouraged and supported, by both practitioners and parents. Physically active play has an important role in creating learning opportunities and enabling physical development, as well as the fact, of course, that children enjoy it.

The physical environment, availability of equipment, range of activities and parent/staff support all play key roles in facilitating and encouraging physically active play. Settings should encourage free-flow play, which is most effective if children are able to move in and outdoors as they desire. Outdoor play in particular can lead to more self-directed activity.

Physically active play is influenced by various factors, namely: the layout of the setting, the ethos of the setting, encouragement from adults, opportunities for free-flow play, access to outside space and finally, the equipment and activities available. These factors affect not only the degree of physically active play children participate in, but also the quality.

The bottom line is: every child is unique and will find a different activity level that feels healthy for themselves – but whatever the level, we as parents and practitioners can always support a high quality of play.

If you need support in providing a quality play experience for your keiki, do not hesitate to give us a call.