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Physical Education on a Shoestring

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #78, 2007.

Inexpensive physical education for your preschooler.

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Melissa Morgan

Your preschooler has come a long way since babyhood. Most likely your energetic little one is busy walking, running, jumping, riding a trike, skipping, trying to hop on one foot, throwing discs, kicking and sometimes even catching balls. Still, small children vary widely in their large muscle development and skills.

We may feel pressured to sign our kids up for every community sport opportunity. However, most experts believe that team sports are not necessary for small children, and may even harm development. After all, most little kids in organized sports spend most of their time on the bench or out in "left field" daydreaming. Individual achievement activities, such as swimming, walking, gymnastics, karate, and biking, usually will allow kids to meet physical education goals more quickly, and provide more lifetime benefits. Until your tot is bigger, learn a sport, play, work and exercise together.

Okay, some of us weren't the best in school gym classes. Still, I'm betting you are taller and more skilled than your tot-to him, you can do anything! You can help your child learn lifetime fitness habits in informal small groups and in family settings. First, unplug or limit video games and television so your whole family can be more active.

Although your home preschool may be informal, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a movement education plan. Know where you are, where you need to go, and how you will get there. Download free resources, such as Gross Motor Milestones for the Typical Developing Child, (abaresources.com/pdf/grossmotor.pdf) and World Book's Typical Course of Study: Preschool Motor Skills (worldbook.com), to assess your child. As your child masters a skill, simply check it off.

Use physical activities to help your child learn. For instance, your child could make the shape of a triangle or letter with his body. Spark ideas for more cross-curricular, hands-on fitness activities with print resources such as M. Jean Soyke's Early Education at Home: A Curriculum Guide for Parents of Preschoolers and Kindergartners, Beverly Hernandez' Ultimate Homeschool Physical Education Game Book, and The Weaver Curriculum: Interlock for Preschool and Kindergarten from Alpha Omega Publications.

Playground equipment such as pools, slides, swing sets and jungle gyms can be expensive, and local ordinances may prohibit or regulate them. You don't need to spend a lot for your physical education program. Many families enjoy nearby parks or hang a simple tire swing from a sturdy tree. If you or a family member is handy with tools, you may be able to borrow library materials to help build a simple playground with recycled materials (such as used lumber). Whether you purchase play sets, construct your own play equipment or use the public park, be aware that injuries-such as from trampolines-are common. A small child can drown in a neighbor's pool or in a few inches of water in a bucket. Contact your pediatrician or local children's hospital for information. Put safety first.

For little kids, most playground equipment is too big anyway. Make a different playground every day-indoors or out. Acquire cardboard boxes of all sizes and make playhouses. Or simply hang an old sheet over a card table. Use a piece of masking tape or chalk on a basement floor or driveway to mimic a balance beam for kids to walk on. Draw an obstacle course and add boxes to crawl through, hop over, kick a balloon around, or drive a trike around. Build block towers; then take turns bowling balls into them.

Sand play can help kids develop strength and hand-eye coordination, through pouring, digging, measuring, and scooping. Build your own sandbox from lumber or use a discarded plastic kiddy pool. Drill holes in the bottom for drainage. Cover with an old screen; the box will stay cleaner, and wet sand will not grow unhealthy mold.

Movement education involves much more than power and dexterity. Sportsmanship, thinking skills, and following directions help your child solve problems. In addition, the fastest and the strongest may win the race, but others may not want to play with a bad sport! Most little ones need help learning the rules and playing games with others.

Gather a group of tots together after church or at a family get-together. Suggest old fashioned but still wildly popular games such as Hide and Seek, Ring Around the Rosie, Hopscotch, Duck Duck Goose, jump rope, or Musical Chairs. (Ask an older person, or look on the Internet, for more traditional game ideas.)

You may need to modify games or make them easier for the younger ones. Let little ones get closer to a goal. Even a tot can join in jumping rope; two people hold the jump rope without turning it. A young or timid child can first step, and then try to jump, over the stationary rope. Bring balls closer, until a child can be successful at catching. Remind a small child to squeeze a ball so he doesn't drop it. Also try larger but softer balls, tactile balls (bumpy texture), juggling scarves, or bean bags, to make catching easier. Give the older child a handicap, such as throwing or catching with a weaker hand, to make it fair.

Instead of competition, emphasize teamwork. Assign an older child to help the youngest, so that no child is left behind. Older, more skilled kids can learn to teach and play carefully with little ones. Change the object of the game: encourage success for everyone on the team, instead of each person trying to be the fastest or best.

"Simon Says" games help kids increase physical skills, learn to listen and follow directions. Try these:

"Simon says, if it is Tuesday, jump up and down. If it is Wednesday, spin around three times."

"Simon says, 'Meow like a cat!'"

"Simon says, 'Do like me.'" (Clap your hands two times-if your child can do this, add on another step, such as stomping your feet.)

Little kids love to play silly games-and teens will sometimes play them too! Try playing "kitty and owner." The owner "buys" the kitty at the pet store, takes him home, and trains him. The "kitty" gets plenty of exercise scampering about; after awhile you can trade places.

Physical education doesn't have to be all fun and games. The other day, my mom and I noticed a youngster shooting out of a movie theater, bursting with pent up power. My mom smiled and said, "In my day, we would know what to do with that energy-we'd put it to work!" Maybe we still can.

When adults model a good attitude toward chores, kids jump at the chance to help others. Remember Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and how he got the fence painted? Even today, most little kids still view work as play.

Sure, you may find it easier and less messy in the short run, to do a job yourself. However, kids learn skills and have fun with chores such as sweeping, mopping, gardening, watering, dusting, putting away groceries, wiping tables, and setting the table. Through work and play, you can help your child grow a strong body, mind, and spirit, reaping rewards that will last a lifetime.

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