Exercise for Toddlers and Preschoolers

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens should be "physically active for at least 60 minutes per day," although they stress that it doesn't have to be 60 minutes of continuous activity.

As most parents know, along with a healthy diet, regular exercise is the best way to lose weight and prevent childhood obesity.

Small child with a soccer ball and a man standing nearby

© Crezalyn Nerona Uratsuji / Getty Images

Regular exercise has also been shown to help kids build strong self-esteem, sleep better, have more energy, decrease anxiety, and decrease the risk of depression.​​

Exercise for Kids

So if exercise is so important, that leaves many parents wondering when they should get started with their kids.

Do you need to sign your toddler up for gymnastics already?

Is your preschooler behind if he isn't in soccer or dance already?

Of course not, but it is still important that toddlers and preschoolers get some exercise.

Exercise for Toddlers

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that toddlers get at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity each day.

Those are really just minimums, though. Toddlers should actually be physically active for several hours each day and shouldn't be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time unless they are sleeping.

Exercise for Preschoolers

Preschoolers need a little more exercise—at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity each day.

Again, these are minimum recommendations and preschoolers should also be physically active for several hours each day and shouldn't be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time unless they are sleeping.

Structured Physical Activity for Kids

Parents may read these recommendations and say it sounds like a great idea that their toddlers and preschoolers be active, but what is structured physical activity, especially versus unstructured physical activity?

That's a great question because different people do seem to actually interpret the NASPE guidelines in different ways, which can lead to confusion.

It is actually pretty easy, though.

According to the NASPE guidelines, every day, kids should spend a certain time doing:

  • Structured Physical Activity: This is activity that is planned or directed by a parent or other caregiver and is geared to the child's developmental level. For example, a parent might play a parade song and have a two-year-old march around, lifting her legs and pumping her arms up and down, and following a path around the room to the beat of the song. Of course, there are plenty of other fun, light-to-vigorous physical activities that would count as structured physical activity that you can do with a toddler or preschooler and that get them clapping, stomping, jumping, walking, running, rolling, kicking, hiding, sliding, and moving in other ways.
  • Unstructured Physical Activity: In contrast, unstructured physical activities are those that your toddler or preschooler does on his own, like when he actively plays with a new toy that gets him moving around, like a ride-on car, tricycle, soccer ball or even running after a puppy.

Whether it is playing follow the leader, hopscotch, or freeze tag (structured physical activities) or rolling around in the grass, chasing bubbles, or pulling a wagon around the house (unstructured physical activities), make sure your kids are active each day.

If they are at daycare or preschool, these types of structured and unstructured physical activities should likely be a part of their daily curriculum.

Do toddlers and preschoolers really need structured physical activity?

They certainly don't need to run on a treadmill or be forced to do pushups and jumping jacks, but the type of structured physical activity talked about here is really just about playing with your kids. Active free play on their own is great, but structured physical activity is a great way to help kids understand that physical activity is important for everyone and to make sure your kids are active each day.

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  • American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Active Healthy Living: Prevention of Childhood Obesity Through Increased Physical Activity. PEDIATRICS Vol. 117 No. 5 May 2006, pp. 1834-1842.
  • Beets, et al. Compliance With National Guidelines for Physical Activity in U.S. Preschoolers: Measurement and Interpretation. Pediatrics 2011; 127:4 658-664
  • National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children From Birth to Age 5, 2nd Edition.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.