Positive relationships

Physical activity for adults, inspired by children

What parents and educators can learn from children about getting enough movement
Adult and child doing physical activity
December 6, 2022
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.
• This story is all about what us grown-ups can learn from the way children move and play.

• Adults often think of physical activity only happening at the gym, or sports practice. But if we look to children as examples, we'll see it's quite easy (and natural) to incorporate movement throughout our day.

• Read on for inspiration on meaningful daily forms of active play for adults, drawn directly from children's patterns of play and movement in early childhood.

As an early educator, you're used to children running around all day. Physical activity comes naturally for them. But somehow, on our path to becoming grown-ups, that impulse gets lost along the way. As adults, exercise is a discipline, an act of maintenance — you probably know it as a nagging item on your to-do list.

What can be more difficult to escape is the year-round bombardment about how to achieve wellness. Whether it’s walking 10,000 steps; exercising for 30 minutes or eating 5 portions of fruit or vegetables a day (or is it now 10?), we are constantly faced with measures that will get us ‘fit’.  

While such goal-orientated approaches work for some, they certainly do not for others. Rather, they lead to a sense of failure and poor body perception. 

Recently, the chief medical officer recommended that young children have 3 hours of physical activity a day. Is this another one of these numbers, inducing a feeling of failure in parents and practitioners? Or is it something they could use it in a way that benefits not only the children but themselves too?

Perceptions about activity and use of the guidance 

One response might be, “What? How can we fit it in? There aren’t enough hours in the day.” And another, “No problem, it’s getting them to sit still that’s tricky! They’re always on the go.” 

However, what is pertinent, and worthy of close attention is the use of the term active. There is no mention of exercise.  

Babies are active from birth, and prior to that in utero! Young children are active when engaging in block play, action songs and messy play. Being active is not just about biking, scooting and swimming.

This is heartening: children are active in so many ways, often incidental. 

Woman and girl doing physical activity

Learning from young children’s movement

“There’s so much to be gained from adults tuning into how young children move. Parents can easily feel forgotten or side-lined, the emphasis being on their child’s wellbeing. But if adults were to join in with what a young child does, they might find it has beneficial effects.”

Dr Lala Manners, Movement Specialist

The big ideas

Dr Lala Manners, Movement Specialist, is an advocate of adults learning from children. This includes adults:

  • rolling onto their tummy
  • rolling from tummy to back
  • playing with legs in the air, trying to grab the feet and toes
  • pushing up onto their hands 
  • pushing up onto hand and knees
  • crawling
  • going up and down stairs

Lala adds, “Baby movements help with balance, strength and coordination.” 

There is very good reason for a well-known yoga pose being called the happy baby.

Woman and girl doing yoga together

Developing new ideas about being active

Jabadao is a research, development and training organisation focusing on physical development across the early years. I spoke with Penny Greenland, founder of Jabadao.

“At Jabadao, we don’t start with the idea of exercise. It is an adult idea that we have to consciously exercise to make sure we move as much as our bodies need and want. Most children, given the chance, move, move, move all the time, and love it.

“At Jabadao we think of Follow My Leader as the best game ever - with the child as leader.  Children usually move in more varied ways than adults: they might move like a bear which is good for creating strong bodies. When adults join, children move a lot longer, and in joyous, playful ways”.

Penny speaks about some of their work in EYFS settings, “We offer courses on setting up an indoor movement play area as part of continuous provision. This is a place where children can move whenever they want to and however they want to. Practitioners join in.” 

Inviting parents to participate is a positive way of sharing the fun. It also provides an opportunity for them to find out more about moving, both for themselves and their children.

Penny says similar things can happen at home. “Clear whatever space is available, however small. Put down mats or a duvet and join your children as they find ways of playing in that space. You could play music too”. Music can prompt different paces and types of movement.

Jabadao’s premise is, “Let the children lead the movement play. You don’t need Twister or shop-bought games: they will invent so many of their own once they realise what the space is for.” She adds, “They will create lots of exercise in terms of intensity and variety – so much more than a specific game or having an adult in charge.”

Penny often sees these activities, with families having their own version, such as:

  • Cushion Mountain: piling up cushions and duvets for everyone to climb up and roll down 
  • Bet You Can’t do This: children challenge adults to do something they love doing, such as a tricky balance or an amazing jump. (This may have to be adapted for different abilities.)
  • Pushing off the duvet: trying to get each other off the duvet. Adults push gently with just enough force.

“Keep talking together about how to keep the games safe,” adds Penny, “It’s important to take care of everyone’s body.”   

It is important to bear in mind that some children, for understandable reasons, will not have had the chance to become ‘natural’ movers or be able to do these activities at home. This makes it all the more important that the setting provides what they will otherwise not get. 

Girl doing physical activity

Incidental movement is physical activity too

Though adults may discover new ways of being active by following children, it is also worth thinking about their own ‘incidental’ movement.

Just as playing with a train set may not strike us being a form of physical activity, there are many equivalent ways of being active for adults (including playing with a train set), such as: 

  • Shopping
  • Gardening
  • Cleaning 
  • Hanging out the washing

Lala Manners points out: “If we can up the amount of incidental movement that adults do, it may lead to future exploration of exercise.”

This could include:

  • A body stretch before getting out of bed; circle the ankles and wrists; turn the head slowly from side to side; bicycle the legs 
  • Walk on tiptoes to the bathroom
  • Balance on one leg while cleaning teeth – use the wall for support
  • Reach up and touch the door frame when passing through 
  • Take the stairs two at a time
  • Increase walking pace
  • Play music and have a dance

These take little time but will increase daily movement a surprising amount.

Rather than being daunted (possibly haunted) by the prospect of couch to 5k or a legs, bums and tums class, adults may discover they are already being pretty active and moving quite a lot in their everyday lives. This can only be encouraging. 

Activity for wellbeing

In their recent book, “Think, Feel, Do: A Wellbeing book for Early Years Staff” (2022, LEYF), June O’Sullivan OBE and Dr Lala Manners say “Wellbeing is for the here and now – not just for days off and holidays”. They add, “There is no ‘quick fix’ or ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to wellbeing, but it is vital that everyone understands what it means for them, to find ways to look after themselves and to really value what they do and who they are.”

Whether we call it movement, activity, or exercise, individuals need to find a way of getting (and keeping) fit enough. As prompted by the guidelines, thinking in terms of being active may well be a good start. 

This seems like a valuable, perhaps unexpected, use of the chief medical officer’s recommendation.

download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Try famly for free

Get 1000s of free EY activities

Want over 7,000 activities? See them in a free 14-day trial. Filter to target learning areas, age groups and topics, and get inspired.

Get started