Twenty minutes of unstructured activity daily can help children develop physically and mentally
Parents should get their toddlers to run around the playground, play “catch” or ride a tricycle once the children reach three years old to help them develop physically, mentally and socially. Exercise experts recommend such unstructured activities for those who are between one and five years old for 20 to 60 minutes daily under adult supervision. The World Health Organization recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for children aged 12 and younger.
Dr Ong Wee Sian, who heads the sports medicine service at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, says pre-schoolers can swim, dance or do gymnastics, with minimal rules and more visual demonstration than verbal instructions. These activities develop cardiovascular endurance so oxygen is better delivered to the muscles, helping to develop the heart, lungs and bones, says Dr Tan Swee Kheng, a kinesiologist who runs her own sports coaching company. They also maintain the child’s body weight and control his body fat. The experts add that when children experiment with movements, they develop fundamental movement skills and build stamina, speed and flexibility.
Exercise also benefits children mentally by developing the executive function of the brain for academic learning, says Dr Tan. Without rules, children make up their own games, hence building their decision-making, creativity and leadership skills. When children reach six to nine years, they can try sports such as soccer, racquet games and skating, as most have developed fundamental movement skills and are starting to use these skills in a more controlled way.
It is good for them to be exposed to a range of sports from endurance activities such as calisthenics to cardiovascular ones such as running, says Dr Roger Tian, associate consultant at Changi General Hospital’s Changi Sports Medicine Centre. This helps them develop different skills and fitness so that they can later pursue a sport that they have potential in. When they are 10 years old, they can try more complex team sports with an emphasis on strategies and tactics, says Dr Ong. They can also start resistance exercise using light free weights. Resistance training develops muscular strength, which improves bone mass density and reduces the risk of fractures, he adds. The regimen’s intensity depends on the child’s physical maturation, skill level, interest and learning ability.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends limiting a sporting activity to five days a week, with at least one day off from any organised physical activity. Kiranraj Suresh, 11, picked up competitive running two years ago. He trains two to three times a week in school or with his personal trainer. His mother, Ms Senthamarai Govindaraju, feels that exercise has helped him develop movement skills, grow taller, improve his immune system and expend his energy.
PLAY IT SAFE
Children are more vulnerable than adults to sports injuries. Dr Roger Tian, associate consultant at Changi General Hospital’s Changi Sports Medicine Centre, says: “The child is not a ‘mini-adult’.” “Weak links” in the developing musculoskeletal system predispose the child to injuries, he explains. Also, children are more prone than adults to heat exhaustion and heat stroke as their sweating mechanism is immature and they take longer to adapt to hot environments, he adds.
They also generate more heat than adults when exercising, due to less economical movement patterns. Children under 12 often cannot recognise dangerous situations, and may expose themselves to unnecessary risk during sports such as roller-blading without protective gear.
Doctors advise children to avoid exercising between 10.30am and 3.30pm when it is hotter, and to take regular hydration breaks in the shade during exercise. They should also have proper warm-up and cool-down exercises, adequate rest, learn proper techniques from qualified coaches with experience in training children and use protective gear, clothes and shoes.