Whether they're tearing through the house giggling madly or scaling a Mount Everest of sofa cushions, toddlers are an active bunch. One of a kid's main jobs in the transition between infancy and childhood is to learn the foundations of movement. When your toddler is throwing building blocks as hard as he can across the room, he's not just testing your limits. He's also practicing his motor skills. Toddlers learn by playing. And when you give them a wide variety of games and different settings in which to play, you help them to learn more.
Above and beyond the minimum of 60 minutes and up to several hours of unstructured free play toddlers require daily, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that toddlers get at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity each day [source: NASPE]. Here are some healthy ways to harness your toddler's boundless energy.
From the moment they wake up until the time they drop off to sleep, toddlers are developing intellectually at an amazing rate. Here are some fun things you can do to boost your toddler's brain power:
- Dress Up: Adorn your daughter with a top hat and baton so she can "lead the band" while you both march around the living room. Comb through thrift stores for gently-used Halloween costumes, fancy hats, boas and ties for a low-cost way to build a stockpile of dress-up supplies. Keep in mind that a toddler's attention span is very limited. He or she may like the silly hat more than the pretend game, but dress-up is a great way to stimulate creativity.
- It's A Bug's Life: Head outside and hunt for bugs. She'll learn the names and characteristics of all kinds of creatures, from ants to worms, and squatting and standing will help her practice balance.
- Head and Stomach, Knees and Toes: Ask your son to point to his head, pat his ears, rub his tummy and touch his toes. This time-honored game not only teaches your toddler to recognize and identify parts of his body, it also helps him learn new action verbs like rub, touch, pat and point that he can use in many other games.
Have a Ball
Since the wheel was invented, humans have been steadily improving upon things that roll. Today, toddlers and their parents can enjoy playing with balls in all sizes and shapes -- from simple soccer balls to fancy spheres that light up and make noise when they move. Ball games can help teach everything from impulse control to motor skills [source: Zerotothree]. Here are a couple ball activities you can try:
- Kick Ball: Set up simple targets (a sofa cushion, a stick or a pile of leaves) and take turns with your toddler kicking a ball toward the goal. The kicking will develop her motor skills and balance; taking turns will help her develop impulse control [source: Zerotothree]. This game works inside as well as outside.
- Track Ball: Use a roll of wide masking tape to mark off a simple "track." Encourage your toddler to try to kick or roll a ball along the track. Extend this game by setting up two or three stopping points along the way. When the ball reaches a station, perform a simple exercise like jumping, turning around or touching toes.
Swim like the Fishes
Most toddlers love the water, whether it's bath time, running through a sprinkler or playing in the pool. While swim aficionados maintain that the earlier a child learns to swim, the safer that child will be in the water, parents often worry that pools bring a risk of accidental drowning, sunburn and chemical exposure. While pools do pose risks, with proper safety precautions, swimming can be a healthy and enjoyable activity for the whole family, including your toddler.
Use adequate sunblock or visit an indoor pool to reduce the risk of sunburn. The chlorine used in pools actually kills off disease-causing bacteria, and when applied within proper guidelines by safe, qualified pool operators, it doesn't put people at risk.
A great way to introduce your toddler to swimming is by enrolling him or her in a qualified swim program. A good program will offer a clean, safe environment, warm water and experienced, trained teachers [source: WABC]. Since parents are usually required to join their child in the water for lessons, both of you will benefit from the training. Soon your toddler may be a stronger swimmer than you are!
Dance, Dance Fever
From "Hokey Pokey" to "Ring Around the Rosie," dance is a familiar activity to most anyone with young children. Even if you have two left feet, your toddler's glee at bouncing, dancing, clapping and marching will soon have you rocking to the beat as well.
Not only is dancing fun, it's also the perfect way to practice all kinds of motor skills. Put on some music and practice marching, skipping, clapping and hopping around a sofa or ottoman. Freezing games, where you and your toddler wiggle and move while the music is playing, then freeze on the spot when the music is turned off, can help teach your toddler how to follow directions. Songs like ABC Song and Hap Palmer's "The Number March" are also the perfect tools for helping your toddler to learn his letters and numbers.
Television is generally not recommended for young children because it's been linked with attention disorders [source: Christakis]. But there are many excellent movement-oriented DVDs like "The Wiggles: You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" that may provide an exception to the rule, especially if parents get on their feet and dance with their kids.
The healthiest activity for toddlers requires no props, no instruction and no special venue. It simply requires that you and your toddler get moving. Young children aren't meant to be sedentary. They need to practice balance and a variety of basic movements to develop the motor skills that form the building blocks for the more complex movements they'll perform in later life [source: Strickler].
Something as simple as ditching the stroller and having your toddler accompany you on a walk around the block will provide him or her with tons of opportunities to get moving in novel ways. He'll have to navigate curbs, watch out for trip hazards and adjust his balance to accommodate variable surfaces. Turn your daily walk into a learning game by identifying and describing familiar sites along the route. Ask him: Is the neighbor's dog with black spots snoring? Is the stop light red, green or yellow? Is the door to the bank open or closed?
To practice moving indoors, have your toddler crawl under, climb through, jump over and twist around a simple obstacle course you've made out of couch cushions, pillows and blankets. Even asking her to help you pick up toys will provide her with many different opportunities to squat, stand, walk and reach. It'll also teach her to be helpful, which is a valuable lesson.
Whether you're tickling, wiggling, rolling, jumping or chasing, the sky's the limit on ways you and your toddler can get moving together.
HowStuffWorks reports on ChatterBaby, an app developed by a UCLA scientist and mother to take the guesswork out of a baby's cries.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children from Birth to Age 5." National Association for Sport and Physical Education. No publication date. (March 8, 2010).http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/standards/nationalGuidelines/ActiveStart.cfm
- "Chlorine." USA Swimming. No publication date. (March 8, 2010)http://www.usaswimming.org/USASWeb/ViewMiscArticle.aspx?TabId=643&Alias=Rainbow&>
- Christakis, Dimitri A. "Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children." Pediatrics. April, 2004. (March 8, 2010)http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/113/4/708
- "Exercise and Children." American Heart Association. March 10, 2010. (March 11, 2010)http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4596
- "Guideline for Operation of Aquatic Programs for Children Under Three Years of Age." World Aquatic Babies Congress. November 2007. (March 8, 2010)http://www.wabcswim.com/
- "Healthy Minds: Nurturing Your Child's Development." ZerotoThree.org. No publication date. (March 8, 2010)http://www.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/12-18months.pdf?docID=328http://www.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/18-24months.pdf?docID=324http://www.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/24-36months.pdf?docID=326
- Lyness, D'Arcy. "Introducing Toddlers to Music." Kid's Health. February 2009. (March 8, 2010)http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/learning/toddler_music.html
- Strickler, R. Paul M.D. "Ages and Stages." HealthyChildren.org. Feb.17,2010. (March 8, 2010)http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/fitness/pages/From-Motor-Skills-to-Sports-Skills.aspx