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Family Play Circuit

When clients use their kids as part of the "no time to exercise" excuse, point them toward a local playground.

The Healthy People 2010 objectives recommend physical activity goals for both adults and children, citing physical activity as a leading health indicator for the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] 2000). The objectives aim to get more adults to engage in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes per day; to reduce the number of adults who engage in no leisure-time physical activity; to increase the number of adolescents who engage in 20 or more minutes of vigorous physical activity 3 or more days per week; to increase the proportion of schools that require daily physical education for all students; and to increase access to activity opportunities for both children and adults. In addition, the physical activity recommendations in Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 urge children and adolescents to engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week (HHS & U.S. Department of Agriculture 2005).

The parents of young children do not seem to use personal training services as much as other demographic groups. Why? Lack of time is the simple answer. One creative way to engage this population and overcome the “no time” objection is to develop exercise opportunities for parents that include their children. Personal trainers have a unique opportunity to reconnect parents with their young children through purposeful play and step up physical activity in families at the same time.

This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. One effective strategy is to have a “fun festival” or family wellness day wherein you lead the way on outdoor activities at the playground; these could include executing a playground scavenger hunt (find the best climbing wall or slide, etc.) or activating a “playground circuit.” Parents who did not previously use your services because of the “no time” factor may seek to be more active in creative programs that support a family activity. When you teach clients how to work as “buddies” or as a family “team” while discovering the free fitness-play equipment at a playground, you offer a joyful way to help meet some objectives of Healthy People 2010.

Following are a few examples of how parents and kids can be active and have fun outside the walls of a fitness facility. Play at a playground can be buddy assisting (parent helping child); team (parent and child playing together); or a combination of both. The purpose of these simple exercises is to enable parents and children to realize reciprocal benefit from play. A less tangible benefit is that family members enjoy a bonding opportunity they might not experience over the dinner table or during a trip to the store.

After you’ve taught parents how to play purposefully, encourage them to explore different playgrounds. Not every park will have the same equipment, so a variety of locations can create many new adventures.

The Playful Circuit


The type of equipment available depends on the playground. Scout out several that have a variety of apparatuses for clients to climb up, over, under and through. Check the equipment to see if it is well maintained (e.g., no sharp bolts, loose swings, missing safety bars, etc.). The play surface should be soft. Preferable surfaces include wood chips, sand and recycled-tennis-shoe mats. During warmer seasons, avoid playgrounds with little overhead cover in midday. Also check the equipment for temperature.

Warm-Up (5 Minutes)

A simple game of tag can be the warm-up. Start around the perimeter of the playground and progress into “Follow the Leader” over, under and through the equipment. You also can play “What Animal Am I?” In this game, parent or child mimics a favorite animal (pick a zoo, farm or household pets theme) and the other person guesses which animal it is. Pick any or all of the above activities for a total of 5 minutes, beginning with easier games and moving on to more vigorous ones.

Safety Tips: Like any other clients, parents should receive exercise clearance from a physician before beginning this program. Depending on fitness level, it may be important to have parents first come to the park alone to experience what their bodies will feel like as they start this purposeful play.

Teach clients how to monitor and regulate intensity using rating of perceived exertion.

Maintain proper hydration during exercise—especially in hot weather.

Get Ready to Play!

Use all of the following activities as a circuit, and play “Follow the Leader” (child follows parent or vice versa) around the circuit a few times. Keep in mind the parent’s fitness level, the session’s objectives and the equipment available at the playground.

Play 1: Pony-Up

Objective: Knee extensions to enhance quadriceps strength for parent and core stabilization and balance for child (8–15 repetitions).

Most parents have played “Horsey” with their children. Use that game as an opportunity to do some leg extensions. The parent sits on a park bench or other stable surface and assumes good posture. While balancing the child on the lower legs, the parent extends his legs from the knees. The child can move further down toward the parent’s ankles to create more resistance. As strength increases, the parent can try lifting with one leg at a time. Progress the number of repetitions as the child’s growth allows.

Teaching Tips: Teach the parent pro-per alignment before adding the child’s weight. Ears, shoulders and hips should be lined up, and abdominals should be contracted for stabilization. The child should be put on the parent’s foot when the foot is on the ground, and lifted slowly, with control.

