The first thing that springs to most people’s minds when discussing the importance of active play for pre-schoolers is “strength”. The more you run the faster you get; the more you swing, the harder you hit.

This is true, of course – just ask Usain Bolt or Rory McIlroy – but the benefits of high-energy activities for children, especially pre-schoolers, go far beyond the physical.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen both childhood and adult obesity skyrocketing around the world as physical activity takes the backseat to technology. And it’s not just play – automation and connectivity makes even basic everyday activities like cooking faster and easier. Our brains and bodies work differently than they did before.

Today, over 39% of adults and 41 million children under 5 are either overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organisation. The epidemic, as it’s rightly known, since it’s more than doubled since 1980, is especially concentrated in wealthy countries. Take Britain, for example: Public Health England found that a third of 10-11 year olds and over 20% of 4-5 year olds are either overweight or obese.

So how did we get here?

It’s not technology’s fault. It’s the ways we choose to use it. We drive when we could walk, we spend way too much time glued to those little screens we all love so much, and we eat foods that, while convenient, don’t provide the nutrition we need to keep our bodies healthy. This is particularly distressing for young children whose bodies are undergoing critical stages of development and growth that cannot be repeated, changed, or undone.

As adults, we make those decisions freely (if not always wisely). But children don’t have that power; they eat what’s provided and choose from the activities available to them. It seems to be so much simpler to choose the sedentary fast-food options they crave – hey, I’m tired after a long day at the office – but that’s precisely how childhood obesity began spiralling out of control.

Kids learn from us and carry those lessons forward forever.

We need to start teaching – and learning – better lessons.

Can you believe we actually have official government guidelines for minimum physical activity? I think that’s crazy, but PHE recommends 180 minutes per day for pre-schoolers and about 2½ hours per week for adults. Totally unheard of back in our day – our parents could hardly get us to come inside for dinner, let alone to sit down in front of the TV all day.

Even on rainy days – of which I assure you, we have plenty here in the UK – Our friends would come over and say, “Let’s play one of your games!” See, we were Those Kids: always more into exploring, learning, discovering, inventing, and imagining than whatever the latest pop star was up to, or getting the high score in the videogame of the week.

Exploration is essential

Active play for pre-schoolers should focus on exploration and discovery. Most kids aren’t going to find doing chin-ups much fun, even for 5 minutes, but give them a climbing frame (or a tree) and they won’t be back until dinner.

That’s because they’re learning every second they’re out there, and they love it. In such unstructured active play, children develop coordination, competence, motor skills, and confidence, through overcoming unexpected challenges/circumstances while interacting with their environment and learning to communicate effectively with others. It is absolutely essential to develop these skills at an early age.

While they’re at it, of course, they’re building the muscle mass and bone density they need to support strong, healthy bodies. Think of it like a foundation: if your home’s built on crumbly gravel, the building will never be sound.

Structured play, like games of tag or sports, help children in other ways: they learn to understand and follow rules, how to work within systems and on teams, to collaborate and cooperate and develop a healthy sense of competition. Structured play also helps develop literacy and numeracy, as well as colour recognition and emotional intelligence.

All in all, explorative, active play for pre-schoolers develops well-earned self-belief:

the knowledge that “Yes, I can, and I’m getting even better.”

Now that’s a lesson we should all be teaching.

How to encourage active exploration

Kids tune into their screens and out of the world because it’s stimulating for them. And gadgets are only getting cooler. Active play needs to fulfil the same mental craving or it’ll lose out, every time. That’s why we design our games, lessons, challenges, and activities for pre-schoolers to put FUN first and incorporate technology in creative ways.

But while they certainly help today’s busy parents and teachers, you don’t need pre-made activities to get kids physically active. Kids will take care of it on their own if they’re presented with an engaging, stimulating environment.

Johnny likes to colour? Make sure he can. Maybe he’d like to paint, too! And Sarah’s a real builder, so make sure she can play with bright, interesting objects (safely, of course) to encourage that tendency and watch her constructions get bigger and better.

This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time. Just use your imagination and you’ll be amazed how quickly kids take the ball and run with it. And if they run-and-fun for more than the minimum recommended 180 minutes per day, so much the better.

I know it feels so long ago now, but remember:

  • The floor is lava.
  • The blanket or snow fort’s a magical castle. And you’re a dragon.
  • Your back yard is an uncharted jungle (hide “treasure” for brave explorers to discover!).
  • That old cardboard box is a spaceship.
  • And every walk through the woods is an opportunity for incredible new adventures

If you show them the door, they’ll dive through it happily. And remember it forever, both in health and wellbeing.

Stuck? Here’s a shortcut (to fun and inspiration)

Let’s add a little excitement to your day: try Rapid Racing Cars! – one of our all-time favourite active play games for pre-schoolers from our workshops and live family events. Kids get to make their own custom racing gear (cut, colour, and paste), design a track to race on, and – following your STOP, SLOW, and GO signals – charge to the finish line, laughing all the way.

It’s a free, instant download, and everything you need is included or already hanging around your house.

Drivers, start your engines! And please let us know how it goes for you – interacting and sharing with families and schools from all over the world is the absolute best part of what we do.