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Fun and Function for Youth

Exercise program design for kids of various ages and abilities.

Another grim doctor’s appointment: Tim’s excessive body weight, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are a growing concern for his doctor. Tim has become a walking risk factor for heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes. In addition, his weight has created pain in his joints and other body structures, making it hard for him to move or exercise. He used to play sports, but as his body weight rose, movement became more difficult and painful, causing him to stop physical activity all together. Tim is in the 6th grade.

The serious and disturbing maladies surfacing in our inactive youth population have brought attention to the need for youth fitness programs. National research on obesity has revealed that obesity in youth aged 6–11 has more than doubled in the last 20 years, from about 7% to north of 17% (Ogden, Carrol & Flegal 2008). Seventy percent of those obese children display at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (Freedman et al. 2007). Only about 4% of our nation’s schools have daily physical education, while 20% of schools have no physical education at all (Lee et al. 2007). In addition, the world around us is getting more and more automated, requiring less physical activity in the completion of daily tasks.

Considering the reality of this limited exposure to daily physical activity, a personal trainer or fitness class may be a youngster’s first and only exposure to exercise. That experience will affect her abilities and her attitudes toward physical activity for the rest of her life. It is essential that the trainer and subsequent program not only address the physical needs of the youngster but also create a positive, engaging, empowering environment that will cultivate a lifelong pursuit of health and wellness.

Working with youth presents many
rewards as well as challenges. When designing a program for this population, it is essential that the trainer address the inherent challenges in order to maximize the inherent rewards. Listed below are three of the most pronounced challenges that I have experienced in the last 16 years working with youth.

Three Challenges

First of all, today’s youth are very inactive because they live so much in the virtual environment. They don’t need to go outside to play a sport; they can do it in a video game. This has diminished many of their physical capabilities to the point where the existing pedagogies with regard to fitness for youth are unrealistic. First, owing to increased body weight and decreased strength, many children are not capable of climbing ropes, performing push-ups or doing many other body weight–based exercises that have been staples in youth fitness programs. While these skills are important, they must often be adapted to the current abilities of those involved.

Second, it is well known that youngsters have short attention spans (Drabik 1996; Farrey 2008), which means they are constantly seeking stimulation yet have a limited capacity to focus on the same thing for too long. They want to be engaged in doing something, but not for too long. The virtual world of computers, video games, television and other components of the virtual revolution have restricted attention spans even more. It is difficult for youngsters to sustain focus on a central theme for a prolonged amount of time.

Finally, the lucrative advantages of a sports career have some parents in panicked pursuit of stardom for their child. If a parent forces a child to participate in a sport or fitness program, the child can come to view physical activity as a punishment and be reluctant to participate appropriately. This reluctance may be manifested as bad behavior or lack of participation in a class environment. An awareness of these challenges, and the willingness and skill to address them, can make working with youth a rewarding experience.

Trainer, Teacher, Mentor

When you work with young people, you are a positive role model with the potential to play a very influential part in their lives as a teacher and mentor. Children will do things for you that they won’t do for their parents. Research suggests that factors and individuals outside of the home environment can have a significant effect on a youth’s physical activity behaviors (Luepker 1996).

Extend your positive influence outside the doors of your gym and help create happy, healthy, pain-free future adults. It is important to remember that there is more to this process than finely tuned exercise program design. Give the kids homework after every session; not necessarily exercise homework, but assignments like “Eat three vegetables tonight, and your mom will tell me what they were on Thursday” or “Teach one of your younger siblings to do something.” Teach the kids how to give a good handshake and look you in the eye. Have them bring a postworkout snack to every session. Reinforce skills that will make a difference in all aspects of their life. Not only does this positively benefit the youth you work with, but it also provides a priceless value to parents.

Based Program Design

The underlying theme of a program for youth should be basic, overall physical development. Organized programs become effective around the age of 6 (Drabik 1996; Higgs et al. 2007). A youngster’s proficiency in primal movement patterns sets the foundation for high-level movement skills. Primal moves include crawling, climbing, skipping, marching, shuffling, striking, catching, grasping and a host of other gross motor patterns (Drabik 1996). Without these fundamentals, future skill development will be compromised.

