Boosting activity levels in early childhood

Published on Tuesday, 01 May 2018
Last updated on Friday, 24 January 2020

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The largest global study to examine physical activity in children aged between two and five years old has found 66 per cent of children are not getting the nationally recommended three hours (180 minutes) of daily physical activity needed for optimal growth and development.

The PLAYCE study, led by The University of Western Australia (UWA) tracked the physical activity of 1600 children from more than 100 Perth early childhood education and care services over the past two years. The researchers attached activity-monitoring belts to the children and tracked their activity throughout the day over the course of a week.

"It is concerning that so many young children are falling short of meeting national physical activity guidelines," said Dr Christian.

"Physical activity is not only important for a child's physical development and fitness, it is important for their brain development and mental health and helps them to develop socially and emotionally.

"It is about having fun – moving and playing every day. This includes fast-paced activities like riding bikes, dancing and playing hide and seek, as well as slower paced activities such as making and playing in cubby houses, dress ups and water play."

Associate Professor Christian said the study also found only 16 per cent of early childhood education and care services had a written physical activity policy in place.

In general, larger centres had bigger outdoor play areas and more free running space for children to be physically active.

Environmental factors also contributed, with most centres having a wide range of outdoor play equipment but little indoor play equipment for active play. Indoor areas are important for play, especially on days of bad weather. More natural features in centre outdoor areas such as trees, shrubs and edible gardens are also important for active play.

Dr Christian said growing numbers of children now spend time in care and early childhood education and care services played an important role in supporting the physical development and health of children. The team are currently working with the early childhood education and care sector to trial professional development programs that will create more physical activity opportunities for children attending care.

"However it's important to understand that we all play a role in children’s health and physical development. It's important for parents, educators, early childhood education and care providers and researchers to work together to ensure we provide our young people with the best possible start to life."

Here are 10 easy ideas for boosting activity levels:

Get busy with imitation and action games

Encourage lots of physical activity through playing games such as What's the Time Mr Wolf, Simon Says and Follow my Leader. Drama-based teaching ideas can also be fun, ask the children to imitate certain animals (everyone act like a rabbit), objects (pretend you a tree in a storm) or activities (show me how you mow the lawn).

Treasure hunts

Set up a scavenger hunt, look for mini beasts, search for cicada shells, do a snail count in the centre vege patch. Children love being set a task and any kind of activity which combines movement, searching and collecting is bound to be a hit. Modified treasure hunts can also be conducted inside.

Make the most of music and dance

It's impossible not to move when a great tune is playing. Keep a Spotify playlist of high beats per minute music playing in the background to encourage incidental movement. Turn up the volume for games of musical chairs/statues and for impromptu dance competitions. Action songs such as the Hokey Pokey, the Macarena, heads, shoulders knees and toes and limbo are also fun.

Go crazy for wheels

Children and wheels are a match made in heaven, if you have the space for a track be sure to invest in scooters, trikes, balance bikes and wagons. Most children will play in and with wheeled vehicles for extended periods of time and it's a very effective way to boost activity levels via unstructured play.


Nothing is as irresistible as popping a glistening round bubble and children of all ages enjoy this most satisfying of activities. Invest in a good quality bubble machine, set it up over grass (to avoid slips) and leave the children to pop bubbles to their heart's content. Bubbles are cost effective, timeless, easy and mess-free…what's not to love?

Throw, catch and aim games

Balls are great for throwing, but other things work well too: try wafting scarves in the air, flipping bottles full of sand, bowling at targets and into buckets.

Go old skool – hopscotch, elastics, skipping

Old-fashioned games are great for boosting activity levels. Consider painting a permanent hopscotch court in your centre to make it easier for children to practice their skills. Elastics and skipping games can be scaled up and down according to the age and physical ability of the children playing.

Build an obstacle course

Use a range of resources to build an ever-changing obstacle course; try tunnels, hoops, big boxes, ladders, climbing frames, buckets. Make sure you set it up with a fair amount of distance between obstacles so more than one child can be on the course at a time.

Go parachuting

If you haven't got a parachute, then get one now! Children love lining up around a gorgeous brightly coloured parachute to participate in activities. Fill the centre of the chute with balls and play toss, go under the sea, try lifting and wafting the chute. If you haven't played with your parachute in awhile it might be time to dust it off, check Google for some quick inspiration and watch the magic happen!


Many children love a bit of friendly competition and races are a great way to boost participation numbers. Don't limit yourself to running races, try cart wheel races, roly-poly races, egg and spoon, sack races, balancing something on your head races, skipping and hopping races, relay races, wheelbarrow races and ball dribbling races. All you need is a start line a finish line and someone to say, "on your marks…get set…GO!"

Learn more

Child's Play study, a report from the 'Supportive childcare environments for physical activity in the early years' PLAYCE has been published here.

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