Active kids enjoy improved mental wellness and reduce their risk of heart disease. While the days are short and the weather is often cold or dreary, kids still need to be getting physical activity each and every day.

February is American Heart Month and On The Pulse asked Emily Carter, athletic trainer, and Dr. Monique Burton, director of the Sports Medicine Program, to share ideas for indoor activities that put a smile on a child’s face and get their heart pumping.

“There are many benefits to kids participating in active play and exercise,” explained Carter. “The most important being that kids and teens who are fit are more likely to be fit as adults. Exercise will help with weight control and decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. Kids who exercise will also be more alert during the day, perform better in school, sleep better at night and benefit from a better mood and decreased stress.”

What is active play?

Active play is most forms of physical activity that children can do, like playing on a playground or marching to music. Active play can be inside or outside, and it can be led by an adult or not led by an adult. Signs that a child is playing enough to achieve active play are when they breathe faster, get warm, break a sweat, have an increased heart rate or have pink cheeks.

“Active play is a social opportunity to interact with family and friends,” said Burton. “It helps establish the importance of exercise for ongoing health at a young age.”

What is exercise?

Exercise is also physical activity, but it’s usually more structured, planned and repetitive. Most physical activity that young kids get is through active play, rather than exercise.

How much active play or exercise do kids need?

Preschoolers need at least two hours of active play, and grade-school children and teens need to be active for 60 minutes or more each day. The movement doesn’t have to be all at once. It’s fine to break the activity into 10- or 15-minute segments. This allows for a wide variety of activities throughout the day and keeps it interesting for kids with shorter attention spans.

Help ensure your child is moving enough every day by reminding your daycare or preschool to make time for lots of active play, and advocate for recess and physical education for older kids.

Ideas for indoor active play

  • Create your own indoor Olympics. Set up fitness stations throughout the house: pushups in the bedroom, crunches in the hallway, planking in the family room, and a stair-climb on the real stairs.
  • Set up an obstacle course where you climb under the table, hop over pillows, weave through stuffed animals, etc. Be creative with your props!
  • Bring back classic games, like “Tag,” “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “Simon Says” and “Follow the Leader.”
  • Crank up the music and have a dance party. Mix it up with rounds of freeze dancing.
  • Use colorful masking tape to create a hopscotch course on the carpet or use colored chalk on the garage floor.
  • Make family chore time active with house cleaning that gets you moving – sweeping, mopping, vacuuming.
  • Get moving with the help of a workout video or fitness video game.
  • Practice stretching or yoga.
  • Bounce an inflated balloon back and forth using your hands, feet and head — keeping it afloat as long as possible (balloons are a choking hazard for children under 3).
  • Clear some space for using a hula hoop or jump rope inside.
  • Make a ball out of masking tape and play indoor baseball using your hand as a bat.
  • Create a timed indoor scavenger hunt.
  • Act out favorite stories.
  • Check out your local community center or YMCA for open gyms, indoor playgrounds and low-cost classes.
  • Public indoor swimming pools offer open swim times and lessons for all ages and skill levels. Stop by your local pool to get an activities schedule and ask about low-cost options or scholarships.

Keep it fun

Most young kids are naturally drawn to active play, but with age, sometimes kids who don’t identify themselves as athletes start to get less physical activity. Encourage a variety of movement and keep it fun!

“Motivation for young kids to be active is all about fun,” said Carter. “Allow the kids to be creative and have choice in the activity. Young kids don’t always like structured games with rules, so allowing them to create the activity or have choice can be a motivation.”

Carter and Burton suggest these tips for keeping the focus on fun:

  • Include your child in planning.
  • Encourage fun rather than skill.
  • Pretend – let your child lead you in an “exercise class.”
  • Set up a hydration station with water bottles to sip from.
  • Combine dress-up and activity by wearing funny headbands, crazy socks and gym shorts.
  • Make a special heart-healthy snack to enjoy after a longer session of activity.
  • Involve other kids or peers, especially for older kids.
  • When possible, make active play a family affair.

Instill a love of healthy living early on

When children are active from the start they establish healthy habits that can last a lifetime. They learn how to fit activity into their day and how to make healthy living a priority.

“Exercising together is a nice time to connect with your kids in a fun and active way,” said Burton. “The side benefit is that it also keeps you fit!”