Get the baby out of the bouncy seat and let him roll around on the floor. Play patty-cake. Toss soft balls with toddlers. Challenge 3-year-olds to walk on a safe curb while keeping their balance.
Exercise for babies, toddlers and preschoolers is not rocket science. But they do need simple activities every day that are crucial building blocks in learning to walk, run and eventually swing a tennis racket, say the first physical education guidelines for children so young.
Too many youngsters are confined in strollers, baby seats or playpens for long periods, says the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The group issued the guidelines Wednesday for parents, day care centers and preschools.
"We 'containerize' kids'' to keep them safe while parents are busy, said Michigan State University exercise physiologist Jim Pivarnik, a co-author of the guidelines.
Instead, give them a safe environment and "let them out, let them explore, let them move.''
"We're not talking about having a workout for our babies,'' said Judy Young, the association's executive director.
Instead, the goal is common-sense, fun activities - and making physical activity part of normal, everyday life in hopes that the children will not grow up to be among the 60 percent of Americans who are overweight couch potatoes.
Many parents assume skills such as rolling, sitting and walking will just come naturally as babies grow, said Jane Clark of the University of Maryland, who led the panel of movement and pediatric specialists who wrote the "Active Start'' guidelines. But "you have to provide that environment that hooks the brain up to the muscles,'' she said.
For example, an infant who spends much of the day in a bouncy seat may like watching the suspended toys but probably will roll over or sit later than babies who spent more time stretching out on a blanket.
Watch a 2-year-old throw. It's inevitably overhand, and they step forward on the same side as the throwing arm. If the parents do not like throwing balls around, the tots will not progress as quickly to the next step, throwing in more of a baseball stance, as their peers, Clark said. One solution is using soft balls that will not break anything. They do not have to be special or expensive. Clark advised making a ball with old pantyhose or wadded newspaper and a little tape.
Because young children naturally move around a lot, many caregivers assume they are getting all the physical activity they need. But TV and video games keep a lot of preschoolers sedentary for longer than parents may realize, said Dr. Nazrat Mirza of Children's National Medical Center.
In inner cities, youngsters often have few safe playgrounds or bike paths. Plus, different activities are needed at different ages to spur development, Clark added.
Here are some examples:
NASPE is a dues-funded professional organization of physical education instructors, trainers and researchers.