Abstract Background Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), shown to be associated with health benefits, is not well-characterized in preschool-aged children. MVPA is commonly described as a threshold amount to achieve. We examined a novel way to characterize MVPA patterns in preschool-aged children by gender and age. Methods Preschool-aged children from Nashville, TN and Minneapolis, MN wore triaxial accelerometers. Four distinct MVPA patterns were identified: isolated spurt (IS), isolated sustained activity (ISA), clustered spurt (CS), and clustered sustained activity (CSA). Multivariable linear regression models were used to test associations of gender and age with each pattern. Results One thousand one hundred thirty-one children (3.9 years old, 51% girls, 30% overweight, 11% obese, and 76% Hispanic) wore accelerometers for 12.9 (SD = 1.4) hours/day for 6.7 (SD = 0.7) days. Children spent 53% of wear time in sedentary behavior and 13% in MVPA. On average, boys and girls achieved > 90 min/day of MVPA (98.2 min, SD = 32.3). Most MVPA (80%) was obtained in spurt-like (IS and CS) MVPA; however, girls spent a higher proportion of MVPA in IS and CS, and lower proportion of time in CSA (all p < 0.001). Controlling for gender, an increase of 1-year in age corresponded to a 1.5% increase in CSA (p < 0.05). Conclusions How MVPA was obtained varied depending on the gender and age of the child. On average, boys spent more time in sustained MVPA than girls and MVPA was more sustained in older children. Utilizing these patterns could inform PA practice and policy guidelines. Trial registration NCT01316653 , date of registration: March 3, 2011; NCT01606891, date of registration: May 23, 2012.