This is why sport-specific training is not advised for youngsters. Attempting to focus solely on physical skills for one sport neglects the overall gross motor
development needs of the entire neuromuscular system. Training a child for the physical needs of one sport is akin to educating a child for one possible profession. If a child wants to be an astronaut, you are not going to remove English or history from the curriculum. Developing physical athleticism is like developing mental intelligence; both require a broad array of skill proficiencies, which come together to create proficient net output.


In order to address the developmental needs of young athletes at different levels of neuromuscular proficiency, I have developed a system called S.T.A.R.S. It is a progressive, longitudinal training model that promotes overall physical development throughout a young athlete’s entire career. The acronym stands for Structure, Technique, Ability, Reaction and Sport-Specific [Training]. The modalities and progressions of this program are based largely on Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development model (LTAD) (Higgs et al. 2007). With S.T.A.R.S., program design is not based solely on age. While age does affect the adaptive capabilities of the neuromuscular system—there are certain developmentally “sensitive periods” (Drabik 1996)—it is not a reliable predictor of physical ability. The S.T.A.R.S. progression model is suitable for athletes of all ages.

Structure (Beginner, Initial Phase of Training). Generally, this level is guided play, with a focus on fundamental gross motor skills that are often put into games and role-playing stories where participants act out an adventure. Examples of activities at the structure level are marching, skipping, throwing, catching, shuffling, climbing, crawling, kicking, striking, hopping and shuffling.

Technique (Beginner to Intermediate). Once youngsters have achieved a basic level of physical proficiency and capacity for mental focus, techniques for more specific skill sets are introduced. Correct execution of movement-related skills is addressed. Moves in this category include A-skips, jump and land, lateral shifts, push-ups, squats, lunges, acceleration, pull-ups and linear and lateral deceleration.

Ability (Intermediate to Advanced). With a strong motor skill and movement technique base, the next goal is to maximize the athlete’s physiological and biomechanical output. Skills and drills are introduced to maximize power, speed, strength and other adaptive athletic skills, including the 10-yard dash, 5-10-5 drill, 20-yard acceleration and deceleration, vertical jump and 300-yard shuttle.

Reaction (Advanced). When an athlete is capable of demonstrating accurate movement skills at a high magnitude, the aim is to improve the adaptability of these skills. The unpredictable competitive game environment often requires athletes to modify movement skills appropriately in order to adapt and react to the immediate needs of the game. To improve this ability, athletes can practice reactionary movement to varying stimuli by doing drills such as red light–green light, agility rodeo, ball drop, card tosses and partner mirror.

Sport-Specific Training (Elite). While sport-specific training for youngsters has very little merit, for the reasons mentioned above, an athlete may reach a level in her career in which further improvements in performance will manifest only from direct game-skill work. For youngsters, modalities to decrease the patterns of injury for specific sports have proved effective. Some of the most commonly used are the one-leg hop and land (knee injury prevention), scapular protraction/retraction push-ups (shoulder injury prevention), resisted ankle work (ankle injury prevention), kneeling chops (scapular mobility and lumbar stability to help prevent shoulder and lower-back injuries) and plank variations (prevention of lower-back injury).

The S.T.A.R.S. approach is not all or nothing. All components of the program are present at all levels of training, just in different capacities. For youngsters aged around 6–10, the goal is to improve gross motor skills, including basic technique and reaction capabilities. Throughout the program’s progression, structure work is present during the dynamic warm-up and “prehab” work. As a child progresses, previous levels are not dropped; they are still included, but a new training focus is introduced with a host of new skill sets related to neuromuscular proficiency. Program design evolves to allow for introduction and execution of the new skills. There is never a rush to progress an athlete, regardless of age. Each level lays a foundation for subsequent levels of training. Without proficiency at a lower level, performance would suffer at a higher level of skill execution.

At our facility and in our school programs, we work with many youngsters aged 6–10. With all the challenges and developmental guidelines, our goal for the children is to help them develop basic neuromuscular proficiency in a fun, engaging environment. Considering the progressive model of the S.T.A.R.S. program, they spend much of the time focusing on “structure” work, with some attention paid to “technique” with more advanced youth. With this age group we are not concerned with maximal motor output (ability) or sport-specific modalities. We use a variety of formats for our classes, from circuits to large group games.

