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Professional Development

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Let’s Get Physical! But How, During COVID-19?

Youth crave physical experiences with heights, speed, and rough-and-tumble play, and as they mature, they seek more strong sensations, new experiences, and intense feelings.

Because youth programs are more successful when they engage youth, are nature-immersed, and provide appropriate challenge and social interactions, it's important for adults to consider how to meet children's needs for new, intense experiences so they don't act out to soothe those cravings.

The NAA Healthy Eating and Physical Activity 2.0 standards set an expectation that out-of-school time (OST) programs provide moderate-to-vigorous physical activity of 30 minutes for a three-hour program and 60 minutes for a full-day program. Yet only one in three children is physically active on a daily basis.

The research is pretty clear about what works, but how can it work when COVID-19 recommendations are isolating and prompting people toward individual, technology-based interactions? There aren't easy answers, but here are some ideas that can be refined and modified to work with your OST rules during this pandemic:

Because time spent outside is recommended over indoor activity—the more time outdoors, the better—these ideas emphasize outdoor, noncompetitive, low-contact opportunities for physical activity that require minimal equipment. It's best if programs provide individual, labeled equipment, in addition to youth washing their hands before and after using any equipment. If equipment is shared: Sanitize or provide airing time between uses, as directed by CDC guidelines.

  • Invite youth to plan and build a no-hands obstacle course and then time each other completing the challenge elements.
  • Hula hoop fun. Have youth create a playlist and then hula hoop to the music, each person with their own hoop. Hoops can be fun for other things, too. Youth can "jump rope" with them, hop in, out and over them, and toss them back and forth.
  • Make calisthenics fun. Youth can pick a favorite song, like baseball players' walk-up music. When "their" song comes on, they call out a movement to do. Invite youth to do sets of jumping jacks, burpees, toe touches, mountain climbers, push-ups, leg raises, squats, run in place, or another movement of their choice. Staff may want to limit the time on each song to 30 seconds or a minute, to get more movement and choices in the experience.
  • Have youth lead stretching or yoga poses like "cat," "cobra," or "warrior."
  • Use sidewalk chalk to create giant bingo or tic-tac-toe boards on a playground. Toss bean bags or plastic discs for markers.
  • Invite youth to make and fly their own one straw kite.
  • Hide and hunt. One team hides and one team hunts plastic eggs or painted river rocks. To increase the physicality, set the "rule" that people run the found objects back to a basket or collection bin one at a time. Staff can also set limits about how many each person can find, having at least some part of the object remain visible. Youth can time themselves to see how quickly they can find all the hidden objects.
  • Suspend cording higher than the children's heads. Place tennis balls or foam balls in reused pantyhose legs. Knot them on the suspended cord so they hang down as swinging targets. Space them 6 feet apart. Allow children to have "batting" practice using pool noodles or plastic bats.
  • I-spy. After their pulses are racing, hearts are pounding, and lungs are pushed, it's time for a wind-down. This 1-square-foot observation challenge is a great follow up to vigorous play. Give each person a piece of yarn that's 48" long. Ask them to arrange the yarn in a square on the ground and write a list of as many things as they see in their personal square of ground. If you want, reconvene the group and see how many unique items you can identify/spy among the whole group.

As your OST team heads into the fall, it may be helpful to pause and evaluate how well you are doing at providing engaging, varied physical activities for the youth you serve. This handout can help with that task.

If you'd like to learn more, check out the newly released Penn State Better Kid Care professional development module School-Age Youth Programs: Health and Safety Best Practices. While this module does not have specific COVID-19 guidance, it does comply with the most recent NAA competencies and HEPA 2.0 standards.

Written by Rebecca A. Escott, Early Learning/Out of School Time Specialist, Penn State Better Kid Care.


Haas, Myriam, Andreas Hiemisch, Mandy Vogel, Oleg Wagner, Wieland Kiess, and Tanja Poulain. 2019. "Sensation seeking in 3-to 6-year-old children: associations with socio-demographic parameters and behavioural difficulties." BMC Pediatrics 19(1): 77.

National AfterSchool Association (NAA). 2017. "HEPA Standards"

President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition (PCSFN). 2017. "Facts & Statistics—Physical Activity." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sandseter, Ellen B., and Leif E. Kennair. 2011. "Children's Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences." Evolutionary Psychology 9(2): 257-284.

Williams, Ian R., Lauren M. Rose, Craig A. Olsson, George C. Patton, and Nicholas B. Allen. 2018. "The impact of outdoor youth programs on positive adolescent development: Study protocol for a controlled crossover trial." International Journal of Educational Research 87: 22-35.