Toddler Running

How, when, and why do toddlers need to develop the skill of running

Toddler hasn’t started running yet? What developmental skills do toddlers need to learn how to run?

How to get toddlers from waddling to running

toddler waddling not running

Why is running an important developmental milestone for toddlers? 

What a glorious milestone running is! It’s the picture of freedom and energy. It is almost synonymous with shrieks of laughter. Childhood at its best. 

In therapy when I see a toddler who’s reached the milestone of walking within the age norm but just can’t seem to progress to running, my first question is always “How much opportunity do they have for running?”

new report by Canadian researchers suggests that toddlers aged 1-4 years old need at least 3 hours of physical activity a day

Whoa! That’s a lot, right? 

The thing is that we live in a modern world. We don’t all have huge backyards. Many of us work and our children attend playgroups or day care centers that similarly don’t have wide open spaces. If you live in the city, it might be hard to let your toddler “roam free” on busy roads.

I get it! 

However, running is such an important milestone that we have to prioritize it.

Child development is like a ladder– you have to climb one step at a time. Providing the opportunities for your child to fully master the skill of running is a means to ensure good physical health, learning abilities and mental health for your child as they grow older. 

Skills that running helps develops in your toddler: 

1. Social Play and toddler running

First of all, learning to run opens a huge door for social play for toddlers.

Games like catch or ball games or running through sprinklers. Simple games that don’t require a complex understanding of rules and sequences but are loads of fun and will keep your toddler entertained for a good chunk of time. 

Let’s be honest, facilitating social play with toddlers is pretty challenging for us as parents. Or is it just me?

Toddlers aren’t exactly the most civilized little cuties are they? We plan some insta-worthy rainbow pasta activity for a playdate and what do they do?

Bite, scratch, roar at each other or hide behind us. Fail! 

But running activities are innately built to teach toddlers social skills– they are at the right cognitive level for our tots to understand and don’t require too much speech or physical closeness. However, they also naturally require turn-takingnon-verbal communication and joint attention

But are social skills important for toddler? Oh yeah they are! Kindergarten social skills were found to have a strong link to well-being at age 25 despite differences in family demographics and early academic ability . 

toddler running in forest

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2. Balance and motor coordination

Balance and motor coordination development in toddlers is about so much more than preparing them to be sports stars or prima ballerinas. 

Children’s motor abilities have been directly linked to mental health development as well as problems in motor coordination being directly linked to distress in young adults

Woah that’s pretty big!

It makes sense though- think about everything you do in your day that requires motor coordination and balance: driving, unlocking a door, cutting vegetables, carrying a coffee cup, exercise.

Now imagine if each of those (and many more not listed) were just that extra bit harder. You could still do them but they took longer, you had to concentrate more on each task and you felt clumsy– it’s pretty reasonable to think that would cause you some distress or anxiety

Now think about it for a young child who is just developing their identity- not being able to keep up in a game of football, struggling to carry a lunch tray, being scared of heights. It does make sense that poor balance can affect mental health development.  

3. Endurance and Toddler Running

When I say endurance I’m not talking about training your young child to run a marathon. What I mean is strengthening their muscles and cardiovascular system so that they can be active for longer. Something that we all want right? 

By age 3 it is recommended that children get at least one hour of energetic play (running, jumping, dancing, swimming) a day.

I hear you- that sounds pretty far removed from your 18 month old that can’t make it from the house to the car without wanting to be held. 

That is exactly where running comes into the picture- like a bridge between toddlerhood and Pre-K. The ability to run will motivate your tot to be more active thus slowly (at their own pace) increasing their endurance. 

toddler running away

When should my toddler start running? 

Somewhere between 18 months to 2 years or 3 to 6 months after your child is confidently walking. 

How to teach your toddler to run

1. Mastering Walking

As the saying goes, “you have to walk before you can run”.

Forward walking is the best way to prepare your toddler for running. 

When I say “forward walking” what I mean is the way your child walks is by putting one foot in front of the other as opposed to waddling (walking with legs spread hip width apart, walking forward by thrusting each leg forward and not inward, towards the center of the body). 

You can encourage this in your child by giving them lots of walking time: taking them out of the stroller, not carrying them and getting them off the chair or couch.

Some ideas to do this: 

  • Short strolls around the block
  • Playing “catch”
  • Searching for things around the house 
  • Nature walks

These don’t have to be for long stretches of time. It can be many short activities. Go at your toddler’s pace and respect when they are tired. 

2. Opportunities to Test out Balance Skills

As I said before, running develops balance in toddlers but it also requires a degree of balance.

Some ideas for providing opportunities to improve balance: 

  • Walking on uneven surfaces- like on a rocky trail, or on beach sand 
  • Walking up and down small inclines/ hills or ramps
  • Climbing up and down stairs
  • Climbing small ladders (probably requiring quite a lot of support)
  • Playing on a balance board 
toddler on balance beam

3. Toddler Play that inspires running 

Once your toddler has practiced their balance skills and has fully mastered walking, try introducing games that naturally inspire running. Such as: 

  • Ball games (catching, kicking, throwing)
  • Chasing them or simplified “catchers”
  • Chasing birds
  • Running and jumping onto a soft surface (like a pile of cushions)
  • Running after/ with a friend or sibling 

I hope this has been helpful to you and that your tot will be running around in no time. 

Happy running, 


toddlers running pin