Safety Tips: The parent may not be able to lift the child with one leg, owing to lack of strength, the child’s weight or both. As a good rule of thumb, a child that weighs more than 15 pounds should not be placed near the ankle, but should sit closer to the parent’s knee. Under the supervision of the trainer, the child should start out straddling the parent’s leg, standing on the ground, before the parent attempts the lift. If a parent cannot lift the child while maintaining appropriate alignment, the parent is not ready for this exercise. Check body mechanics before encouraging the parent to complete several lifts.

Cardio Transition: Brisk Walk (1–1.5 minutes)

Teaching Tip: Emphasize movement. Encourage a “race” around some equipment or to the next piece of equipment.

Play 2: Overhead Ladder

Objective: Upper-body strength for both parent and child (approximately 2–3 minutes).

As children, most of us challenged ourselves to swing from one end to the other on the overhead ladder. This version can progress from the parent assisting the child to both parent and child swinging and grabbing (as each gets stronger). When assisting, the parent must practice good posture. The adult can vary assistance by having the child try to “zoom” as quickly as possible, two hands at once, or by supporting the child by stepping off center and spotting as the child “crawls” hand over hand, at an angle, to work on trunk stabilization. Encourage kids to try these alternatives with eyes open and closed (to improve pro-prioception) or to reverse the crawl. Be creative with variations.

Teaching Tips: This can be an opportunity to teach the parent how to lift a child safely from a squat to a stand. Both parent and child will benefit from core stabilization as they move along the ladder. The parent should keep her arms close to the body and should support the child at the chest, if the child’s size permits.

Safety Tips: Teach the parent proper lifting mechanics and stabilization. Both parent and child should be encouraged to keep the arms working, not locked straight. The adult should progress to swinging alongside the child for tandem training. The parent can begin increasing strength by walking along the ladder and gradually adding more body weight as she gets stronger.

Cardio Transition: Lunge Walks

Teaching Tips: Teach proper alignment for a lunge: knee over ankle, foot in front of or directly below the knee. If the parent is carrying a child, he should hold the child securely to his body and maintain dynamic balance while shifting weight. Children may need more coaching on proper alignment than adults do. “Make a chair with your front leg” may be a good cue, or “Walk like a monster.”

Safety Tip: Watch for proper alignment.

Play 3: Balance Bridge

Objective: Dynamic balance for both parent and child (depending on bridge length, multiple runs or walks back and forth, about 2–3 minutes).

Strengthening core muscles has been a buzz in the fitness industry over the past few years. One way to fire core muscles is to challenge balance. A few quick trips across the rope bridge can do that. Rattle the bridge with a brisk walk, a rock walk, a tandem walk or a sideways walk. The parent can assist by holding both of the child’s hands, holding one hand or following the child in a “ready to catch” position.

Teaching Tips: Reinforce good body mechanics for walking. If the parent assists, discourage bending over the child. For example, the “ready to catch” position could be an opportunity to create a walking “squat.”

Safety Tips: Good posture is easy to lose when challenged by a dynamic base of support. Monitor posture during movement. A horizon gaze (spot at the end of the bridge) can assist with balance.

Cardio Transition: Skipping (1–1.5 minutes)

Teaching Tips: Some adults may not know how to skip. You may need to have them march in place and then add a hop with the upswing of a leg. Depending on their age, some children will have more difficulty with this skill; note, however, that movement—not skipping mechanics—is the key.

Safety Tip: If the parent is carrying a child, marching while holding the child close to the body is a good alternative. The parent should maintain good upright posture.

Play 4: Ladder Climb

Objective: Flexibility and muscular endur-ance for parent and child (lower body for parent); lower-body strength for child. (There will be a mini transition between each climb; about 2–3 minutes of climbing.)

Depending on the child’s age and development, it may be necessary for the parent to assist the child during the climb. This can be an opportunity for the child to exercise the arms, stretch the body and challenge the core muscles. Just by lifting his body weight, a child gets leg resistance training.

Teaching Tips: Parent’s posture is critical. Describe or demonstrate good lifting mechanics (lift with the legs, not the arms) and instruct the parent to contract the core before beginning each lift.

