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Ten-year-old Tesla Vuckovic is a ninja warrior. Part of a ninja team, he excels at climbing, balancing, and especially performing laches — tricky jumps and swings between obstacles that require strength, skill, and coordination as you propel yourself through the air. With this training and a natural athleticism, he shines at stringing together complex moves in different combos.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he attended practice twice a week, as well as supplementary parkour classes. But the series of lockdowns and facility closures resulted in big changes to the busy schedules of Tesla and his equally active sisters, Elena, 12, and Mara, 8.

“At first, it felt like no one knew what to do,” says their mother, Esther Hunt. “My kids would ask for their iPads, even after being on screens for remote learning. I felt anxious about them not doing enough movement.”

It was a common problem across the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 6 to 17 get one hour of physical activity every day. Yet in 2020, only about one in five kids reached this goal, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. And more than one in 10 weren’t even exercising one hour a week.

Meanwhile, kids’ screen time doubled. Forty-four percent of children ages 5 to 10 were now spending more than four hours daily on screens, outside of schoolwork. For those 11 to 13, it was 47 percent; for adolescents 14 to 17, it was 62 percent. Only a third of parents who were surveyed said their children had spent this amount of time with screens before the pandemic.

This all came on top of another recent trend: Youth sports have grown ever more rarefied, competitive, and costly. Many kids now specialize in one or two sports from a young age, taking on rigorous training and travel schedules.

We want kids to be active every day, and not just by playing organized sports.”

What kids are not doing as much of is playing pickup basketball, scrambling across jungle gyms, running freely around the neighborhood, and climbing trees in the woods.

“We are going in the wrong direction,” says Joel Brenner, MD, a pediatric sports-medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., and former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “There is a lot less free play than 20 or 30 years ago. I think we are dealing with two extremes — and this is a long-standing problem: kids who are overtrained and specialized, and kids who are not doing enough. We want kids to be active every day, and not just by playing organized sports.”

Kids who fully and frequently move their bodies reap myriad benefits: improved cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger bones and muscles, and better overall health. Physical activity can also promote self-confidence, which is crucial for heading off mental-health issues. And regular exercisers tend to outperform their more sedentary peers in school.

Physically inactive children, on the other hand, are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and musculoskeletal issues as they age. Inactivity can also lead to depression and anxiety, says Brenner.

The juvenile period is when the adult body is being programmed, so kids need a lot of movement — and a lot of different types of movement, explains biomechanist Katy Bowman, MS, founder of Nutritious Movement and author of Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More.

“Movement is a big category that contains all the ways a body can move — exercise and sports are types of movement, but there are many other movements that are not exercise and sports. Exercise and sports hold some of what kids need, but there’s a chance the activities being done aren’t moving the entire body in a lot of different ways, or for enough hours of the day.”

Whether kids are sitting on the couch playing Roblox or playing travel soccer exclusively, they’re probably not getting the mix of movement their bodies need for optimal health. There’s a balance — and it’s never too late to start encouraging activities that bridge the extremes.

Understanding Healthy Movement

Saying that kids need to move “is like saying ‘kids need to eat,’” explains Bowman. “Both are entirely correct statements, but they aren’t specific enough to be helpful. Kids need to eat a range of foods that provide them with the right amount of nutrients — calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Similarly, kids don’t just need to move enough; their bodies need specific mechanical nutrients.”

One way to evaluate whether kids’ activities are meeting their movement needs is by promoting physical literacy, which consists of three components: ability, confidence, and desire. It’s at the heart of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, a nationwide initiative that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports.

Whether kids are sitting on the couch playing Roblox or playing travel soccer exclusively, they’re probably not getting the mix of movement their bodies need for optimal health.

Though “physical literacy” only recently came into use, the research supporting the concept spans decades. The quality of motor development in early life is a strong predictor of physical activity during grade-school years, setting the foundation for adolescence and adulthood. Michigan State University’s Motor Performance Study, which began in 1967 and followed more than 1,200 subjects for 36 years, found that learning fundamental movement skills was essential for healthy development and was a strong predictor of future physical activity.

But it’s important not to mistake early achievement in a particular sport for overall athleticism and love for movement, says Tom Farrey, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program and author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. “For all children up to at least age 12, the priority should be on developing physical literacy, not on being the age-group champion in some faraway state.” (See “Beyond All or Nothing: Finding the Balance in Youth Sports” for helping your children find a balance that’s just right for them.”

