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Encourage your child to be active indoors and out all year long

Encourage your child to be active indoors and out all year long
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Playing around

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2011

One of my duties as a co-ordinator with Winnipeg in motion is to respond to calls on our information line from Winnipeggers looking for ways to add physical activity to their day.

Recently, I received a call from a parent looking for physical activity programs for her two-year-old daughter.

She was frustrated at the lack of structured physical activity programs available in her area of the city for infants and toddlers. Many programs focus on pre-school age children - three- and fouryear olds - or school age children. The few programs that she did find came with a hefty price tag due to the need for more adult supervision for the under-two age group.

This made me stop and think about how times have changed. When I was young, there was more emphasis on play rather than structured programs. Kids just went outside and played. I remember playing in the front yard, building a snow pile to slide down, or venturing to local parks, which were aptly named "tot lots." This unstructured playtime was a chance to use my imagination, discover nature and play until I was ready for lunch and an afternoon nap. The first structured program I remember being a part of was swimming, which I started once I was in school.

Today, we have moved away from appreciating the value of active play and have geared our preferences to structured programs, even for infants and toddlers.

So, what is the difference between structured and unstructured physical activity, and is one more important than the other?

Structured play includes programs at a local community centre, or an activity where a parent or another adult leads the activity. Unstructured play allows children to play and discover on their own, under your supervision.

Although there are overall benefits to being physically active at every age, structured and unstructured opportunities offer many pros and cons for both children and their parents.

One of the biggest benefits for parents is that a structured program can introduce your child to activity and skills that you don't currently have, thus expanding opportunities your child would not be exposed to normally. The downside is that often the time, location and cost of structured programs serve as a barrier to participation for families. Children younger than two years of age often require naps, and schedules become unpredictable, making it tough to attend programs regularly. This points to the biggest benefit of unstructured play: it can be done anywhere, at any time, making it easier to fit into your day. It also gets children to explore, experiment and problem-solve, which are valuable skills to have as they get older.

So, how much physical activity does an infant, toddler or preschooler need to grow into a healthy, active adult?

The Public Health Agency of Canada recently revamped the physical activity guidelines for Canadians, but those guidelines currently start at the age of five. The absence of guidelines for children under the age of five does not mean that physical activity is not important. We know that lifestyle patterns set before the age of six can predict overall health and obesity later in life. It is globally accepted that children one to five years of age should get between 90 minutes and two hours of physical activity, through both structured and unstructured play, every day.

How can you translate this into action? Encourage your child to play and explore - both indoors and outdoors - in all seasons. Take your child outside, explore the parks, playgrounds and trails in your neighbourhood. Provide them with opportunities to practise the fundamental movement skills of running, jumping, throwing and balancing. Practise tossing rolled-up socks or small, soft balls into a laundry basket. Jump over cracks in the sidewalks. Hop on one foot and balance on curbs.

It is also important to limit sedentary activities. The Canadian Pediatric Association recommends that children under the age of two spend no time watching TV, while screen time for those over the age of two should be limited to a maximum of two hours. For children of all ages, avoid extended periods of time spent in strollers and car seats. Most of all, pass along the value of physical activity by acting as a role model for your kids. Structured or unstructured, be active together and just have fun!

Kristine Hayward is a co-ordinator with Winnipeg in motion.

Wave: November / December 2011

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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