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Motivating School-Age Kids to Be Active

Why Is Being Active Every Day Important?

Most of us know that kids are supposed to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. And 1 hour spent being active sounds like a pretty easy goal, doesn't it? 

But as kids get older, increasing demands on their time can make getting that hour of exercise a challenge. Also, some kids get caught up watching TV, playing video games, and spending time on social media. Even doing a lot of studying and reading, while important, can make it hard to find time to exercise.

On top of that, during these years kids often come to a fork in the road with sports. Those who are athletic might end up increasing their time and commitment to sports, which is great for their physical fitness. But more casual athletes may lose interest and decide to quit teams and leagues. Unless they find replacement activities, their physical activity levels tend to go way down.

Being active is a key part of good health for all school-age kids. Exercise strengthens their muscles and bones and lets their bodies do normal kid stuff, like lifting a backpack or running a race. It also helps control their weight and prevent some types of health problems, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

How Can We Keep Kids Motivated?

So how do you get kids motivated to be active, especially those who aren't natural athletes?

Kids can be fit even if they're not winning sports trophies. The key is finding activities they enjoy. The options are many — from organized sports to inline skating, bike riding, and tennis or swimming.

When kids find an activity that's fun, they'll do it a lot, get better at it, feel accomplished, and want to do it even more. Likewise, if they're pushed into activities they don't like, they're unlikely to want to participate and will end up frustrated and will feel like exercising is a chore.

Stick to Basics for 6- to 8-Year-Olds

Expose younger kids to a variety of activities, games, and sports. Keep the focus on fun. A mix of activities at home and at school is ideal. Besides organized activities, include some free time for kids to make their own decisions about how to be active.

At this age, kids are still mastering basic physical skills, such as jumping, throwing, kicking, and catching. It will take a few more years before most can combine these skills the way many 11-year-olds can (for instance, being able to scoop up a baseball, run toward the base, and throw the ball — all in one fluid motion). So if your child is on a sports team, make sure you and the coaches set realistic expectations.

Such expectations are also important when it comes to how much kids can handle mentally. Younger kids often are not ready for the pressure of competition, nor can they grasp complex strategy. Look for teams, leagues, and classes that stress the basics and provide encouragement and praise for kids as they improve their skills.

Done correctly, team sports and other group activities can teach kids a lot about teamwork and good sportsmanship.

9- to 12-Year-Olds Are More Coordinated

Older kids usually have mastered basic skills and can start enjoying the benefits of being more coordinated. That means a kid who likes basketball isn't wildly throwing the ball at the basket anymore, but is perfecting the free throw.

They're also better able to understand the rules. Parents of kids involved in team sports might want to talk about handling setbacks and losses, and remind kids that sports should still be fun even as competition heats up.

Whether it's soccer or ballet, if your child doesn't enjoy an activity or feels frustrated by failure, it may be time to switch to something else. Help your child with this transition so they don’t feel like a failure. This can prevent negative feelings about sports and physical activity in general. Ask what they would like to try next. It doesn’t matter what they do, as long as they continue to be active.

Help Kids Find What They Like

When choosing activities, consider a child's interests, abilities, and body type. A bigger child might be suited for football because size is an advantage. A smaller child might succeed at baseball or might consider a non-team sport.

Also, consider temperament. A mild-mannered child who might not be comfortable playing football may like the challenge of karate. Likewise, an active kid might not have the patience and control required for ballet, but is well-suited to a fast-paced activity, like soccer.

Personality traits and athletic ability combine to influence a child's attitude toward participation in sports and other physical activities. Which of these three types best describes your child?

Nonathletes: These kids may be less athletic than peers, dislike physical activity, or both. By this age, kids are aware of these differences and some may have even been teased about them. The danger for them is not leaving one activity that didn't work out; it's abandoning all physical activity altogether.

Casual athletes: These kids are interested in being active but aren't star players, so are at risk of getting discouraged in a competitive athletic environment. Most kids fall into this category, but in a culture that is obsessed with winning, it's easy to overlook them as athletes. Encourage them to remain active even though they aren't top performers.

Athletes: These kids have athletic ability, are committed to a sport or activity, and are likely to ramp up practice time and intensity of competition. Some are happily settled in a sport or activity by the older school-age years. It's important to ensure that athletes manage schoolwork, get enough rest, and still enjoy the sport. Continue to let your child try out new things and enjoy a variety of physical activities.

How Can Parents Help?

Kids look to parents for guidance, support, and encouragement. It's very important to set a good example. Don't groan about your own exercise — make it a priority and be active together as a family.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date Reviewed: Mar 15, 2022

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