Energy is all around us in both visible and invisible forms. We see it in the natural environment when the wind blows, waves ebb and flow, the sun shines and crops grow. We now recognise that historic sources of energy are finite, and policies and programs are created to determine new alternatives. Conserving energy and using it wisely has become an industry in itself. Preparing for natural disasters such as floods, fires and earthquakes – during which phenomenal levels of energy are unleashed - consume a significant amount of National budgets worldwide.
How does energy manifest itself in us as adults?
Energy applies to us in physical, emotional and cognitive forms and is considered overwhelmingly positive. Describing someone as ‘energetic’ implies a host of attributes and behaviours; an application to specific tasks and getting the job done well or a forceful disposition that may persuade and encourage others – being energetic is generally a state to be emulated and envied.
Having ‘low energy’ suggests that something is going wrong somewhere; latent illness – stress – boredom – loneliness – poor diet – hormones or sleep difficulties. Merchandise to address energy issues is marketed forcefully, energy drinks and supplements are readily available and there is a continual flow of media advice on how to ‘maximise your energy levels.’
For young children energy is primarily about physical effort; to achieve the ‘movement milestones’ of rolling, crawling, sitting, standing, walking and running requires formidable levels of tenacity and determination. Our perception of children is that they ‘never sit still’ are ‘always on the move’ and are ‘bundles of energy.’
However, evidence suggests that young children are not moving nearly as much as we fondly imagine – and certainly not to a degree that would properly support their overall development, health and wellbeing.
Children under five should be moving as much as possible – experience at least 45 mins of vigorous outdoor play and an accumulative time of being physically active for 180 minutes every day. Yet we know that many babies spend 60 hrs or more per week being strapped into some form of ‘container’, that screen time for young children often rises to 3 hrs per day and less than 10% of children actually meet the recommended levels for physical activity.
The energy ‘climate’
What sort of energy ‘climate’ are young children experiencing?
By this I mean – are their natural energy levels supported and embraced – or harnessed and corralled? What value do we place on their physical expressions of energy and what language do we use to describe this?
Evidence  suggests that 10 yr old children present the same energy levels as endurance athletes and recover even more quickly than athletes from high intensity exercise. Children are much more efficient in their use of the aerobic metabolism, so they get less tired, have a faster heart rate recovery and a better ability to remove blood lactate from the body. In short – trying to ‘wear them out’ simply doesn’t work.
Adult attitudes and expectations towards children’s physical development and activity vary widely. In Japan, being ‘dongshi’ – healthy, fit and active – is highly valued and children are offered a range of opportunities to acquire, rehearse and refine their movement skills in unstructured and unsupervised active play. The adult presence is muted and children’s dependence on teachers to facilitate or manage physical activities is discouraged. They are expected to find their own way, persevere with any difficulties and focus on the means to achieve personal physical goals.
In the West we often mistrust children’s levels of physical energy. Energetic children may be described (with much eye-rolling) as ‘wild’ – ‘reckless’ – ‘out of control’ – ‘a whirlwind’ or ‘heedless.’ Physical activity is viewed as something they must do to ‘burn off steam’ so silence and compliance in the classroom is assured.
Yet we know that children who experience a wide range of movement opportunities throughout the early years have better developed social skills, use a wider vocabulary and are generally more resilient than their physically less able peers. The impact of physical skills on development across all learning domains cannot be emphasised more strongly.
So - how adults accommodate children’s energy levels and the ways in which these are supported is vitally important.
It is also important for children themselves to understand and manage their personal energy levels. How much activity or energy a person exhibits is considered to be one of the ten ‘temperament traits’  we all possess. Unlike ‘personality’ that is informed over time by a range of variables, temperament is ‘inborn and defines how you respond to the world around you – these traits will remain consistent throughout life.
There will always be differences in energy levels between groups of babies, infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers – even within families. We need to be aware of this and react to individuals with sensitivity and sensibility. Highly energetic parents don’t always produce similar offspring – and more passive parents often find themselves with energetic children they find hugely challenging. We should try to accommodate and adapt – however exasperating and exhausting this process may seem at times.
What we should remember is that left to their own devices, babies will spend up to 40% of their waking time kicking, waving and wriggling – and that older children who have an inadequate level of movement fundamentals are three times more sedentary than their more active peers.
What compromises children’s energy levels?
Diet: Young children need a rich and varied diet – ideally through 3 meals and 2 snacks daily. This diet should be high in protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B. Energy intake from the following food groups is critical as it informs growth.
- Fruit and Vegetables: 5 a day – provide: vitamin C, folate, potassium, fibre. Fresh, dried, frozen, canned and juiced all count
- Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta: – provide – carbohydrate, fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins
- Milk and dairy foods: provide – protein, zinc, calcium, vitamin B
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans: provide – protein, iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B12
Sleep: Good quality sleep is vital for children to recover their energy levels and to grow. Poor sleep may be caused by extended screen time in the bedroom, a high sugar diet, fear of the dark and a noisy environment not conducive to peace and rest. The Canadian and Australian Early Years ’24-hour movement Guidelines’  designed to support children’s health includes a sleep element – that clearly recognises the importance of sleep to children’s overall wellbeing. The UK version of these guidelines will be published in 2019 .
