How to Keep Your Children Physically Active While Staying at Home

By Mary Evans, PT, DPT, MS

With the current stay-at-home orders and kids out of school due to the COVID-19 crisis, parents may find their children either full of extra energy or succumbing to the temptation to lay about while transfixed by a screen — or both. Yet parents don’t need to turn themselves into fitness instructors just to keep their kids active. Continue reading for some advice on getting your child to exercise, move around, and avoid lethargic behavior.

For Children Ages 3 to 5

At this age children learn by doing; keeping them physically active will stimulate their minds and help them continue to gain motor skills necessary for keeping up with their peers. Your children are at a busy age; their world is full of wonder, and imaginative play. You can take advantage of this by spending some time in their make-believe world. It can be hard to access your inner child (especially at this time), but with practice it will become easier for you.

Movement, emotion and music hit all parts of the brain. They can keep us engaged and help us learn and enjoy life. You can incorporate music into any of the below activities by singing songs or listening to music while doing the activity.

Travel to a picnic or tea party. Pretend the journey is rough and your child has to climb over an obstacle course to get there (couch cushions, crawl under kitchen table, up and down the stairs, jump through the door, walk sideways along a wall, walk on tip toes, walk heel-to-toe over a “bridge”). Your child may add to your ideas, and the picnic may not happen as you envision, but that’s all part of the fun.

Use a book to act out a story. A classic is the book We're Going On a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. You and your child can act out each page. There are no wrong ways to do the movements, but the more you have your child use their arms and legs the more exercise they will get, and the more engaged they will be.

Have your children be an animal and get from one part of the house to another. Take your time introducing the animals and let them experience being the animal for three to five minutes before giving them the next animal. Older preschoolers can then draw a picture of the animal. Save some animals for the next day. Slither on the ground like a snake, bear walk on hands and feet, jump on two feet like a bunny or deeper squat jump like a frog, crab walk on hands and feet with stomach facing up, fly like a bird or butterfly, or gallop like a horse.

Give your child a back massage and tell them a story as you do it, your hands creating different movements as you go along. We went for a walk (finger tips). We planted a garden (tap tap tap finger and thumb). We jumped off the stump (whole palm). We rolled down the hill (side of hands tapping down the back). We relaxed under a tree (gentle downward massage). If these movements are done energetically — quickly with a bit of pressure — it can rouse your child and get them off the couch and ready for activity. If these movements are done slowly and gently it can be a way to calm them down at the end of the day.

For Children Ages 6-16

Kids in the 6- to 16-year-old age bracket do well when they have something to look forward to. These ages also like to have a plan. You can take advantage of this by taking the time to plan out activities. Consider having family meetings once a week where everyone gets to choose a fun activity to do in the coming days.

Remember, 20 to 60 minutes of daily exercise is recommended for all of us. It is especially important for our youth because it can help in regulation of their moods.

Make a plan to do something so unusual your family has never done it before. Consider getting up early one morning to go for a walk outside at dawn to see the sun rise, or count how many different birds you can see or hear.

A walk around your neighborhood can be made more exciting by going out after dark to see the moon or stars. Or organize your day so that you are all free to take a short drive or a walk to see the sun set. Play a game in your yard or driveway like kick the can or capture the flag with the whole family involved.

Older kids want to be seen as mature and having autonomy, but remember that they love to play, be silly, and get rewards just like we do. Try introducing a new game for the family to play. One my family enjoys is called “Like an Adverb”. This can be done at the table but often leads to moving around.

  • Have two piles of note cards, turned upside down. One is of questions to ask, or movements to perform. The other is of cards with adverbs on them.
  • When each player takes a turn they chose one card from each pile. Then the other team has to figure out the adverb.
  • For example: the player might draw the following cards from each pile:  go for a walk and be silly; or crawl like a lion and be angry; or ask for directions and do it quicklybe a polar bear and be clumsy. We have been known to chase each other around the house, one of us being a bear who is inquisitively exploring.

Youth this age like goals and being productive. Consider having them make up a chart with different calisthenics — jumping jacks, scissor jacks, burpees, jumping forward and back or side to side, squats, hopping, planks, etc. They may add some from gym class that you have never seen before!

Consider starting a practice that incorporates relaxation techniques. It is best to do these activities with your child when you are both in a happy, calm state.

  • Yoga — Try having each person take a turn being the teacher. Practice breathing from your tummy (diaphragm), which is so relaxing, for five slow deep breaths in each pose.
  • Four square breathing — Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four. Do this four times.
  • Give your child a massage to their shoulders and head while they are sitting in a chair. Let them give you one. Or have a foot massage night while watching a favorite show or movie.

Mary Evans, PT, DPT, MS, is the supervisor of pediatric rehabilitation for Emerson’s Clough Family Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies. She has more than 30 years of experience in a variety of therapy settings, including inpatient rehabilitation, outpatient private practice and early intervention in families’ homes. She has advanced training in neuro-developmental treatment, floor time, visual impairments and Kinesio Taping for the pediatric population. She also is a vital part of the Emerson Scoliosis Program.