We develop an observation system that quantifies the duration, intensity, and frequency of children's physical activities. We use this system to assess the level and tempo of energy expenditure under free-ranging, natural conditions experienced by 15 children aged 6-10 yr in southern California. Observations were recorded every 3 s during 4-h time blocks from 8:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Agreement among observers using the coding system was 91%. Using indirect calorimetry, calibration studies in the laboratory determined VO2 (ml.min-1.min-1) during each coded activity, and activities were categorized by intensity (low, medium, or high). Subjects were found to engage in activities of low intensity 77.1% of time and activities of high intensity 3.1% of time. The median duration of low and medium intensity activities was 6 s, of high intensity activities only 3 s with 95% lasting less than 15 s. Children engaged in very short bursts of intense physical activity interspersed with varying intervals of low and moderate intensity. These findings may be important for discovering how children's activity patterns under natural conditions influence physiological processes leading to growth and development. This study demonstrates the advantages of using an observational system that captures more than the intensity and frequency of children's activities to include duration and the length of intervals between activities of varying intensity.