As schoolchildren across America and the world attend classes virtually during the pandemic, decreased physical activity impacts their mental and physical health. What was once naturally part of a school day—biking or walking to and from school or the bus stop, walking between classrooms, P.E. gym games, 10-30 minutes of outdoor recess playtime—has been replaced by kids only steps away from bed to desk.  

Kids still need outdoor playtime for sure, but with virtual learning, some breaks are only 5-10 minutes long, which leaves little time for bundling up for outdoor play during winter. Some kids may also be eating more often, with frequent snacks. To compensate, families need to be intentional about children getting sufficient daily exercise. 

Healthy Habits

Spokane-based pediatrician Dr. Matt Thompson says there are five essential daily needs. (Disclosure: My kids are patients at his Kids Clinic.) “A standard recommendation for well-child visits with my patients is the ‘9-5-3-2-1-0’ guideline,” he says. “This means at least nine hours of adequate sleep, five servings of fruits and vegetables, three glasses of water, two hours or less of non-educational screen time, at least one hour of physical activity—any combination of recess, P.E., and playtime at home—and zero time spent eating in front of screens and no sweetened drinks.” 

Being “physically active,” as defined by Spokane Regional Health District’s (SRHD) Active Living program, is having at least 60 minutes of exercise on five or more days per week. SRHD surveyed local teenagers in 2014, and the results showed alarming rates of youth more likely to be overweight or obese, diabetic, and depressed.  

Spokane mom Michelle Jones, whose 12-year-old son, Justus, is in 6th grade at Spokane International Academy, says he “likes to run in between his classes, weather permitting. He knows exactly how far he can go to get back to his next class.” Additionally, Justus uses an indoor mini trampoline for exercise. “I’m proud of him for finding things that work. He listens to music on a low level and it helps him, and he uses ‘fidgets’ [with his hands during class].”  

Boy jumping on a mini trampoline.
Mini trampoline at home. // Photo courtesy Michelle Jones.

Indoor Recess

Having a fun variety of activities will motivate a commitment to routine. Here are five ways for kids of all ages to get physical activity during short class breaks on virtual schooldays. 

  1. Doorway pull-up bar: Kids can hang, arm-swing, and exercise their shoulder, arm, back, and abdominal muscles. Maxi brand has a double-locking system and foam-padded bar. Kids can use it each time they go in and out of a room, whether hopping up to swing or do a chin-up or pull-up.  
  1. Indoor mini trampoline: Quick cardio that’s more efficient than running. Some models are foldable for easy stow-away storage and include a balance bar.  
  1. Sensory bag: Snug, stretch-fabric, rectangle body-sized “socks” provide sensory, tactile input through resistance and pressure on joints and muscle. While wearing one, kids can do yoga poses, calisthenics, jump on a trampoline, or dance.  
  1. Folding gym mat: Use for tumbling moves or as a boost pad for a pull-up bar. (Examples of kids’ gymnastics mats, and IKEA also makes one.)
  1. Bike trainer: Set-up a youth bike on a stationary trainer.  

More Ideas

Parents have also told me about their kids using boxing bags, practicing parkour moves on furniture, in-line or roller skating in the kitchen or garage, or playing spike ball indoors. When it’s not quick and easy to get outside, challenge kids to think creatively about how to get their bodies moving, with eyes off a screen, to maintain fitness and wellness year-round. 

Out There Kids columnist Amy McCaffree works from home while her two children attend virtual school during the COVID-19 pandemic. She enjoys alpine skiing, camping, paddling, biking, and walking with her dog.