As fitness professionals, we have a unique opportunity to make an impact on the fitness and wellness of today’s youth. This in turn will positively affect the future of America’s health as a whole. Using programs designed with an adult’s mentoring skills, experience and knowledge, we can educate, motivate and inspire youngsters by engaging their imagination, excitement and developmental capabilities.

Four Ways to Create a Fun and Imaginative Training Environment

When it comes to fitness program design for youth, psychology will trump physiology nearly every time. For children to buy into and reap the benefits of a program, they must enjoy it! If you display enthusiasm, passion, patience and creativity, the kids will mirror it.

Design your program in a way that children can relate to and that isn’t intimidating. While programs should be based on sound principles of child development and motor learning, the delivery of these programs should be modified to address the mental and emotional needs of your participants. Consider the following four factors:

1. Make It Exciting. Kids can be taken on a “virtual adventure” in which they slay dragons, save princesses or win the Super Bowl, all while practicing and employing sound principles of physical development. The only limitations for program delivery are the creativity and willingness of the trainer. Keep the children excited, engaged and moving!

2. Appeal to the Children’s Senses. Create an engaging environment with music and colorful, youth-friendly surroundings. When ordering equipment, remember that kids will gravitate to things that are visually appealing to them. When kids come into our facility, they immediately go to the colorful medicine balls and the bright yellow TRX® Suspension Trainer straps, even with no prior exposure to these pieces of equipment.

3. Minimize Rep Counting. While counting repetitions may be necessary at times, implementing timed circuits or activities allows youngsters at different levels to successively approximate the desired skills at a rate with which they are comfortable. Usually 60-second stations for specific skill work and 3- to 5-minute periods for games and general play-based activities work best.

4. Recognize Achievement. Have a system for publicly recognizing children when they accomplish curriculum-based goals. A “50 Push-Up Club” or “100 Jump Rope Club” will keep kids goal-driven and excited about developing new skills.

Training Equipment for Youth

While a large amount of equipment is not necessary when working with youngsters, there are some basics that significantly aid in the development of fitness and movement skills. In addition, certain equipment is effective in engaging youth and creating a high-energy, fun environment. When purchasing equipment, focus on multipurpose pieces. I like to have at least 10 drills or games I can do with a particular piece of equipment before I purchase it.

Necessary Equipment

  • cones (agility drills, line organization, drill designation, obstacles, boundaries, etc.)
  • jump ropes (jump rope drills, obstacles, lines on ground)
  • balls of different sizes and weights (hand-eye coordination, foot-eye coordination, strength, power, games, core development)

Recommended Equipment

  • agility ladders
  • Valslide® pads
  • BOSU® balls
  • TRX® Suspension Trainer
  • resistance bands
  • balance equipment
  • balloons or scarves
  • beanbags

The more fun and functional your equipment is, the more potential your program has to be effective and engaging for young participants.

Sample Adventure Format for Youth Aged 6–9

A popular format for this age group is the “adventure” setup, in which the children (10–20 of them) stay together as a group. You’ll want to have basic props to create the scene, such as camouflage headbands or special stickers. The idea is to do the exercises for that day as part of a narrated adventure starring the participants. Below is an example of a 40- to 60-minute program.

Game: Saving Princess Smelly

One teacher; 10–20 kids

Set up a cone square, about 20 yards x 20 yards if possible. This size is ideal for groups of 15 or more. For smaller groups, a smaller area can be used.

Mission Debrief (5–10 minutes)

Give quick debrief on how an ogre has taken Princess Smelly, and the group must train to become elite knights so they can save her.

  • general warm-up; imaginatively describe to the kids how each exercise trains them for the mission
  • jumping jacks (20 seconds)
  • seal jacks (20 seconds)
  • skipping around the square (20 seconds)
  • running in place (20 seconds)
  • balance on one leg (20 seconds each)
  • surfers (20 seconds)
  • log roll and stand up (20 seconds)
  • crab hip raises (15 seconds)

Beginning the Mission (5–10 minutes)

Mission is set up to be a “ship ride” to save the princess. Set up a smaller cone square, about one-quarter the size of the large square. Repetitions, sets and time are largely at teacher’s discretion.

