Maintaining a high level of physical activity is harder than one thinks. I used to believe that simply sending children outside to play would insure that all would run around and return to the classroom "huffing and puffing" (Werner, Timms, & Almond, 1996, p. 52). In addition, I was encouraged about the importance of physical activity in the early childhood classroom when a survey of National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accredited centers and other preschools indicated that "schedule for gross motor" and "space for gross motor" were ranked high in the development of their curriculum; regularly scheduled activity time in safe and adequate spaces was important (Cryer & Phillipsen, 1997). But when I watched my children's play more closely, I noticed that some children were very active, while others never engaged in more than conversation with their friends. In fact, Sallis, Patterson, McKenzie, and Nader (1988) studied 33 four- and five-year-olds on the playground for one-half hour of free play. They found that only 11 percent of the children participated in vigorous activities such as riding tricycles or playing tag, while 60 percent participated in sedentary activities such as sitting, standing, and/or talking to others.
Importance of Physical Activity
Realizing the importance of "huffing and puffing" activities, the 1996 Surgeon General's report recommended one hour of cumulative physical activity on most days for children under the age of 18. Sadly, fewer than one in four children get 20 minutes of "huff and puff" activity every day of the week. Furthermore, fewer than one in four children reported getting at least one-half hour of any type of physical activity every single day (Harris, 1996). These reports suggest that activity time for all children must be incorporated into the daily early childhood curriculum. This activity time could be scheduled 1) as independent station work rotated at the teacher's direction; 2) as part of an integrated theme; or 3) as group time at the beginning or middle of the day.
Although there is no assurance that physically active children will become physically active adults, the health benefits of exercise apply even to children. Known benefits of activity include the reduction of blood pressure, decrease in body fat percentage, decrease in coronary heart disease and certain kinds of cancer, as well as building healthy bones, muscle, and joints while improving muscle strength and endurance (Blair & Morrow, 1997). Hendrick (1996) stated that "Children should be encouraged to play vigorously and to sustain their efforts while avoiding fatigue so that they increase the level of physical fitness while playing" (p. 97).
Here are some suggestions for activities which will raise children's heart rate, are developmentally appropriate for preschoolers, and can be done in a safe environment. Developmentally appropriate activities are those activities that accommodate a variety of skill abilities and individual differences. Playing within a safe environment means that the children play to achieve their personal bests, not to compete against others.
Some teachers may try to excuse the absence of physical activity in the curriculum by stating that they lack the proper equipment (e.g., store-bought balls and cones). However, few activities require special equipment, and the equipment that is needed can be created easily from recycled materials. Trash balls, for example, can be made by rolling pieces of newspaper into a round shape and holding them together with two pieces of masking tape. Larger balls for kicking can be made from more than one page of newspaper. By inverting plastic milk cartons and cutting off the bottom, you can create scoops. These scoops can then be used in place of purchased cones. Other examples of play equipment made from recylcled materials include flags—pieces of scrap cloth; drums—coffee cans hit with wooden spoons; and streamers—toilet paper tubes with different colors of crepe paper threaded through them.
These materials can then be used in the activities that fall within the three "huff and puff" categories discussed earlier in this article. Station activities, for example, are largely self-challenging activities children can perform independently of teacher supervision. To facilitate station play, place picture instructions around the walls of the classroom, assign children to start at different stations, and rotate at the teacher's direction. Some teachers use music to start and stop the individual station practice. Some independent station activities might include the following:
- toss and catch a trash ball 10 times before changing stations
- toss the trash ball and catch it in a scoop
- jog in place for 30 seconds, then walk in place for one minute; repeat four times
- place a piece of crepe paper the length of the child on the floor. Have the child stand at one end of the paper and try to "jump your height." A jump is a two-foot takeoff and a two-foot landing. Have the child try several times.
