Physical activities and sports for toddlers

Physical activity is important for toddlers and helps set the groundwork for lifelong healthy habits, but you may be wondering whether your toddler is ready to get started with certain types of exercise or organized sports. Read on to learn what kinds of physical activities are safe for toddlers, what the benefits of daily movement are for your little one, and what types of sports you should wait with until your child is older.

Your Toddler’s Everyday Active Play

You may have noticed that your toddler is constantly on the move from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed. Whether he’s walking, running, jumping, climbing, throwing a ball, dancing, or pulling a toy around, all of this activity supports your child’s healthy development and is a stepping stone to organized sports later on. The attention span of a toddler is short, so you’ll see your child switching activities from one minute to the next. This is totally OK. Encourage these types of physical activities as much as possible and limit screen time to one hour or less per day to make room for as much physical activity as possible. Play with your child yourself or supervise his play with his siblings or other children of a similar age. Take him to a park or playground to encourage him to get moving. Of course, it’s perfectly fine if the fun physical activities happen indoors, too. When you take your child for outings in the stroller, from time to time let her get out and walk next to you while you hold her hand. This gives her a taste of how fun it is to be physically active. Later on, as your child’s coordination improves, she’ll be able to confidently walk up and down stairs, run, start pedaling a tricycle or a bicycle with training wheels, and more.

Benefits of Physical Activity for Children

Regular physical activity for children and adolescents comes with many long-term benefits, including:

  • Improving cardiorespiratory fitness

  • Building strong bones and muscles

  • Helping with weight control

  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression

  • Reducing the risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and/or obesity.

How Much Physical Activity Does Your Toddler Need?

Experts recommend that toddlers get the following amount of physical activity and exercise on a daily basis:

  • At least 30 minutes of structured physical activity that’s led by an adult. This could be playing a game, throwing a soft ball, or even acting out a scene from a story book.

  • A minimum of 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity that’s supervised by an adult. This could make-believe play, running around the backyard, or having over a friend for a playdate.

Think of these recommendations as starting points, and know that exercise and physical activity can be sprinkled throughout the day in shorter bursts rather than as long blocks. Other than during sleep, toddlers shouldn't be inactive for more than an hour at a time.

Examples of Physical Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Toddlers and preschoolers benefit the most from unstructured but closely supervised active play, which can include

  • running

  • hopping

  • skipping

  • jumping

  • tumbling

  • playing catch

  • dancing

  • swimming (eventually your child will need lessons, but in the beginning you can focus on parent-child water play)

  • riding a tricycle and later a bicycle

  • climbing on playground equipment.

Ideas for Family-Focused Activities

Here are some specific activities to do together as a family either indoors or outdoors:

  • Imitate animals such as by waddling like a penguin or hopping like a frog

  • Play a game like “Duck, duck, goose,” “Ring around the rosy,” or “Follow the leader”

  • Jump, hop, skip, or walk backwards outside

  • Face your child, hold hands, and rock back and forth while singing “Row, row, row your boat”

  • Make a bridge using your body and let your child climb over you or crawl under you

  • Play music and dance together

  • Play kickball or T-ball outside

  • Play freeze tag or freeze dance

  • Organize a treasure hunt with items hidden throughout the house or backyard

  • Set up an obstacle course in the house made from pillows, chairs, boxes, and toys

  • Use a soft foam ball to play ball indoors or outdoors, such as catch, kickball, volleyball, basketball, bowling, or soccer.

If your kids are stuck inside the house on a rainy day, here are some more indoor activities you can try.

What Physical Activities Are Toddlers Capable Of?

Many children enjoy the opportunity to be physically active, and some show an interest in sports from a young age. However, this doesn’t mean your child will become a basketball player at 2 years old. Keep in mind that depending on your child’s age, maturity level, and capabilities, certain physical activities may be more appropriate than others. If you’re ever unsure of what’s safe or right for your little one, ask your child’s pediatrician for personalized advice. As a general guideline, the average 3-year-old toddler may be able to

  • walk and run well

  • jump in place

  • balance on one foot

  • catch and throw a ball

  • kick a ball forward

  • pedal a tricycle/bicycle.

Why Sports for Toddlers Aren't Recommended

Children between the ages of 2 and 5 are still learning the basics like throwing, catching, and taking turns. They don’t yet have the basic motor skills needed for organized sports. They’re still working on their coordination and visual skills too. Moreover, competitive sports that have a win or lose concept aren't a good choice for young children, who likely won't be able to grasp that their self-worth isn’t based on the outcome of winning or losing. Plus, understanding and following the rules of competitive sports will still be too difficult for young children. For this reason, during the toddler years, focus on supervised, unstructured active play like running around in your backyard or playing with other children at the local park, as well as some structured play with you, such as playing catch or dancing together, for example. This type of play means your toddler gets to have fun while exercising and developing her skills, and the together time with you also nurtures the parent-child relationship. As your child grows and matures, there will be plenty of time later on for her to develop an interest in organized sports.

Are There Advantages to Signing Up Your Toddler for Sports?

Playing sports at a very young age does not necessarily give your toddler or preschooler a head start in terms of future athletic performance. Instead, this can actually cause your child to become frustrated and discourage her from playing sports in the future. If you really want to sign your toddler or preschooler up for a team sport, choose a peewee league, which can help him learn the fundamentals while also focusing more on fun than competition. If your child does participate in this type of organized team play, make sure that the games are short and that the focus is on all the children having fun playing together. The players should be rotated frequently to ensure each child experiences different positions in that particular sport.

The Bottom Line

It’s wonderful that you’re interested in supporting your child’s development by getting him involved in physical activities that may include sports and exercise. Although it may be too early for organized sports, giving your toddler the opportunity to do lots of fun structured and unstructured play each and every day is great for his health and development. Focus on things like running, tumbling, jumping, dancing, and climbing to help build all the skills your child will eventually need when she’s ready for organized or team sports. Giving your child the chance to do all the fun things that kids naturally love to do like running around the playground, playing catch, or dancing with you will ensure your toddler gets the movement he needs. Beyond this, limiting screen time is another important strategy that can help encourage your child to get up and moving as often as possible. Later on when your child is developmentally ready, you can introduce him to a variety of sports, and let him develop a love of organized sports by focusing on the fun of it.