For decades, early childhood educators have created specialized learning areas within their programs to enhance the cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children. This is a wonderful accomplishment. Unfortunately, very few programs have added learning centers which focus on a child’s physical development. The reasons for this are varied and include time, space, and money constraints; and even the misperception that teachers need to be fitness professionals before they can bring physical fitness activities into the classroom. The truth is that all teachers can incorporate a fitness learning center into their program. Here’s how you can begin.
A Few Basics: What Fitness Is and Is Not
Every class has some children who are very active and some who are not. Just because a child is active and energetic, however, does not mean that he or she is physically fit. While such an active child may have better body composition (i.e. lean body weight) than an inactive child, he or she may still be weak in three other key measures of a child’s fitness level:
- Cardiovascular endurance (e.g. jumping with music or running in place for more than eight minutes at a time);
- Flexibility (e.g. touching fingertips to toes while legs are straight); and
- Muscular strength (e.g. walking on hands like a sea lion as legs drag behind on the floor)
The Obvious and Not So Obvious Benefits of Fitness
While the obvious benefits of fitness are improved strength, endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular capacity, the less obvious benefits are just as important. These include:
1. Heightened body awareness and healthy self-image,
2. Improved listening and social skills,
3. The ability to use movement as a means of creative expression, and
4. The early development of life-long fitness habits.
Follow-the-Leader is a perfect example of a game that helps develop all of these skills. Starting off as leader (but later selecting a child), the teacher might lead the class on a pretend lion hunt. Children listen carefully to each word as they crawl through big grass, climb up mountains, row their boats around each other, jump over mud puddles, etc. They can express their own creativity by offering suggestions for additional feats for the group to follow. With each quick change of movement, the child develops a greater sense of body control and confidence.
Incorporating Fitness into Free and Structured Play
Fitness activities can be incorporated into both your free play and structured play programs. In free play, simply allow the children to choose or make up activities using their bodies and the equipment you provide (see sidebar at left to learn more about equipment choices). Besides physical benefits, this method allows children to participate without the pressure to perform; the children set their own goals and determine their own activities. This approach encourages shy children to try new things without the pressure of peers while benefiting the active learner who has an innate need to learn by doing. To make the most of the space and keep children interested, alternate the equipment you use from day to day.
In structured play or circle time, you guide the children in the activity you wish them to follow. Your creativity, enthusiasm, and ability to understand your children are keys to success. To help you choose the right activities and music follow these guidelines:
- Think like a child. Then move like one.
- What is the age of your children? Which of their skills are in need of further development?
- Make the activities fun. If it’s fun for you, then it’s probably fun for them.
- Use themes that tie into the weekly or monthly activities and the current curriculum.
In free-play, classical music by Mozart and Beethoven works well. In circle time, use music that is upbeat with easy-to-follow lyrics. A great starting place is Greg & Steve Present: Kids In Motion—Songs for Creative Movement, produced by Youngheart Music/Creative Teaching Press (800-287-8879). Another example is “Wee Sing Games, Games, Games” by Pamela Conn Beall and Susan Hagen Nipp and published by Price Stern Sloan, Inc., New York, NY.
Suggested Games for Free Play (Ages 2 1/2-6)
In free play activities, the teacher provides the equipment, but leaves children free to create their own games. Here are some examples of what you can do with simple, low-cost duck-tape and felt.
- Hop-Scotch: Use your duck tape to easily create hopscotch lines on the carpet.
- Balance Beam: Place a big strip of duck tape on the carpet for children to follow. Create lines, zigzags, shapes, letters, or numbers.
- Long-jump: Just mark the starting line with duck tape and let the children jump as far as they can. They’ll do this simple activity again and again.
- Cut-outs: Cut pieces of felt into different shapes that are big enough for children to stand or sit on. Turn on the music and let children play games created from their own imaginations.
Suggested Games for Structured Play (Ages 2 1/2–6)
In structured play, the teacher sets the example or leads the activity. Use the following suggestions during your next group activity.
- Tie your games to a familiar book, song, or poem. For example, if The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was read during story time, ask the children to mimic the stages of a caterpillar’s growth with their bodies.
- The song “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” is great for children “act” out physically by crawling like spiders.
- Of all the stories, children seem to enjoy acting out the story of The Three Little Pigs. Lead your kids through each part of the story by having them use their bodies to act out each scene—building the houses, running from the wolf, blowing the houses down.
Other Fun Fitness Games
- Body Parts Game. First, place one felt square in front of each child on the floor. Then announce a body part for the children to place on their felt sheet (knee, elbow, nose, etc.) This game enhances body awareness.
- The Penguin Game. Children need one sponge ball each. The teacher asks children to place the sponge ball between their legs and move like a penguin around the room.
There will be days when you’re tired and don’t feel motivated, but once you start the class, hear the music, and start moving with the children you will see how much fun the children are having that you will begin to have fun, too. Have an open mind and allow yourself to enjoy the class as though YOU were the child.
Anna Gammal is a children’s fitness specialist, gymnastics instructor, AFAA certified aerobics instructor, and certified preschool teacher. She is also the creator of The Magic of Motion Preschool Fitness Classes and Teacher Workshops. Anna resides in Hopkinton, MA and can be reached by phone at 508-497-0782 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bringing Fitness Into the Daily Program: What You Need to Get Started
· Floor space—8’ x 8’ or more
· Gym mat
· Portable balance beam
· Mini-trampoline (with a bar on which to hold)
· Duct tape
· Tennis balls (used balls are fine)
· Tape/CD player
· Bean bags
· Felt pieces of different shapes and colors
· Felt sheets approximately 8” x 11”