Exercise for kids should be fun. Instead of “working out,” think of it as “exercise play.” Kids arrive at school about 45 minutes early and spend that time in fun, active play. It’s a fantastic way to add fitness to their daily routine. And it helps them do better in school, both academically and behaviorally, too. What follows are suggestions for easy exercises for kids—movements and games that they’ll enjoy and benefit from. These ideas require no equipment or large outdoor spaces. They can be done in small bursts of five to 10 minutes, or you can string several activities together for a longer physical playtime.
Start with a few minutes of warm-up exercises to get muscles and hearts moving.
Running is just about the simplest form of exercise there is, and it’s perfect for kids’ seemingly endless energy and need for speed. Kids can run outdoors or inside: in a gym, down a hallway, or even around (and around, and around) a large table. Running can also be combined with other moves into active games, like relay races. Change things up while running: Vary movement patterns by having kids switch from running to skipping, or try running in place with feet very close to the ground (this is called “fast feet”). Kids can also run with high knees (lifting alternating knees toward the chest with each step) or “butt kicks” (kicking alternating heels toward the buttocks with each step). Changes of direction (side-to-side or reverse) work both muscles and the brain, improving kids’ coordination.
Get those feet up and off the ground with these easy exercises. Jumps build muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness, and endurance. And who doesn’t love competing against a friend, sibling, or even an adult to see who can jump the highest?
Fun jumps for kids to try include:
- Criss-cross feet: Jump straight up, then cross one foot in front of the other; on next jump, switch feet and continue.
- Hurdle hops: Jump side-to-side or front-to-back over a pretend hurdle.
- Jumping jacks: Stretch arms and legs out to the side like a starfish while jumping; on the second jump, return arms to sides and legs to center on the landing.
- One-foot hops: Lift one knee and jump on the standing leg; alternate. (This is a great balance challenge, too.)
- Tuck jumps: Bend knees and lift heels high while jumping.
To make exercise more fun for kids, turn it into a game. Here are some ideas from Akpan.
- Corners: Divide kids up so that they each have a home corner. Then, have them run around the room in a circle. On your cue, they need to return to “home” and do a few easy exercises (say, five jumping jacks or one 30-second plank). Akpan suggests letting kids decide what exercises to do in each corner to give them ownership over the game.
- Go back and hit it: On “go,” kids run forward in designated lanes. Then call out “back,” a prompt for them to run in reverse. Finally, say “hit it!,” a cue to incorporate another skill (such as a tuck jump or squat). Again, give kids input on choosing the “hit it” skill.
- Squat relay: Have kids line up on opposite sides of the room, facing each other. On “go,” all kids run toward the center of the room and meet in the middle. They need to do three squats, giving each other a high-five with both hands in between each rep. Then, they return to the starting point and repeat. The focus is on the high-fives and the social interaction. If you have a large group, you could have the lines shift sideways between reps so kids meet a different friend in the middle of the room each time.
- Traffic: In this BOKS variation of “Red Light, Green Light,” there’s more going on on “the road.” Kids stop and start at red and green lights, but they also shuffle to the side for a yellow light, do bunny hops at speed bumps, link elbows and run with a partner for a “carpool,” and even gallop when the cue is “deer crossing.” Make up some more moves with your kids!
Indoor Ball Games
Playing ball games indoors or outside can be great exercise for kids. Some of the benefits include aerobic exercise, balance, and coordination practice. (Plus, kids usually gravitate toward any activity that involves a ball.)
Some examples of indoor ball games that don’t require a lot of space include:
- Tossing balls into laundry baskets
- Hitting balls at a target with a household object
- Catching balls with a plastic mixing bowl
- Throwing, rolling, or kicking a ball against the wall
Other ideas include dribbling, passing, and rolling a ball back and forth between partners.
Skipping can be a fun form of aerobic activity that can also challenge skills such as balance and coordination.
Some skipping games to try include:
- Hopscotch: Set up a hopscotch board (a grid of numbered squares) using either chalk (outside) or masking tape (inside). There are tons of ways to play, but with all of them a player essentially throw a small object (like a beanbag) onto one of the squares. They then try to hop, skip, or jump their way through the course without landing in that square.
- Jumping rope: Have your kids jump rope for a timed duration. You can amp up the difficulty by asking them to go forward and back, or make it more competitive by seeing which child gets the most skips in a set amount of time.
- Obstacle course: Set up a simple obstacle course with accessible items, such as a chair to skip around and a pot to skip over. Then, set a timer and have your kids aim to beat their personal records.
- Skipping tag: Play tag, but have everyone skip instead of running or walking to catch their opponent. You can add variation by switching to hopping on one foot, all fours, or some other way of moving.
The bear crawl is walking on all fours with your belly facing the floor (the opposite of the crab crawl). This movement can be a good whole-body exercise that challenges kids to use their limbs and core.
First, simply have kids practice this movement, then work toward using the bear crawl in more complicated games, such as doing an obstacle course or challenging them to race to a certain location in the house and back. With care, they can also leap over each other’s backs in this pose.
Squats and Lunges
These simple exercises build leg strength, giving kids a good foundation for all kinds of sports and fitness activities. Try forward, backward, and side lunges, as well as classic squats. Make it into a game by counting how many your child can do in 30-second intervals while keeping proper form.
Knees should be kept in line with feet and not bent too far.
Sit-Ups and Push-Ups
Hit the floor for basic exercises that work the core: Sit-ups, push-ups, and planks. Kids can do traditional abdominal crunches, bicycle crunches, legs-up sit-ups, and more. There are so many variations on the classic sit-up. Kids can also learn to do basic push-ups and planks to strengthen their upper bodies and core muscles in the abs and back. Modify traditional push-ups by keeping knees on the ground, as needed. As with other exercises like squats and lunges, incorporate these into games and other exercise activities (like circuits and races) to keep kids engaged and having fun.