Making Movement Attractive

For kids approaching adolescence, the CDC’s recommendation of at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day doesn’t change. But statistics show a sharp decline in physical-activity levels of older youth. In 2016, 42.5 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds met the 60-minute guideline; only 7.5 percent of those 12 to 15 and 5.1 percent of those 16 to 19 did.

As kids get older, there’s also another shift: They’re engaging less in free play and more in organized sports, which are not as accessible. Teens are also more self-conscious and less likely to partake in an activity if they don’t feel confident in their abilities.

We can better serve adolescents by providing them with a greater variety of choices and entry points for physical activity, as well as mentors who can help them feel comfortable and find greater value in movement. (For ways to assess your child’s current level of activity, see “The Young and Not-So-Restless: Assessing Your Kid’s Activity Level“.)

“For all children up to at least age 12, the priority should be on developing physical literacy, not on being the age-group champion in some faraway state.”

Project Play’s survey of 6,000 high school students suggested that there’s a strong demand for nonsport fitness activities, but that schools struggle hard to meet it.

“The most revealing finding, to us, was the strong demand for fitness activities — 35 percent of students (athletes and nonathletes) said they have an interest in strength training. Another 21 percent are interested in yoga,” Farrey notes. Many schools have difficulty meeting this demand: Their primary focus is on supporting interscholastic sports, and although it varies by school and state, physical education (PE) is now offered less often after freshman year, he says.

“So, we’re starting to think that the real opportunity in reimagining school sports is better connecting students, especially the approximately six in 10 who do not play inter­scholastic sports, to fitness facilities and other community organizations that have capacity. Imagine students getting PE credit at local fitness facilities — it’s starting to happen.”

He recommends that students and parents talk with their school administrators about creating extracurricular opportunities outside of the regular interscholastic-sports menu. “There are tremendous opportunities to create a more youth-owned experience through clubs, such as an Ultimate Frisbee club,” he says. Or clubs for skateboarding, yoga, parkour, biking, climbing, trail running — the possibilities are endless.

Connecting kids with mentors is a powerful way to help them build confidence and develop a healthy relationship with exercise. All kids can benefit from positive role models, but research shows that preteen and teen girls may need more support. And nonbinary adolescents may face other issues of feeling like they don’t fit in or are unwelcome on gender-binary teams.

Girls’ confidence peaks around ages 9 to 12 — “and then plummets, and there is a huge gap between physical-activity levels of boys and girls from this point on,” says Mary Uran, cofounder and executive director of Girls on the Run (GOTR) Minnesota. The GOTR program aims to help girls build self-confidence, reinforcing their sense of what they can accomplish and inspiring them to question the narrative they see in society around women’s and girls’ roles.

Mentorship is a major component of GOTR’s success. “I’ve seen a connection in preventing mental-health issues, stress, isolation, and anxiety,” says Uran. “It’s good for girls to realize ‘I’m not doing this to win a game or make my body smaller. . . . I get positive benefits from moving my body, whether stress management, clearing my head, et cetera.’”

Former professional athlete ­Mechelle Lewis Freeman, a 2007 track-and-field world champion and 2008 Olympian in the 4×100 relay, is well aware of the challenges adolescent girls face. Her own experiences inspired her to create TrackGirlz in 2015, connecting young girls with mentors and a curriculum that helps them navigate physical, mental, and social challenges through sports. (Freeman is also on the board of the nonprofit Life Time Foundation and in 2021 helped launch an initiative to support schools and community organizations in ­encouraging youth physical activity.)

She is determined to reach girls who may not otherwise have access to school sports programming, including those in underserved and marginalized communities, as well as to motivate girls to be physically active and to help ­develop their athletic abilities.

“Track and field is one of the most diverse sports: You can run, jump, and throw. It’s important for girls to embrace who they are, and the sport allows them to discover and embrace their unique abilities,” Freeman says.

Connecting kids with a local organization that provides mentorship and social-emotional programming, such as GOTR or TrackGirlz, can help parents and guardians offload some of the heavy burden of the preteen and teen years while helping kids find greater value in physical activity.

Modeling an Active Lifestyle

When you rise in the morning to work out or you carve out time after dinner for a family walk, you’re teaching your kids that making time for exercise is important.