Safety Tips: This is an advanced exercise. The parent must be able to maintain good posture and stabilize throughout the activity. Proper lifting mechanics and stabilization for the parent must be emphasized, practiced and evaluated. An older child will need less assistance, enabling the parent to simply climb behind.

Cardio Transition: Side Steps (1–1.5 minutes)

Teaching Tip: Instruct both parent and child to walk sideways, maintaining good posture and keeping the upper body facing the same direction as the lower body.

Safety Tips: Advise parent and child to watch where they are going! They should also avoid any twisting motion and ensure that the knees stay over the toes.

Play 5: Tunnel Time

Objective: Flexibility for parent and child (2–3 minutes of crawling in tunnels).

Flexibility doesn’t have to decrease as adults age. Most of us lose it because we don’t use it. In this exercise, have the parent try to follow the child through the tubes and tunnels at the playground.

Teaching Tip: Not all tunnels are alike! Some are too small for many adults. In these cases, advise the parent to meet the child on the other side.

Safety Tip: This activity is for advanced exercisers only. It may cause too much stress on the knees and/or wrists of some clients. Before the parent attempts to crawl through a tunnel, ensure that she has the flexibility to do this activity.

Cardio Transition: Giant Hops (1–1.5 minutes)

Teaching Tips: Maintain good posture. Make sure all participants are flexing their knees upon landing. Encourage exercisers to use their arms to help with jumping and balance.

Safety Tip: Watch for obstacles on the ground to avoid tripping.

Play 6: Slippery Slopes

Objective: Core stabilization for both parent and child. (There will be a mini transition between each slide; about 2–3 minutes of sliding.)

Slides can be more than a slippery slope. Parent and child can begin sliding by holding onto the side rails for stabilization. Raising the arms adds more challenge.

Teaching Tip: Make sure both child and parent are practicing correct posture (shoulders over hips) with arms down before you allow them to raise their arms overhead.

Safety Tip: Not all slides are large enough for adults. Check in advance.

Play for Health

A 30-minute trip to the playground can meet the minimum recommendation for physical activity for adults and half of the recommendation for children. Playgrounds are free, they are usually accessible, and they provide variety. Purposeful play can provide both the physical and social benefits of discovering (for the child) or rediscovering (for the parent) the joy of physical activity.


Action for Healthy Kids, www.actionforhealthykids.org

American Academy of Pediatrics, www.aap.org

American Heart Association (Jump Rope for Heart Program kit), www.americanheart.org

Body and Mind (appropriate for school-aged children), www.bam.gov/

Girls in Training, www.girlsintraining.org

International Food Information Council Foundation, www.ific.org

Joy of Sports Foundation, www.joyofsports.com

Kids Health, www.kidshealth.org

Melpomene Institute, www.melpomene.org

National Association for Sport and Physical Education, ww.aahperd.org/naspe

National Osteoporosis Foundation, www .cdc.gov/powerfulbones (multiyear campaign to promote optimal bone health in girls 9–12.)

P.E.4Life, www.pe4life.com

President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, www.fitness.gov

R.E.S.H.A.P.E. America (focus is elementary education), www.reshape.org

Sport, Play and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK), www.sparkpe.org

Take Ten, www.take10.net

10 Tips (10 tips to healthy eating and physical activity and you), www.fit ness.gov/funfit/10tips.htm

TV-Turnoff Network, www.tvturnoff.org

Verb (media campaign, sites for parents and tweens), www.cdc.gov /youthcampaign/

ground rules for play
  • Bring water and healthy snacks.
  • Take turns.
  • No pushing, shoving or rough stuff.
  • Be careful when the equipment is wet.
  • Use the equipment correctly.
  • Have fun!

Playground Safety Rules

  • To avoid burns, check surfaces before using the equipment.
  • To avoid strangulation, do not wear helmets, necklaces or clothing with hoods, cords or drawstrings.
  • Do not play on broken or damaged equipment.
  • Do not walk on or climb up slides.
  • Do not climb on or over safety rails, walls, barriers, roofs or swing frames.
  • Do not run on, jump off or dive from playground equipment.
  • Do not walk or climb on overhead ladders.
  • Use overhead ladders one rung at a time.
  • Swing in a seated position and do not twist chains or jump out of the swing.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000. Healthy People 2010 (2nd ed., vol. 2, pp. 1–41). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2005. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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