It’s ironic and somewhat tragic, that in our society a license is required to land a fish, shoot a quail, drive a car and give a massage but there is no such requirement to be a parent. Children enter the world with an abundance of resilience, curiosity, desire for movement and absolutely no food preference. During the formative first years of a child’s life, parents (even without a license) play a critical role in shaping and establishing how that child will feel, think and act about physical activity and nutrition for a lifetime.

Children are naturally active and physically explore their environment through movement and motor development. Parents must learn to balance the safety of their child with a freedom of movement providing challenges and opportunities to develop strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and cardiovascular efficiency. Creative, active play (mostly outdoors) should be a priority on every toddler’ and pre-K child’s daily schedule.  Parents should ensure their young children experience sixty minutes of vigorous, active play each day. Such play should include a variety of age appropriate activities that foster basic movements such as walking, running, falling, rolling, jumping, pulling, pushing, leaping. More advanced skills such as skipping, hopping, kicking, striking and catching should be introduced gradually, according to the child’s readiness, with age appropriate equipment and in a non-competitive environment.

“Unlicensed” parents should also beware of pushing young children into structured sport and physical activity before they are physically, socially or emotionally ready.  While three and four year-olds may have the neuromuscular capacity through training to perform certain sport, dance or other complex movements, parents should consider the immediate and long term physical and emotional risks of doing so. Parents should consider the “risk – rewards” of dressing their child in a uniform, gi, or tutu because they look adorable, grandma paid for lessons or because all of the other kids are playing. Sport and performance activities are inherently competitive and can create significant stress for young children still developing a sense of self and identity.  It is easy for parents to fall into the trap of manipulating the child to perform for the entertainment of the grown-ups while, inwardly, the child may be terrified by fear of failure or disappointing mom and dad. Children should be given time and encouragement to experience all forms of movement, learn their abilities and limits and grow into their bodies naturally. Parents who honor the rights of their child to be a child are well on the way to earning that parenting license.

David Gardner