The reverse is also true, says Brenner. “If parents are sedentary, that has a big impact on kids, and that’s how you see this as a societal problem.” Studies have consistently shown a positive relationship between parents’ and children’s physical activity, regardless of the kids’ age.

Modeling an active lifestyle for their two children has come naturally for Freeman and her husband, Life Time strength coach David Freeman. Still, Mechelle says, there’s more to raising active kids than just walking the walk.

“You always start by establishing what your values are for your family,” she explains. “Once you do that, you have some guidance on your choices as they relate to your kids and movement. You can hold yourself accountable to your values and make them active on a daily basis.”

When David wakes up early every morning to work out, he’s not only demonstrating an active lifestyle; he’s modeling the values of consistency and dedication. When he recruits Bayne, 9, and Harley, 6, to join him in the family’s garage gym for 30 minutes a day for age-appropriate workouts, he’s not trying to turn them into elite athletes; he simply wants them to experience these values.

“We have expectations of showing up and being your best self, not about being the best performer on the field,” says Mechelle. “We just want you to be dedicated to what you’re doing and be consistent.”

You don’t have to be a professional coach or athlete to fit more movement into your family’s lifestyle. But if you can figure out how movement coincides with your values, you’ll be able to better align your goals and actions.

For instance, if environmental stewardship is important to your family, biking instead of driving is a great way to share this value with your children while helping them meet their movement needs. If family time is important, after-dinner walks and active vacations are ways to combine family time and physical activity.

If you go to a health club or fitness center regularly, try including your children, suggests Shelly Forsberg, director of programming for Life Time Kids. Many places offer family memberships and varied kids’ programming. While you work out, your kids can participate in classes, such as martial arts, dance, rock climbing, and gymnastics. (For ideas on encouraging your child to try new activities, see “How Can I Encourage My Child to Try a New Activity?“.)

You can also play with your kids. (For a family yoga workout, see “The 5-Sequence Family Yoga Workout“. For a family fitness circuit, see “The 8-Station Family Fitness Circuit“.)

This way, a healthy way of life becomes a normal part of your daily routine. The following are a few ways to make choosing to move more enticing and interesting for kids of all ages and abilities.

Balance Screen Time and Movement

Lifestyle habits and nutrition influence our energy levels, desire to move, and ultimately how frequently we exercise. One effective lifestyle change families can make to encourage movement is limiting screen time, says Brenner.

Besides sacrificing time during which kids could be moving, hovering over a device can lead to back pain and musculoskeletal problems, not to mention issues with socialization, he says. “In my office, we talk about limits of 30 minutes at a time for screen time and try to come up with alternate activities.”

Strategies or rules governing screen time might include requiring kids to go outside before they are allowed to use devices, matching the amount of screen time with physical activity time, or limiting their device use to weekends.

But screens don’t have to be the bad guy. As we’ve learned over the last couple of years, many fitness opportunities incorporate them in some form. For shy or self-conscious kids, participating in a game or a dance video increases accessibility and provides an opportunity to move, even with minimal space. Practicing age-appropriate and parent-approved TikTok dances can coexist with movement goals.

The key is making sure devices aren’t occupying time that could be spent moving and socializing in person.

“There are lots of times when our kids would rather be on Xbox or an iPad or making TikToks,” says Mechelle Lewis Freeman. “But it’s about giving them boundaries and finding the balance that works best for your family.”

Bring Back Free Play

For as long as little legs have been running, free play has been part of childhood. Whether kids are making up versions of tag, kicking a ball around, climbing trees, or playing pickup basketball, it’s these experiences of unorganized, informal physical play that they naturally seek out. Free play can be sports-based, or it can just be joyful movement for movement’s sake.

“Free play helps develop creativity, allows kids to experiment, [and] promotes love of the game, and it’s an experience owned by the participant,” says Farrey. “The reward is more intrinsic, versus the extrinsic reward you get from organized sports. It’s the core of sports in their original form.”

You can bring back free play by providing both the when and where for kids to engage in play on their own.

