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Designing Fun Fitness Programs for Kids

Did you know that only about 4% of our nation’s schools offer daily physical education, while 20% of schools provide no physical education at all? Given these statistics, some youngsters may get their first and only introduction to exercise through a personal trainer. That experience will affect their abilities and attitudes in regard to physical activity for the rest of their lives. Consequently, it is essential that the trainer and the exercise program not only address the physical needs of the youngsters but also create a positive, engaging, empowering environment that will cultivate a lifelong pursuit of health and wellness.

Developmentally 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. A youngster’s proficiency in basic, 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. 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.

Creating a Fun, 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 those qualities.

Design your program in a way that children can relate to and that isn’t intimidating. While kids’ training 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 limitation for program delivery is 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 by using music and setting up 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.

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.

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 young people you work with, but it also provides a priceless value to parents.

For a much more in-depth look at program design for kids—including an analysis of the S.T.A.R.S. (Structure, Technique, Ability, Reaction and Sport-Specific Training) approach to working with young athletes and a sample “virtual adventure” session for children aged 6–9—please see the full article, “Fun and Function for Youth,” in the online IDEA Library or in the March issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

Models: Sophie Anderson and Brett Klika


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