  • Participants get in small ship to go and save the princess—they must squat and shuffle to get inside the smaller square of cones.
  • Participants stay in squat.
  • Ship hits “rough seas,” and participants shuffle in one direction, then the other, staying in squat position.
  • Ship “pitches and rolls”—participants sit down, then stand up or fall forward into push-up position and stand up.

Shipwreck (~5 minutes)

  • Participants must “swim” through rough water using different strokes, lying on their bellies or backs, with hands and feet off the ground.
  • They get to “shallower water” and must swim “underwater,” jumping up to the surface to get air.
  • They squat and jump across the floor, pretending to take in air at the top of the jumps.
  • Once participants are across the floor, they are “on land.”

Finding the Princess (~10 minutes)

Once on land, participants spy to see if they can see the princess.

  • They partner up—partner #1 must stay low in a bear crawl, so as “not to be detected,” and then crawl across the grid, look around and skip back, describing what he or she “saw” to partner #2. Partner #2 then does the same thing.
  • Leader advances participants “through the woods,” navigating the “terrain” by running in place and hopping, ducking, balancing, crawling, skipping, shuffling and applying other developmental motor skills as adaptations to the imaginary environment.

Saving the Princess (5–10 minutes)

Once Princess Smelly (a balloon or soft foam ball) has been found, she must be saved.

  • Participants are put in groups of two or three and lined up relay-style.
  • Instructor creates a scenario where each member of each group has to run up to the “castle” and fight the “ogre.”
  • One member of each small group performs a move as denoted by the instructor (skipping, running, shuffling, hopping, crawling, etc.) until he or she reaches the other side of the grid. Once there, the youth must “fight” the ogre by striking (the air), kicking (the air), jumping, etc., for about 10 seconds, then run back and tag the next child in the group to do the same.
  • After about 2–3 times through the line, the princess is saved.
  • The entire group must then get the princess back to safety by working together to keep the ball or balloon in the air across the grid.

Getting Home (~5 minutes)

Once the princess is back across the grid, the instructor re-creates the adventure scenario in reverse at a faster pace.

  • Participants go back through the woods, swim to the ship and ride through rough waters back “home.”

Arriving Home and Cooling Down (5–10 minutes)

Once participants are home, the instructor leads them in a stretch and quiet period of about 5–10 minutes. Talking to the kids and asking about the imaginary adventure makes it more real to them, and they will be even more into it the next time!

As you can see, this format takes quite a bit of creativity and energy as an instructor, and you can’t do it every day. Employing it every couple of weeks, however, will make it unique and exciting for children. Nearly any motor task can be inserted into this adventure.

The program I have outlined involves no equipment. Adding equipment is another great way to reinforce motor skill development. Using equipment does require more planning, but it also can enhance the experience for participants. And if you have access to safe outdoor environments, there are unending possibilities.


Drabik, J. 1996. Children & Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing.
Farrey, T. 2008. Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. New York: ESPN Books.
Freedman, D.S., et al., 2007. Cardiovascular risk factors and excess adiposity among overweight children and adolescents: The Bogalusa Heart Study. The Journal of Pediatrics, 150 (1), 12–17.
Higgs, C., et al. 2007. Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide for Parents of Children Ages 0–12. Vancouver, BC: Canadian Sports Center.
Lee, S.M., et al. 2007. Physical education and physical activity: Results from the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2006. Journal of School Health, 77 (8), 435–63.
Luepker, R.V., et al. 1996. Outcomes of a field trial to improve children’s dietary patterns and physical activity. The Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 275 (10), 768–76.
Ogden, C.L., Caroll, M.D., & Flegal, K.M. 2008. High body mass index for age among U.S. children and adolescents, 2003–2006. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 299 (20), 2401–05.

Brett Klika

Brett Klika is an IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, motivational speaker, author and co-founder of SPIDERfit Kids, a global innovator in youth fitness education. With over 20 years of experience creating youth fitness programs, fitness DVDs, and other resources for various industry and consumer organizations, Brett continues to bring his knowledge and practical experience with the “power of play” to fitness educators around the world. His best-selling book, 7 Minutes to Fit, has been translated into three different languages and has inspired busy families from all corners of the globe to make health part of their hectic lives.

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