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Keeping toddlers active

With childhood obesity on the rise, it's never too early to start thinking about ways to keep your child healthy and trim! Have a question for Ann? Ask it here!

More Mom's the Word by Ann Douglas Your question:
I am greatly alarmed by the latest statistics about childhood obesity. What can I do to help to encourage my toddler to lead an active lifestyle right from day one?

Ann Douglas answers:
You're wise to try to make active living a part of your child's life from a very early age. Human beings are, after all, creatures of habit: soon that daily walk around the block will seem as natural to him as brushing his teeth and listening to bedtime stories. Here are some fun ways to get your toddler hooked on being physically active:

  • Encourage activities and games that give your toddler the chance to work on his balance and coordination skills, e.g., stooping and retrieving toys from the floor while maintaining a standing position; walking while pulling a toy; kicking a ball or rolling it back and forth; and throwing a ball or a beanbag.
  • Flip on some of your favorite tunes and dance with your toddler. You'll both get a terrific workout and have a lot of fun at the same time.
  • Place a child-sized climbing gym in your living room or dining room so that it'll be possible for your toddler to fit in some physical activity on even the coldest or rainiest of days.
  • Play "Jack in the box." Show your toddler how to curl up into a tiny little ball and then spring up like a jack in the box. Not only will he have fun yelling "pop" and trying to surprise you; he'll also be strengthening his legs, improving his balance, and increasing his spatial awareness.
  • Make an indoor obstacle course using pillows, cushions, cardboard boxes, tables, chairs, and other common household objects. Then, on the next sunny day, put together an outdoor obstacle course instead.
  • Teach your toddler how to play "over and under": crawl over couches and under tables. Or make a bridge with your body and have him crawl under your body or through your legs.
  • Play "the zoo game." Pretend to be animals by imitating their movements: be a snake that's slithering across the grass, a kangaroo that loves to hop, or a bird that's flying around the backyard.
  • Attach a large plastic beach ball to an elastic string and hang it from a doorframe. Your toddler will enjoy batting this "tetherball" around, and since the ball is so lightweight you won't have to worry about it doing any damage.
  • Have a family relay race. Instead of passing a baton from person to person, pass along a teddy bear or other favorite toy. (If you're in a goofy mood, you could even rename the event the teddy bear race.)
  • Make an indoor hopscotch court by lining up hula hoops on the ground or sticking masking tape to your family room carpet. (When the weather gets nice, you can grab a box of sidewalk chalk and take the hopscotch fun out-of-doors.) Toddlers aren't yet able to manage a one-legged hop, but they'll have fun jumping from square to square with two feet.
  • Organize a neighborhood scooter-and-tricycle rodeo so that the preschool set can have fun riding around together while practicing their "cycling" skills. Of course, you'll want to insist that each rodeo contestant is properly equipped with the necessary safety equipment: it's never too early to get your toddler into the helmet habit.
  • Play a game of hockey using pool noodles and a beach ball. You can turn an oversized cardboard box on its side and use that as your goal.
  • Make a bean bag toss game or set up a pint-sized basketball hoop.
  • Play "kick the can." It'll give your toddler a bit of kicking practice, and he'll get the satisfaction of listening to the deliciously loud noise a tin can makes as it bounces along the sidewalk.
  • Teach your toddler how to play follow the leader. (Hey, your toddler is already naturally inclined to want to follow you around and imitate your every movement, so why not try to take advantage of the situation?)
  • Show your toddler how to do a log roll by sticking his arms above his head and rolling along the grass. (Remember how much fun you had doing this when you were a kid?)
  • Play a game of "Simon Says." Your toddler will have fun running and stopping, and will also get a chance to work on his listening skills.
  • Forget fingerpainting; try foot painting instead! Put a large sheet of mural paper on the sidewalk. Pour nontoxic paint into a large shallow tray (an old Styrofoam tray or pie plate works well). Then have your toddler dance across the page. He'll get some exercise and will end up with a colorful mural to hang on his bedroom wall.
  • "Shadow dance" outside on a sunny day. Make sure that the sun is behind you and your toddler and then watch how your shadow dances across the grass as you dance. If you're worried that the neighbors will think you've lost it, try doing this particular fitness activity in the backyard instead. Or better yet, invite the neighbors over for some shadow dancing, too.
  • Show your toddler how to make "angels" in the snow by lying on his back and swishing his arms up and down and his feet from side to side. The motions involved in making a snow angel help to promote good coordination,-and provide excellent training for jumping jacks!
  • Remind yourself that toddlers thrive on unstructured play-running, swimming, climbing, playing in the sandbox, and splashing around in the wading pool-so be sure to provide opportunities for this type of spur-of-the-moment fun, too.

Of course, encouraging physical activity is a moot point for some parents. Some toddlers spend their lives in perpetual motion. If only you could harvest a little of that energy for yourself!

One final thought on toddlers and physical activity: there's a world of difference between telling kids about the benefits of being physically active and showing them that fitness is a priority in your own life. If you're not physically active yourself, your words are likely to lose their impact. Bottom line? You have to be prepared to walk the walk -- literally.

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