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Play, physical activity, and physical health

How can active play help improve children's access to physical activity and their physical health?

By Sophie Phillips

In recent years, concerns have grown over reductions in young children’s physical activity and heightened sedentary and screen time, alongside rises in childhood obesity. We have seen declines in young children’s play and physical activity opportunities as a result of safety concerns and an increasing focus on academic achievement, as well as an escalation in the amount and availability of screen time1.

Certain types of play, namely ‘active play’, can form part of a solution towards addressing these concerns. Active play has been described as “a form of gross motor or total body movement in which young children exert energy in a freely chosen, fun, and unstructured manner.”2 Active play can help with some of the greatest public health challenges of our time, including reducing childhood obesity, by increasing the amount of physical activity and reducing the amount of sedentary time (and screen time) that young children engage in; behaviours that are important predictors of multiple domains of early childhood development.

A focus on active play – movement that is enjoyable and fun – can help children achieve recommended levels of physical activity and reduce sedentary and screen time, to improve their physical health from the earliest years.

Play and physical activity: how are they related?

Children in their early years (aged 0-4 years) are encouraged to engage in physical activity every day for healthy growth and development. Research has shown that engaging in sufficient physical activity is beneficial for young children in the following domains4:

  • Mental health indicators: improved social skills and peer relationships; emotional and behaviour control
  • Cognitive development: language development and creativity
  • Motor development: locomotor skills (crawling, walking); coordination and balance; object control (throwing, catching)
  • Bone health: improved vitamin D levels; stronger bones
  • Healthy blood pressure 
  • Improved fitness levels 
  • Healthy weight 


Internationally, it is recommended that5:

Babies (0-12 months) should be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.

Toddlers (aged 1-2 years) should be physically active for at least 180 minutes every day.

Pre-schoolers (aged 3-4 years) should be physically active for at least 180 minutes every day, of which 6o minutes should be higher intensity activity. 


Among young children, physical activity is typically achieved through the form of active play6For young children, active play usually takes place during free play or unstructured activity sessions, and most often when children are outdoors. Activities may include running around, playing in playgrounds, building dens, climbing, and jumping.

Research has shown that young children spend significantly more time participating in physical activity during active play sessions than children not engaging in these sessions7. In addition, interventions focusing on encouraging active play of pre-school aged children have been shown to increase physical activity and reduce sedentary time of the participating children8.

Why active play over more structured forms of physical activity?

Young children may also achieve some of their physical activity through other means, including structured physical activity sessions. Structured physical activity sessions are beneficial in helping young children to achieve physical activity guidelines and improve motor skills9. However, research has demonstrated that young children achieve much more physical activity through unstructured active play versus structured physical activity and sport sessions10. Interventions promoting unstructured activity and free play have a significantly larger effect on the amount of high intensity physical activity that young children engage in, when compared to interventions using structured activities11.

How can we support young children to engage in active play?

  • For babies, interactive floor-based play is encouraged. This may differ from when children are not yet mobile, to when they start crawling. From the earliest months, caregivers can set aside time for ‘tummy time’. Alongside this, using toys to encourage babies to reach and move their bodies –  or play equipment such as play mats, tunnels, ball pools –  can help.
  • As Soizic Le Courtois highlights in this Play Piece on nature and outdoor play, ensuring that all children have access to safe outdoor spaces, including parks, natural green (e.g. forests) and blue (e.g. beaches) spaces, is vital to making sure they have the opportunity to reap the benefits of spending time in nature and playing outdoors.
  • Aspects of childcare settings (nurseries, pre-schools, kindergartens) can be conducive to active play, including children having opportunities to play outdoors, settings having larger outdoor spaces per child, and access to portable play equipment12.
  • Despite not being a prominent feature in contemporary English society, ‘Play Streets’, which involve the temporary closure of streets that can then be used for recreational activities, are shown to be associated with increases in active play and physical activity for younger children13. Environmental changes, including reclaiming spaces for children to play in  and be active, should form part of wider policy agendas (e.g. traffic calming measures, walkability of outdoor spaces) moving forward.
  • Active play and physical activity are less prevalent in indoor spaces12. However, children generally spend more time indoors than outdoors while in childcare settings. Indoor spaces where children can be active, including open floor spaces, rough-and-tumble play zones, and cubbies (spaces where children leave their coats/bags/outdoor clothing), are associated with higher levels of physical activity14. Rooms dominated by tables are less conducive to physical activity14. Where possible, availability of larger open play spaces may help facilitate active play in young children.

How can we help increase active play during free play and unstructured sessions?

While active play is self-directed and freely chosen by children, there are ways in which active play can be encouraged during free play or unstructured activity sessions. Some ideas include:

  • Organising the physical environment and space in a way that can facilitate movement and activity. For example, providing lots of space to move around and allow freedom to explore outdoors. Arrangements of the physical environment can signal to children what activity is allowed in that space. For instance, lots of tables and furniture indoors may signal to children that this is not a space for active forms of play.
  • Providing portable or fixed equipment that children can use for play. For example: materials that children can move around to make dens or climb on, outdoor play equipment such as bikes and scooters, or fixed equipment such as climbing frames.
  • Incorporating different ideas for active play into other aspects of childcare, for example, reading books that promote activity or using pieces of equipment (such as beanbags) that children can access later to create their own games with.


We should promote active play, to support physical activity, as part of interventions and services for children to improve physical and mental health. Active play is core to wider goals and ambitions of improving child health, including being a way to help children achieve physical activity guidelines. A stronger focus on play can make attaining physical activity guidelines manageable, enjoyable, and fun for young children and their caregivers.

Let's Get Little Ones Moving!

Click to download this infographic from Durham University and County Durham Sport, which explains how we can help young children be active through the power of play.


1The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children (Yogman et al., 2018)

2Defining and Measuring Active Play Among Young Children: A Systematic Review (Truelove et al., 2017)

3Active play: an important physical activity strategy in the fight against childhood obesity (Janssen, 2014)

4Systematic review of the relationships between physical activity and health indicators in the early years (0-4 years) (Carson et al., 2017)

5Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age (World Health Organisation, 2019)

6A profile of children’s physical activity data from the 2012 and 2015 health survey for England (Sims et al., 2022)

7Effect of a school-based active play intervention on sedentary time and physical activity in preschool children (O’Dwyer et al., 2013)

8Effect of a family focused active play intervention on sedentary time and physical activity in preschool children (O’Dwyer et al., 2012)

9Promoting fundamental movement skill development and physical activity in early childhood settings: a cluster randomised controlled trial (Jones et al., 2011)

10Effectiveness of Physical Activity Interventions for Preschoolers: A Meta-Analysis (Gordon et al., 2013)

11Tummy Time and Infant Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review (Hewitt et al., 2020)

12Environmental and practice factors associated with children’s device-measured physical activity and sedentary time in early childhood education and care centres: a systematic review (Martin et al., 2022)

13Systematic review of how Play Streets impact opportunities for active play, physical activity, neighbourhoods, and communities (Umstattd Meyer et al., 2019)

14The physical indoor environment in ECEC settings: children’s well-being and physical activity (Sando, 2019)