When my daughter was one and a half, she decided she wanted to climb. Everything. She was my active child. And climb she did, until she was about ten years old. If you are like me, you probably have a lot of questions about your kid; I know I did.
She was a monkeybars champ — not just climbing, but swinging, hanging, walking on top of the structures, and jumping off. I thought all little kids were like this, until her friend’s mother told me that the friend would fall asleep in the car on the way home from our house after our weekly playdates, tuckered out from everything she and my daughter had gotten up to. My daughter didn’t nap at all after age two, ever. She loved tree-climbing, biking, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, roller skating, and martial arts. We did not do library storytimes — she had no patience for sitting and listening. It was impossible to sit down and color. We didn’t do movies — too much sitting still and boring talk.
What we did do was a lot of hiking. A lot of walks around the block. A lot of trips to the zoo. And endless rounds of “why don’t you run across the playground and back, and I’ll time you?”
My Active Child, and Yours
A year and a half later, she had a brother. And he was exactly the same. We were the Wild Bunch — the ones other parents side-eyed at the park. Are you sure she should be climbing up the outside of the tube slide like that? I’m sorry, is that your son at the top of that tree? Aren’t you worried?
I was worried, and if you’re the parent of an active child, you might be, too. You might be thinking, is my active child normal? How physically active are little kids supposed to be, anyway? What’s the correct amount of physical activity for kids? Is my child hyperactive — or just very active? Or maybe you’re looking at other people’s active kids, wondering how to get your kids more physically active.
Active Kids and Very Active Kids
How active is too active? If you’re looking at your two-year-old and wondering, is my active child actually hyperactive? chances are the behaviors that are making you tear out your hair are simply symptoms of being two. According to WebMD, most doctors won’t even suggest evaluating a child for ADHD until age four. As for the behaviors used to diagnose ADHD, most children exhibit most of them at some point or another.
Medical evaluation is a complicated process. You can’t make a diagnosis from an internet checklist or a quiz in a magazine. If you’re genuinely concerned, it’s important to speak to your pediatrician. But the truth is that our society expects kids to sit still, be quiet and stay attentive more often, for longer periods of time, at an earlier age than many of them are ready for. Kids need to be physically active, and the appropriate level of physical activity for kids is probably a lot higher than you think it is.
The Center for Parenting Education (CPE) has a tool that can help you to evaluate your child’s activity level, from “quiet” to “very active.” They also have an article with suggestions for helping active kids and very active kids to manage their behavior. The article describes activity level as one component of temperament, rather than a behavioral or medical issue. CPE notes that very active and active kids often excel at sports — or at least enjoy and benefit from them.
My active child’s nursery school teacher called me in once, concerned, that at age four, my daughter had shown no interest in the tricycles. This was because, by that point, my daughter had been riding a two-wheeler without training wheels for a year. Active and very active children also often enjoy competitive activities and career paths later in life. Many turn out to be high achievers, either academically or professionally, or both. If you look at activity level as a component of personality — to be nurtured and harnessed — instead of a problem to be solved, it can put a lot of things into perspective.
Physical Activity for Kids
Humans were made to move, and kids need to move a lot. The Centers for Disease Control recommend a minimum of 60 minutes per day of vigorous physical activity for kids. But whether you’re thinking my active child needs an outlet for his/her energy, or wondering how to get your calm child to be more physically active, it’s important to remember that children, especially small children, learn best through exploration and play. And the great thing is, that opportunities for physically active play are often as close as your neighborhood park.
Parks and Rec
Municipal parks and recreation systems can be excellent places to find fun, low-cost sports and activity programs to suit just about every temperament. For toddlers, parks often offer Parent and Me classes in dance, swimming, music, and more. Older kids can enjoy a variety of team and individual sports, exercise classes, and outdoor exploration camps. Simply going to the park is a great way to let your kids burn off energy, though if yours are anything like mine, they’ll want you to run, climb, slide, hang, tiptoe, jump and stomp right along with them. And why not? It’s fun for adults to be physically active too!
Get Out Into Nature
In his book The Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv analyzed a growing body of research showing that exposure to the natural world is essential to the physical and emotional health of both children and adults. Louv’s research found a direct link between attention disorders in children and alienation from the natural world. Finding opportunities for my active child to be outdoors was key to her happiness as a small child. Finding the same sorts of opportunities can help your active kids — and your less active kids — to burn off energy, and can be a great way to bond as a family. And the great news is, “nature” doesn’t have to be a long car ride away. It can be as close as your neighborhood park, or that stand of trees behind the supermarket.
Take A Walk for the Brain
A high energy level can be a sign of high intelligence. Moreover, physical activity helps academic performance for children at all intelligence levels. Taking regular walks with your child and simply talking — pointing out the names of things, including your children in conversations with the people you meet, asking their opinions about things — can exercise both the mind and the body, build vocabulary, and increase their knowledge of the world around them. Family walks can be excellent for helping a very active child to settle, or for encouraging a less active child to get out into the world and move. When children get older, hiking can be an enjoyable activity for the entire family.
Team sports are great for increasing physical activity for kids, but just as importantly, they can help kids to learn skills for building relationships, working together in a group, and sportsmanship. Some children prefer individual sports like martial arts, cycling, and track. These can help children to develop skills like planning and goal-setting. You might think, my active child doesn’t have the patience to learn a sport. And you might be right! But the important thing is not for your child to be the best at their sport, but to find a form of exercise that they enjoy, and may want to continue into adulthood.
Resources for Parents of Active Kids and Less Active Kids
- The Child Development Institute outlines normal stages of development for children of all ages.
- An article from The Educators’ Spin On It, about channeling toddler energy into constructive activities.
- Zero to Three offers parenting strategies for very active toddlers.
- An article from Education.com about limit-setting and behavior modification for active kids.
- Postive Parenting Connection talks about emotional development and the super high energy child.
- An article from WebMD about becoming more physically active as a family.
- Active Living Research: an article about how exercise helps academic performance.
- Kids Health discusses motivating kids of all ages to become active and stay active.
- Dr. Sears discusses strategies for encouraging sedentary kids to become more active.
When society’s expectations of children are sometimes so out of step with children’s actual developmental needs, it can be difficult to judge whether a child’s activity level is normal, or a concern. Whether you’re concerned about too much activity, or too little, it’s important to speak to your child’s pediatrician, whether for reassurance or for further discussion. In any case, finding ways for your active child — and your entire family — to get outside and get active can make everyone happier, healthier, and smarter.