Stress: Stress can cause debilitating fatigue in children. Cortisol production affects short term memory and general mood. It is said that 1 hour of stress is as exhausting for young children as 8 hours of exercise would be for adults .
Lack of exercise: Children who don’t want to be active and energetic are often overweight or obese. They get tired quickly – by being very sedentary. Low mood and depression are common in this group – who may feel unwanted and ostracised by their peers.
Overstimulation: This is the opposite end of the scale – these children will be pushed to the limits of their energy levels as they are ferried from one activity to another. They simply don’t have enough time to recover their energy levels between sessions – and exhaustion is a primary cause of accident, injury and burn-out.
Medication: Children who experience conditions including ulcerative colitis, asthma, diabetes or hepatitis can suffer from low energy levels as they will be taking medication over a long period of time.
Air quality: This has a major impact on children’s energy and concentration levels and general life-expectancy. Those living in cities with a high level of air pollution will present a range of symptoms that may well require medication – both will have a negative impact on energy levels .
Screen time: Adults often report that children are irritable and tired if they spend too long with handheld devices. Sitting very still – yet in a highly alert state for long periods puts significant strain on the body – particularly the eyes. Low mood is often an additional issue linked to constant negative comparisons between on-line groups.
What can we do to enhance children’s energy levels?
Take note of the previous points and add the following:
- Be aware of surges of energy – the times in which children are likely to be – and need to be – highly energetic. Be prepared for this in order to avoid unnecessary confrontations eg. after a long car journey – they will urgently need to move around and not sit at a table to eat or watch TV
- They get tired very quickly after bursts of action – don’t continue a physical activity for too long – aim to finish with them feeling flushed and pleased with themselves – not fractious and exhausted
- Provide plenty of opportunities both inside and outside for children to practice the BIG movements that require high levels of energy: digging, pushing, pulling, climbing, carrying, kicking, throwing, rolling, crawling, walking and running
- Allow children to be as independent as possible and encourage them to make their own decisions and mistakes
- Encourage collaboration and decision making as children move
- Be a positive role model – embrace their energy and enjoy it
- Be careful of the language used to describe children when they are highly active
Top tips for parents
- Be aware of your own innate energy level – it may not naturally align with that of your children and a conscious effort may be necessary to ensure it does at times
- Be prepared – I cannot stress this enough – if children are cooped up or restrained for too long they will have an overwhelming urge to move, shout loudly and run very fast. This is an inevitable reaction so ensure you have plans in place to accommodate
- Know when physical changes are imminent and at what point a new physical skill may emerge. Different behaviour patterns accompany new movement competencies e.g. once they are crawling – children become generally more forceful, independent and determined
- Remember that although children are most active outdoors with their peers – they are 68% more active if you join them in physical activities than if they are alone
- Evidence suggests that levels of physical activity decrease from aged 6 and not 13 as thought previously – so it is essential that positive behaviours and habits towards physical activity are embedded before they start school. Being energetic and active should be experienced as an organic and enjoyable part of the day – not as an ‘intervention’ that ensures later cooperation – and quiet
- Be aware that children are getting heavier and taller – but weaker. In the past 16 years there has been a 20% decrease in the muscle strength of 10 yr olds and a 30% decrease in their muscle endurance. Researchers found that children are particularly unused to holding their own body weight by their arms – possibly due to minimal experience of ‘risky’ play and safety concerns
- Provide children with as many ‘incidental’ opportunities to move as possible throughout the day. For babies: plan for a longer more interactive nappy change so they can kick and wave unrestricted. For infants: encourage more vigorous play in the bath – allow them to climb safely up and down stairs or bounce on the bed with you. For pre-schoolers: allow them to help with household chores – scooter or walk as much as possible – encourage independence in self-care routines
What to be aware of in EY care and education
- Are Physical Activity Guidelines acknowledged and implemented – is there a PA policy that is visible and made known to parents?
- What provision is made for children to move throughout the day – ideally 50% of available space should be a possibility?
- Are infants ‘restrained’ in bouncy chairs, baby walkers or BumboTM seats? These should not be necessary, and they need plenty of time on their backs and tummies to move freely
- How much time do children spend sitting around tables? Try implementing ‘no-chair days’ each week – change physical positions for circle time and find interesting ways to transition between activities and from inside to outside
- Be careful of external physical activity providers – are they really necessary – and what do the children really get out of the sessions – how much time do they spend actually moving?
- How are children’s energy levels viewed and discussed – in a positive or dismissive way?
For many of us it may seem a continual struggle to manage our own energy levels – let alone those of the children we care for and educate. We must remember to look after ourselves and ensure that we are properly nourished and rested – only then will we be able to value and appreciate the energy levels presented by children and use them in the most positive and productive way.
It is also vitally important to children that we use encouraging language and afford them opportunities to manage independently the ways in which their energy levels fluctuate and change.
 The Telegraph: 24th April 2018 ‘Children have energy levels greater than endurance athletes, scientists find.’ Sarah Knapton, Science Editor
 Canadian guidelines http://csepguidelines.ca/early-years-0-4
 Australian guidelines: http://www.health.gov.au
 Current UK guidelines: Public Health England : www.government/organisations/public-health-england - future guidelines only in draft form – research led by University of Bristol
Edited by Rebecca