This blog message was contributed by Ellen De Decker (Odisee)

“Ooh, too little exercise? No, my preschoolers move more than enough and can hardly sit still!” This is how teacher Nathalie describes her 4-year-olds during my class visit. However… recent research in Flemish preschoolers reveals a completely different picture. Slightly less than 90% of the preschoolers do not reach the international guidelines for physical activity on weekdays.

Researchers from Ghent University studied the 24-h movement behavior of 4-year-olds regarding physical activity, screen time and the number of hours of sleep in the European Toy-Box project, and investigated the link with the development of optimal health, the risk of obesity and being overweight in preschool children. The positive news from this study was that our preschoolers sleep well (on average 11 hours a night) and that the majority of preschoolers’ screen time use was in line with the guidelines (1 hour and 20 minutes). However, their level of physical activity was not high enough.

What is enough movement? What are the guidelines?

We all agree that children must move and like to move. But what exactly are all those guidelines that determine what is sufficient and what is not?

The guideline used in this study was the international guideline that preschoolers should participate in physical activity for at least 3 hours a day. This may be at any intensity level (light, moderate or high). Even standing work or play is considered as light physical activity.

Sufficient exercise strengthens, amongst other things, the muscles and bones, ensures a good weight and leads to a better development of the brain. In the long term, preschoolers who are sufficiently active have a decreased chance of becoming overweight and having obesity at an older age and these active children will also remain much more active when they grow older.

How active are our preschoolers?

The preschoolers who participated in this study went to a Belgian school in a region with mainly low SES families. For one week their physical activity levels were objectively measured with an accelerometer, a small device that measures when they were active and when they were sitting still. The results were surprising! The vast majority of preschoolers who participated in the study (slightly less than 90%) did not comply with the physical activity guidelines. They were physically active for on average 2 hours and 14 minutes instead of the suggested 3 hours per day. An even larger percentage of preschool children (95%) did not meet the guideline on weekend days. Despite the fact that other studies found a difference between boys and girls, the current study did not find a difference between boys and girls in the number of hours of exercise per day.

How can we increase physical activity levels in preschoolers? 5 easy tips!

Allowing children to move more, starts in the ECEC setting. They spend a lot of time there. Below you can find five simple tips that can make a big difference in preschoolers’ physical activity levels.

1 Take full advantage of physical activity lessons

Move, move, move, … you think spontaneously of physical activity lessons. In most Belgian preschools, structured physical activity lessons are scheduled weekly. We cannot encourage enough to use the allocated time as actively as possible. Gross motor movements (walking, jumping, crawling, hopping, etc.), exploring space, … in short, full movement, brief instructions and little time sitting still.

2 Teachers, give the right example!

The best way to make a preschooler more active is by giving a good example.

In the classroom as well as on the playground, preschoolers do what they see. Hence, it is of great importance that you are constantly being active yourself. Play games, walk (together), use music, … If you show children that physical activity is nice, they will copy this behavior. In addition, also being outside will encourage more exercise.

3 Long live brief movement breaks

Is the children’s attention weakening or are they restless? Then a short movement break (+/- 5 minutes) or a long movement break (+/- 15 minutes) is in place to target gross motor development. In fact, Australian researchers found that preschool children who had multiple movement breaks throughout the day were more moderate to highly active compared to preschoolers with 1 hour of free play. Avoid sensory games where one toddler acts and the other children watch, but let everyone move and be active!

4 Standing in the corners

Why sit if you can stand? However, many play stations make children play while sitting. Take a look around in your own setting: children sit down to play with cars in the circle, they sit on their knees in the building corner, they puzzle and color at the table while sitting down, etc.

Why not use a few tables without chairs, or place a car corner on a platform? Standing up leads to movement and to light physical activity.

5 Install a movement corner or movement space

Most settings have a movement space. Even if you have limited space, you can install a movement corner. Consider, for example, a balance course with ropes / tape through the classroom, a crawl tunnel of boxes in the hallway, a throwing game in the circle, running blocks to step through the classroom, etc. This way preschoolers can engage in physical activity during corner play.

Although teacher Nathalie had the opinion that her preschoolers are physically active enough, recent research showed that a lot of preschoolers do not comply with the 24-h movement behavior guidelines. Let us try to encourage preschoolers to participate in enough physical activity and to decrease their sitting time!

As far as we know, physical activity levels of preschoolers with a low SES do not differ from other preschoolers. Furthermore, the ToyBox intervention was not successful in changing preschoolers’ amount of physical activity in ECEC settings located in low SES neighbourhoods. Hence, this is a call to action.


  • De Craemer, M. et al. (2018). Compliance with 24-h movement behaviour guidelines among Belgian pre-school children: the ToyBox Study. J. Environ. Res. Public Health; 15(10).
  • Razak, A.L et al. (2018). Impact of scheduling multiple outdoor free-play periods in childcare on child moderate-to-vigorous physical activity: a cluster randomised trial. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; 15:34.
  • De Decker, E. et al. (2012). Influencing factors of screen time in preschool children: an exploration of parents’ perceptions through focus groups in six European countries. Obes Rev 13(1): 75–84.
  • De Craemer, M. et al. (2014). The effect of a kindergarten-based, family-involved intervention on objectively measured physical activity in Belgian preschool boys and girls of high and low SES: the ToyBox- Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act.; 11(1):38.
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How come our preschoolers do not move enough? And what should we do?

2 thoughts on “How come our preschoolers do not move enough? And what should we do?

  • August 18, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    i found this blog really interesting. Working in England I have battled to persuade others I work with to remove chairs from some areas. I am interested in developmental movement and its importance to brain development and gross and fine motor skills. Opportunities for spontaneous, free movement are so important for this. This blog will help me make my case for more opportunities for movement!

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