  • Advocate for more green space and park facilities in your community so access isn’t limited to organized teams.
  • Expose your kids to a variety of sports and activities with some formal instruction so they feel confident playing with other kids. Coaching, lessons, and classes can be expensive, but think of them as an investment in a well-rounded experience rather than just in a particular sport or activity.
  • Introduce your kids to natural environments that stimulate free play, such as parks and forest preserves.
  • Make time for free play, even if this may mean limiting organized sports and other formal activities.
  • Connect with other families who value free play. Get the ball rolling by arranging a time when kids can meet at a park to play.
  • Pair movement with responsibility. For instance, allow older kids to ride their bikes or meet up to play with friends if they can promise to follow safety rules and be home by a certain time.

Even as kids get older and choose to play organized sports, free play is key to fostering a long-term, sustainable love of movement. “I’ve never seen or heard of a child getting burned out from free play,” says pediatric sports-medicine specialist Brenner.

Beyond Sports Specialization

It’s easy to buy into the idea that your child needs more of the same sport to become a better athlete. And it’s hard to say no to extra practices and camps when it seems the roster for the local high school soccer team is already being shaped in elementary school.

But if our goal is to promote lifelong athletics and movement, experts say, specializing in one sport is not the ideal. “Early specialization, for the majority of kids, is not helpful — it can be harmful,” says Brenner. “From a physical standpoint, kids are more likely to sustain stress fractures and other overuse injuries. From a psychological standpoint, we see burnout. Kids might drop out of sports completely, or their experience can lead to depression and anxiety or make it worse.”

More-specialized adolescent athletes are significantly more likely to be injured compared with less-specialized athletes, according to a longitudinal study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020. Young athletes whose weekly training hours exceeded their age or who trained twice as many hours as they spent in free play were significantly more likely to be injured.

“If you slot a kid into playing baseball exclusively at age 6, they might be burned out by the time they reach high school,” says Farrey. “Kids who play multiple sports will have developed overall athleticism and the ability to use different parts of their bodies, and have a better chance to find the activity they care about most.” (For more on specialization and competition in kids’ sports, see “Are Kids’ Sports Becoming Too Competitive?“.)

Rather than pushing kids to choose their lifelong sport, parents can encourage them to try sports without any pressure and let them step away from activities they dislike. Give them a chance to try a couple of practices or classes, and let them discontinue activities without pressure or judgment.

Finally, remember that the parents’ sports don’t have to be the kids’ sports, says Farrey. Let your kids think outside of their parents’ paradigm. New activities you’ve never even tried could become their thing, whether it’s Ultimate Frisbee, parkour, horseback riding, pickleball, or a game waiting to be created.

The endgame for most kids isn’t sports; it’s a lifelong love and appreciation for movement, Farrey adds.

“It’s really about the sense of joy and play we have as kids. And the more that we can retain that into adulthood, the better.”

Create Movement-Friendly Spaces

Some homes feature playrooms, but Rachel Wiegand has taken her family’s movement aspirations to the next level. A mother of two girls, 6 and 2, in Sheboygan, Wis., Wiegand was inspired in part by Bowman’s Grow Wild to revamp her home in a big way: The Wiegands installed monkey bars on basement crossbeams, added a climbing wall upstairs, and swapped traditional living-room furniture for a floor couch and plyo boxes.

Wiegand’s goal is to inspire her kids to move as a part of daily life. “I’d like them to develop an awareness of what it looks like to move in different ways without a stigma attached — not just play sports and have that be their movement. It’s been a really big change in ways I wasn’t expecting,” says Wiegand, whose daughters now set up obstacle courses and jump in pillow piles every night.

Making your home movement-friendly doesn’t have to be so extreme — nor does it have to be complicated or expensive, says Bowman.

“Make space!” she suggests. “Create some open floor for tumbling, set up a box or item for jumping on or off, and get a low-cost chin-up bar for hanging. Play games or watch shows while stretching on the floor. Set up a couple of weekly meals outside. Change the rules of the house so they don’t discourage movement.”

As the Vuckovic kids have gotten older, the family discovered that what they really needed in their home was more open floor space and less stuff that could be knocked over or broken. “A lot of times, the kids will want to play hide-and-seek, or dance, or just sprawl out on the floor. We cleared out some coffee tables in the living room and rearranged the couches, and now this is the room they hang out in the most,” Hunt says.

For outside play, they hung a Ninja-line between trees in the backyard, which offers opportunities for climbing without the investment of a large play structure.

Whether you have a fenced-in yard, share a courtyard, or just live near a patch of open green space, you can encourage more outdoor play by keeping outdoor toys accessible and making sure your kids have appropriate gear for any weather.

