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Growth and Development

Home and Away: How to Keep Toddlers Active

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Toddlers don't like to sit still. They wriggle from your grasp and want to be free. That's tiring for parents, but very good for kids. Toddlers naturally enjoy doing what is healthiest for them — being as active as possible.

Experts say that kids between 12 to 36 months old should get at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led) and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity (free play) every day. And toddlers shouldn't be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time, except when they're sleeping.

At Home

You're in the driver's seat when you're with your child. To limit sedentary time, don't let your toddler spend too much time in strollers, car seats, and high chairs. All these can keep kids from being active enough.

Limiting TV time is another good way to keep kids physically active. TV watching, including videos and DVDs, is not recommended at all for kids under age 2. Those guidelines relax for older toddlers, but kids don't need to watch any TV. Even educational programs aren't as enriching as real-life activities, such as figuring out how a toy works, playing games, or singing songs together.

If you choose to allow some TV time for your older toddler, try to follow this guideline: No more than 1 to 2 hours of quality children's programming per day. If possible, choose noncommercial TV; otherwise, your little one will see food ads pushing low-nutrient snack foods and drinks. Another option is age-appropriate videos, especially those that invite kids to play along.

Here are some tips for keeping toddlers active:

Adult-Led Activity Free Play

Younger Toddlers (12-24 months)
  • Listen to music and dance together.
  • Hold your child's hands while he or she jumps.
  • Explore the backyard or playground together.
  • Climb stairs and use climbing equipment, with supervision.
  • Use push and pull toys (popcorn popper, play broom, vacuum).
  • Imitate animals or adults at work (mowing lawn, making dinner, using tools).
  • Play with shape sorters and other floor toys.

Older Toddlers (24-36 months)
  • Play "Follow the Leader," "Ring Around the Rosy," and other easy games.
  • Play ball.
  • Take a mommy-and-me movement class for toddlers.
  • Walk like a penguin or imitate other animals.
  • Play on a playground or in the backyard, with supervision.
  • Enjoy imaginative play (playing with toy cars, making play figures talk, caring for a doll).
  • Build with blocks.
  • Draw with crayons.

Away From Home

If your toddler spends time with a caregiver or at a childcare center, it's important to investigate how much activity the kids get:

  • Do they go outside most days?
  • Is there a schedule of activities they adhere to?
  • Do they watch videos or TV, and if so, how much and how often?

Another option is a playgroup, which is a great way to get kids together for some active time. A playgroup is also a welcome change of pace for stay-at-home parents, who benefit from the social time with other moms and dads. The parents could plan some time for structured group activities, such as playing a game, and let the kids do their own thing for some of the time. Meeting at a playground or large, indoor space is ideal.

If you've ever seen a group of toddlers playing, you may have noticed that they don't seem to be interacting as much as older kids do. Still, be assured they enjoy this time together. Eventually, they will start playing in more cooperative ways.

Provide a Safe Environment

Wherever a toddler is being active, the play area must be safe. At home, use gates and other safety equipment to make at least one room in the house safe enough for a toddler to explore. Away from home, look for childcare facilities and playgrounds that have newer, age-appropriate equipment that's not too big or challenging for your toddler. Also, ask about whether kids are separated by age — a practice that helps prevent injuries.

But no matter how "safe" the environment, there's no substitute for supervision. Many toddlers seem to subscribe to the "no fear" philosophy and may climb to the top of the monkey bars without reservation.

Close supervision is important because even though toddlers show improving skills, they lack sufficient balance, coordination, and judgment. In other words, keep a close eye and be there to catch them!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011

License

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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