5 Ways to “Play First, Challenge Later” in Youth Fitness

Kids instinctively play, so let’s capitalize on this concept to hook them with these five basic steps.

Kids instinctively play, so let’s capitalize on this concept to hook them!

If you’re interested in starting a fitness group for kids (or you already run a group), consider the most primitive need for our youngsters: the intrinsic desire to play. This means that before you encourage hard work and challenge, you give kids first a chance to touch, handle, manipulate, sample, and test any equipment you’ve provided for them. Then, when they begin their second (chance) rotation, that’s when you should encourage kids to embrace challenges. The justification for this falls in two parts.

Why Play During Fitness Activities?

Allowing kids first to “ play” with equipment serves two purposes:

  1. It gets out the wiggles. When kids see new equipment—like a new toy—they typically are giddy to touch it. Upon first sight, their eyes might light up, they may jump up and down, and they may even squeal. They are often restless and squirrely. So, tell them to “ play” with it! It’ll get out their initial wiggles, so they can better process the concept of personal challenge.
  2. It creates a baseline. By first playing with the equipment, it gives kids practice time, therefore establishing a baseline of their abilities. A starting point. They learn what they can do, can’t do, and want to do.

5-Steps for a Great Play-to-Challenge Experience

Here are five basic steps during the play-to-challenge process while working with kids. You can lead these groups in a fitness facility, gymnasium, community center, or other available space—even outdoors.

  1. Set-Up. Set up any combination of equipment, mindful that you alternate stations that emphasize cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility. Make sure to set out enough equipment that each kids has their own piece to handle, so that everyone will be busy touching something. This will keep kids engaged and on task.
  2. Give Safety Instructors. Before starting, address all the kids to describe and demonstrate how to use each piece of equipment and any safety concerns with it. Use both verbal and visual cues.
  3. Divide and Play. Next, divide kids evenly and send them to their starting station, encouraging them to “ play” with each type of equipment for 1-to-2 minutes, (depending on your set up). Rotate them once through all of the stations, encouraging them safely to play.
  4. Introduce Challenge. Once kids begin their second rotation through the stations, encourage the concept of hard work and challenging themselves. Coach them that this is their second chance to use the equipment and now is the time to challenging themselves. They will be ready to take their efforts to the next level.
  5. Praise. Finally, praise kids for their hard work, rather than just their achievements, as growth-mindset research indicates this is the most effective way to motivate kids. For a deeper discussion on this, read my article Kids Fitness: Emphasize Effort, Not Achievement.

Considerations for Stations

Based on the size of the group, the facility you’re teaching at, and the five steps outlined above, below are three considerations all fit pros need to have when working with kids.

CONSIDERATION 1: Basic Equipment

Many fitness facilities and gymnasiums only have basic equipment. This is okay! When kids haven’t touched a piece of equipment for a long time, it feels exciting and new again. The following list of equipment includes basic pieces that are common to many facilities and could serve as a starting point. (For more equipment resources, check out our Equipment Resources page.) Any of these pieces could be appropriate for our youngsters with proper coaching on safety.

  • Jump Ropes
  • Cones/Hurdles
  • Balance Boards
  • Tubing
  • Hula Hoops (or smaller rings)
  • Body Bars
  • Stability Balls
CONSIDERATION 2: Defining “challenge” for kids

Prior to starting the second (chance) rotation, you may have to define what challenge looks like within this activity. In most cases, it will mean any of the following for your youngsters:

  • Counting repetitions of a movement and trying for a personal record.
    • Example: Counting how many jumps with a jump rope before “messing up” (yes, that’s how kids define it).
  • Counting time during a movement or hold (i.e. “ One Mississippi, two…” ).
    • Example: Standing on a balance/core board and counting how many seconds one can hold before the equipment tips and the side touches the floor. Then starting over and trying to last longer than the previous attempts.
  • Trying a new movement or action with a piece of equipment.
    • Example: Trying to circle the hula hoop around one’s waist, neck, arm, knees, jump through, etc.

Do kids’ scores need to be recorded?

Not at all! Allow kids to play, discover challenges, and move on without the hassle of record keeping. At the core of it all, what really matters is the fact that these kids are enjoying physical movement and that we, as fitness professionals, are leading them down the path toward life-long fitness.

5 Ways to "Play First, Challenge Later" in Youth Fitness 1

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