And when your kids want to roughhouse, throw a ball around, or dance in the living room, engage with them. “What they’re telling you is that play is key to their development as human beings,” Game On author Farrey explains. “Children are wired to play. Take them up on it — drop what you’re doing and play with them.”

Build Your Own Obstacle Course

Letting kids experience and conquer a variety of movements in a fun way helps them gain both the physical ability and confidence to take on greater challenges. This DIY obstacle course includes kid-friendly ways to tackle basic movement patterns and gives kids ownership of their play.

Best for kids ages 3-10, adult supervision recommended.


  • 3 sturdy folding chairs
  • Painter’s tape
  • Rope or yoga strap
  • Sturdy wooden broomstick
  • Large towel or blanket
  • Yoga mat
  • Room with hard, smooth floors

How to:

  1. Choose one movement (beginner or advanced) from each category.
  2. Ask an adult to help you set up each obstacle.
  3. Write the numbers one through five on pieces of paper and place each paper next to an obstacle to order your obstacles however you’d like.
  4. Print out the scorecard to keep track of your total number of points and time. The player with the most points wins. If there is a tie, the player with the fastest time wins. Or simply play for fun and skip the points.
  5. Feel free to repeat the course as many times you’d like and try to beat your score!

Long Jump


  • Set up five 6-inch-long pieces of tape on the floor about a foot apart.
  • Stand with your feet together on the first piece of tape.
  • Jump forward to land on the second piece of tape, and keep going until you land on the last piece of tape.
  • Land on both feet at the same time.

Points: 2 points if you land on every piece of tape successfully; 1 point if you miss a landing.


  • Set up five 6-inch-long pieces of tape on the floor: Place the first two pieces 12 inches apart, the third piece 18 inches from the second, the fourth 24 inches from the third, and the fifth 32 inches from the fourth.
  • Jump forward to land on the second piece of tape, and keep going until you land on the last piece of tape.
  • Land on both feet at the same time.

Points: 1 point for each successful landing.



  • Set up three folding chairs in a row, about 2 feet apart.
  • Start at one end of the chairs and crawl under all three chairs to get to the other side.

Points: 2


  • Set up three folding chairs in a row, about 2 feet apart.
  • Start at one end of the chairs and crawl under all three chairs to get to the other side.

Points: You can earn 3 points if you avoid touching any part of the chair as you crawl.



  • In a room with hard, smooth floors, attach one end of a 10-foot or longer rope or sturdy fabric such as a yoga strap to a sturdy anchor point such as a banister.
  • Hold the other end of the rope and walk away from the anchor point until there is tension in the rope.
  • Sit on a towel or blanket and pull the rope, overlapping one arm at a time, until you slide all the way to the anchor point.
  • In carpeted rooms, young kids can try this while sitting in a laundry basket.

Points: 2


  • Set up two sturdy chairs three feet apart and facing toward each other.
  • Place a sturdy, wood broomstick across the two chairs.
  • Place a mat on the floor between the chairs.
  • Have an adult hold the broomstick in place, then lie on your back on the floor with your chest directly below the broomstick.
  • Grip the broomstick with two hands and hold your body straight and stiff, with your heels on the ground.
  • Pull yourself up from the ground until your chest touches the broomstick. Slowly lower yourself back to the mat.
  • Repeat until you can’t do any more reps.

Points: 1 point per rep, up to 5 points.



  • Place a 10-foot-long strip of painter’s tape on the floor.
  • Start at one end of the tape and walk to the other end without losing your balance.
  • Turn around and walk back to the starting side.

Points: 3`


  • Place a 10-foot-long strip of painter’s tape on the floor.
  • Start at one end of the tape and walk backwards to the other end without losing your balance. Then, turn around and walk backwards to the starting side.

Points: 3



  • Squat down as low as you can and touch down both hands flat on the floor, then rise up to standing.
  • Repeat 10 times.

Points: 1


  • Squat down as low as you can and touch down both hands flat on the floor, then jump up and land softly on the balls of your feet.
  • Repeat 10 times.

Points: 2

Bonus: Repeat 10 times more for one bonus point.

Maximum points: 20

This article originally appeared as “Kids at Play” in the September 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Nicole Radziszewski

Nicole Radziszewski is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill. She blogs at

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