How to raise an active toddler

Now your little one’s learned how to run around, there’s a whole exciting world out there to explore


For his body

Active play is great for strengthening little hearts and muscles, and building healthy bones, too. “Physical activity’s going to keep your toddler at a healthy weight and burn off those excess calories if he’s overeaten. In the long term, it’s going to help protect him from illnesses such as diabetes,” says Dr Lin Day, child development expert and founder of Toddler Sense development classes (


Being active can also help ease growing pains. “Toddlers go through tremendous growth spurts but exercise can make those spurts less painful by releasing pressure on tendons and joints,” explains Lin.

For his emotions

It’s not only adults who get a rush of endorphins with exercise – toddlers do too. “Being active, particularly outside in the fresh air, gives kids such a happy feeling. And when they’re active, they feel better and less frustrated, which means tantrums are less likely, which is good for them and for parents,” says Dr Lin. By burning off energy throughout the day with lots of activity, your little one’s more likely to sleep well at night, which means you will, too.

For his brain

When your toddler exercises, he gets a big oxygen boost and that helps build new brain cells. “Lots of oxygen to the brain enhances intelligence, learning and concentration, as well as helping to make and store memories,” says Lin.

Physical activity helps your tot master the skills he’s already developed, like running and climbing, as well as learning new ones like hopping. “If 2 and 3 year olds don’t get enough exercise, their balance and coordination skills won’t be encouraged which can lead to them being clumsy when they start school,” adds Lin.

For his social skills

Mixed-age active play gives your toddler the chance to develop social skills and friendships. “Being active gives tots the chance to mingle with older children who act as role models and help a child develop communication skills and observe, then develop negotiation, compromise, turn-taking and sharing,” says child development expert, Dr Amanda Gummer. “Rough and tumble is a good way for little boys to be active and play together but many parents clamp down on it, worried that someone’ll get hurt. But let them carry on, unless it’s one-sided or has a bullying tone, as it helps them learn lots of skills,” she adds.

For his learning development

Being overprotective can deny your toddler the chance to develop independence and risk-assessing skills. “Children learn from experience more effectively than any other form of teaching,” says Amanda. “For example, a toddler can jump off the bottom stair, so he may try the second step, and so on. He’ll normally be a good judge of his own ability and won’t try jumping straight from the fourth step without checking the lower steps first.”

Celeb tip

“Swimming is something we can do together and it’s great exercise for all of us. Jaden and Star Lily are both good sleepers, but it definitely tires them out and helps them sleep. The social aspect is great too – I can meet other mums and they can meet other babies and toddlers.”

Lisa Scott-Lee, mum to Jaden, 3, and Star Lily, 18 months

Mum’s tip

“I encourage my toddler to scoot or walk when we go to the park. Also, rather than her just sitting in the trolley when we go to the supermarket, I get her to pass me things. It’s a bit stressful, but at least it stops her trying to eat everything I put in the trolley.”

Jenny Arnott, 36, from London, mum to Amelia, 5, and Lyra, 2


Ways to make your toddler move:

  • Lead by example. Little ones love copying, so try and get him involved in your activity, whether it’s a Wii workout or washing the car. “The biggest factor in a child’s activity level is the parents’ own approach to exercise,” says Dr Amanda Gummer.
  • Get into a routine. Toddlers love routines, so making one out of exercise means he won’t let you forget it. “When your tot gets out of bed in the morning, say ‘Let’s see if we can touch our toes’. It gets him into the habit of exercise,” suggests Dr Lin Day.
  • Make a playdate. Getting together in the park or playcentre is the best way to encourage your tot into physical activity. “Children love running around together, even indoors. But get him doing it in the fresh air, that’s the ultimate goal,” advises Amanda.
  • Use your imagination. “Toddlers love to go up and down steps and that’s great exercise. Walk up the stairs with your little one, and get him to pretend to be a cat and make a cat sound,” suggests Lin. Making necklaces with uncooked pasta will exercise those fine muscles in little hands, and help prepare him for holding a pencil.
  • Mix it up. Don’t do the same activity with your toddler all the time – try swimming one day, then maybe walking to the shops the next. “This variety will reinforce the message that activity is normal and a good thing,” says Amanda. And it doesn’t have to cost much. Games like musical statues are free and use lots of skills as your toddler will have to dance, listen and control his body. 

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