- kick a large trash ball against the wall between two scoops
- march in place
- hop on one foot, then the other
- run as fast as you can in place
- jump a turned rope
- run to a designated space and return
Integrative Curriculum Activities
Physical activities can also complement themes being carried out in the classroom. In this way, physical activity becomes a reasonable expression for some of the concepts taught by the teacher. Here are a few examples using animal, transportation, weather, and food themes. For an animal theme, a teacher could ask the children to describe how a particular animal moves (e.g., How does a cat move?). Solicit several answers (pounce, creep, play, rest, sleep, etc.). Then ask the children to move as if they were that animal. Praise the children for the creativity of their responses that do not include simply moving around on all fours and meowing. One could use the same method when conducting a transportation unit. The children could practice airplane take-offs, flights, and landings; pretend to be a locomotive; or tow a barge out to sea.
During a weather unit, talk with the children about the different parts of a thunderstorm. Have the children try quick, short movements moving from high to low levels for lightning, make rumbling sounds and motions for thunder, and whirl around for different wind conditions. Assign different weather roles to children, and add props such as streamers for lightning or rain and coffee can drums for thunder so that the children can act out a rainstorm. If foods are used as a unit theme, one could ask the children what happens to food when it is growing or when it is being cooked. Encourage the children to act out the growing and cooking sequence. Children could act out an egg cooking, for example, by first getting into an egg shape, slowly cracking open, oozing out into the pan, cooking (bubbling as the egg gets hotter), and finally resting after the heat is turned off (Portman, 1994).
Regularly Scheduled Activities
Activities can also be scheduled during large group time. Setting a regular time for vigorous play allows the teacher to plan sequential movement and skill experiences over multiple days. In this way, children learn the lead-up skills before putting them together in a culminating activity, a game in the loosest sense. For example, in the activity "Brickyard 400," children re-enact a car race complete with multiple color pieces of cloth (racing flags) to indicate different speeds. A green flag means go at a medium speed; a yellow flag means slow down and caution; a blue flag signals one more minute left in the race and a checkered flag indicates the end of the race. As children "run the race," encourage them to move anywhere within the boundaries rather than limit their play to a circular pattern.
Before playing this activity, the teacher should have the children work on moving at different speeds. This can be accomplished by asking the children to move a variety of body parts first at medium speeds, then more quickly. Once the children have mastered medium and fast speeds, combine the two. Follow the same pattern for slow and medium speeds. To practice, have the children move as many body parts as they know-fingers, elbows, shoulders, knees, feet, and toes-in either the sitting or standing position. Use a coffee can drum and wooden spoon to beat medium, fast, and slow. You can embellish speed practice by using animals for the different speeds. Cheetahs, for example, can represent fast speeds while elephants can represent slow movements. Finally, use the flags instead of the drum to signal speeds before trying "Brickyard 400."
A "huff and puff" fitness circuit, the parts of which could be practiced over several days before trying the entire circuit, is another way to use a regularly scheduled time for physical fitness activities. Much like the station work discussed earlier, children practice particular skills and then move on to another station after a designated time period has passed.
At one time, the neighborhood, parents, and older siblings provided many children with structured play opportunities. But as more parents work and neighborhoods vanish or become too dangerous, the task of providing vigorous activities falls on those teaching preschool-age children. Because structured play builds self-esteem, provides necessary skill development, and promotes active learning and physical wellness, teachers and providers are encouraged to provide developmentally appropriate physical activity within their daily curriculum. One "huff and puff" activity per day is enough to begin meeting the daily requirements needed to develop the whole child.
Blair, S., & Morrow, M.S. (1997). Surgeon General's report on physical fitness. Health and Fitness Journal, 1(1), 14-18.
Cryer, D., & Phillipsen, L. (1997). A close-up look at child care program strengths and weaknesses. Young Children, 52(5), 51-61.
Harris, L. (1996). Parents say: No more excuses. NASPE News, 49, 3.
Hendrick, J. (1996). The whole child. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Portman, P. (1994). Play Right. Muncie, IN: Ball State University.
Sallis, J.F., Patterson, R.L., McKenzie, T.L., & Nader, P.R. (1988). Family variables and physical activity in preschool children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 9(2), 57-61.
Werner, P., Timms, S., & Almond, L. (1996). Health stops: Practical ideas for health related exercise in preschool and primary classrooms. Young Children, 51(6), 48-55.