How to get active with your kids when you’re time poor

Active play is an essential part of childhood development. However, less than 1 in 5 school-aged children are meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes moderate to vigorous exercise each day. This has led to 1 in 4 (25%) children and adolescents being overweight and obese. While many factors contribute to being overweight, sedentary behaviour and excessive screen time both play a role. So how do we encourage kids to prioritise moving their bodies? And how do we, as adults, lead by example when we feel strapped for time?

Physical activity is vital for development

Physical activity is an important part of childhood development, helping to improve fitness, maintain a healthy weight, strengthen muscles and bones, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases later in life. Regular physical activity has also been found to improve a child’s confidence, improve their concentration and classroom engagement[1], and develop better coping skills to manage stress and regulate their emotions.

The importance of energetic play

Physical activity for children is about having time and space to be active, along with opportunities to try different activities. Young children in particular need lots of opportunities for short bursts of energetic play throughout the day.

Energetic play involves activities that get them huffing and puffing, like running, jumping, climbing, skipping, kicking, crawling, and hopping! Energic play in early childhood lays the foundation for healthy habits later on, once they reach school age.

A boy and girl in pre-school hop into hoops on the ground


How much physical activity should children be getting?

According to the Australian Government’s Physical activity and exercise guidelines, children should be striving for the following:

AgeAmount of physical activity required
Babies (infants) under 1 year oldNeed to be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, especially through supervised interactive floor-based play (including crawling). More is better! For infants not yet mobile, include at least 30 minutes of tummy time (with reaching, grasping, pushing, and pulling), spread throughout the day.
Toddlers (1-2 years)At least 180 minutes (3 hours) each day in a variety of physical activities, including energetic play, spread throughout the day. More is better!
Pre-schoolers (3-5 years)At least 180 minutes (3 hours) each day in a variety of physical activities, of which at least 60 minutes is energetic play, spread throughout the day. More is better!
School-aged kids (5-17 years)At least 60 minutes each day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, involving mainly aerobic activities, along with several hours of light activities.

Modelling physical activity

Healthy habits start young and often stay with us into later life.

For a child, the first and most important teachers are their parents and care givers. It’s therefore important to demonstrate that physical activity is a priority to you! When your child sees you take part in regular physical activity, they are more likely to view it as a normal part of their own lives. 

An estimated 75% of Australian adults are not meeting the physical activity guidelines, so making time to move as a family will benefit everyone.

A young boy and girl go  bike riding with their dad on a gravel road


Getting active with your kids

Physical activity doesn’t have to be structured or take time to plan. Making small tweaks to your routine and spending an additional 10-15 minutes each day moving together, can make a big difference. Your kids will also love the quality 1-on-1 time they get to spend with you!

5 simple ways to get active as a family

You don’t have to venture far from home (or even outside the house) to incorporate more physical activity into family life. Here are 5 simple ideas to get you started:

1. Visit your local playground

Queensland has lots of fun and free playgrounds for children to practice their climbing, crawling, sliding, swinging, spinning, jumping, balancing, and running. Do your best to get involved at the playground. Whether that’s climbing up the equipment with them, swinging beside them, or offering words of encouragement as they show off their newfound skills.

2. Scoot, skate, ride or walk

Consider when you might be able to leave the car at home and opt for a greener mode of transportation. Whether it’s heading to the local park, corner store, or a nearby coffee shop, make it a fun excuse for physical activity.   

3. Play with balloons, bubbles or balls

When you’re short on time or energy, here’s an idea for inside the home. Blow up a balloon and bounce it around the living room. Try not to let it touch the ground! You can up the ante by adding a second or third balloon into the mix. The kids will absolutely love it! The same can be done with bubbles – pop them all before they reach the ground! Or go outside with an inflatable beachball and do the same.

Young girl plays with balloon by throwing it up into the air in her living room


4. Have a dance party

Are the kids going crazy indoors? Time to channel that energy into something positive! Throw on some upbeat music and have a dance party together. Show off your whackiest dance moves or develop a dance routine together. You’ll not only get your heart rate up but feel the mood boosting benefits of physical activity.

Mother and daughter dance in the living room laughing together


5. Play games together

Teach your kids some of your favourite games from your own childhood. It might be Duck, Duck, Goose, Hide & Seek, What’s the Time Mr. Wolf? or 1, 2, 3 Home! Other ways to get moving might include building an obstacle course together, having a game of backyard cricket, or handball on the driveway or against a wall.

Plan family outings around physical activity

When you do have a bit more time to spare, try and create some special family outings centred around being active, such as bushwalking, a scavenger hunt, swimming, or bike riding.

Embrace screen time in a healthy way

Cutting out screen time entirely may not be a realistic goal for most kids, but it is possible to channel that screen time in healthy ways.

Television is a form of screen time that has worried parents for more than half a century. However, research suggests that if the program is educational, or if the child is watching with a parent, it can benefit their literacy. This is because it gives parents an opportunity to talk about things in the show (“I think Bluey is feeling disappointed”) or ask questions (“what is Bingo drawing?”), which develops language skills.

While it’s still important to monitor the amount of screen time your child has, try and mix it up by watching recreational programs with educational ones, and spend some time with your child engaging in the program together.

Free apps for physical activity

There are plenty of free apps that can be accessed on a tablet or smartphone that encourage physical activity and forming healthy habits.

Podsquad is a free play-based app for Queensland families designed by childhood health specialists and co-designed with children aged 5-12. The app helps kids learn about eating better, moving their bodies more, and the importance of sleep through games, stories, puzzles, and quests, while earning rewards along the way.


GenMove is another free app designed to help kids increase physical activity and improve health and wellbeing. Designed in collaboration with leading sports scientists, the app features games built around popular sports such as football and involves actions such as jumping, reaching, and kicking to build confidence and enjoyment of moving.

Ultimately, the most important factor for encouraging children to be active is good role modelling. Being present, spending quality time moving together, and creating an encouraging environment will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy choices.

Feeling motivated? Check out this article for more fun ideas to get your family moving.


Sources

[1] Asia-Pacific Society for Physical Activity. Reboot! Reimagining Physically Active Lives: 2022 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People. https://aspactivity.org/resources/ahka-report-cards/ 2022; p. 40.

Acknowledgement

Content developed by Health and Wellbeing Queensland’s team of expert nutritionists, dieticians, and exercise physiologists.