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Getting kids on the go: Being active for health

Being active is good for all of us and this is especially true for children under 5. It has been proven to support brain development, enhance bone health and muscular development as well as benefit social and cognitive skill development and emotional wellbeing. The current government guidelines recommend that children under 5 who can walk should be active for at least three hours per day and minimise the time they spend sitting to achieve these benefits. 

Most children should achieve this easily, right? Wrong! Children are energetic, they are always on the move, playing games, running around or climbing on furniture. Playing with them all day often leaves you feeling exhausted, so it will surprise you that 91% of children in England do not meet the government’s recommended levels of physical activity. Subsequently, 91% of children are missing the opportunities to positively impact their health.

On the flipside, 87% of children meet at least the expected level of physical development (EYFS profile results). The amount of activity needed for children to reach the expected levels of physical development is lower than the three hours recommended by the government. Being active contributes to physical development by helping develop the larger muscle groups. For example developing strength and control in the arms and shoulder muscles helps children to perform fine motor control in the hands, eg, to hold a pencil or write neatly.

In summary, while children can be sufficiently active to reach the expected level of physical development, they may not be active enough to achieve the extra health and social benefits which come with a more active lifestyle, for example maintaining a healthy weight, enhancing bone health and supporting brain and muscle development.

What should we be aiming for?

Aiming to get every child to achieve the UK guidelines will help children reach the expected level of physical development plus the added health and social benefits to give every child the best possible start in life.

UK physical activity guidelines:

  • Children who cannot walk should be encouraged to be active from birth through floor-based play or water-based activities. 
  • Children who can walk unaided should be active for at least three hours every day spread throughout the day.
  • All children under 5 should minimise the amount of time they spend sitting. Where possible and safe, time in pushchairs, car seats or high chairs should be limited.

To find out more about the UK physical activity guidelines, the British Heart Foundation National Centre has booklets for practitioners, which summarise the UK physical activity guidelines.

How can we achieve this?

From parents to nursery workers to childminders, parents and policy makers, we all have a role to play in getting young children active. At this age, it’s about allowing them the time and space for active play and exploring their own environment.

Activity ideas for your setting

  • Encourage children to help you with everyday tasks around the nursery such as tidying up toys, setting up meals. These tasks help develop a sense of responsibility.
  • Get outside! Whatever the weather, we know that children are twice as active when they’re outside compared to indoors. Make sure they’re ready by having weather appropriate clothing available, eg, wellies, raincoats, sunscreen or sunhats.
  • Incorporate movement into other areas of work in your nursery, eg, dance to nursery rhymes or incorporate movement into counting.
  • Play with small portable equipment, eg, building blocks as this has been proven to get children moving around the whole setting. 

Simple changes in early years settings can go a long way to top up children’s physical activity levels to help them meet the UK guidelines. It’s important to focus on fun and engaging ways which will make children want to be active for life. At this age, building children’s competency and enjoyment of activity is important to build the foundations for a lifelong love of being active. 


About the British Heart Foundation National Centre

The British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health, is well recognised across the UK for leadership in the promotion of physical activity across the lifecourse. Early years is a key area of our work in which we provide advocacy for physical activity and support practitioners with evidence-based resources and Early movers training to help improve the provision of physical activity for young children.

For more information please visit

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