Households with two working parents are a fact of life. These days, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, both parents work in 60 percent of families, and 56 percent of preschoolers are in day care centers during the day. A well-run facility can be a wonderful experience for small children, providing educational opportunities, socialization with their peers, and nurturing from the staff. But new research suggests there may be one important area in which many day care centers are sorely lacking: ensuring that the kids are getting adequate physical activity.
The study, which took place at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, found that fewer than one-third of youngsters enrolled in day care appear to get a sufficient amount of outdoor play time.1 Copeland, Kristen A.; Khoury, Jane C.; and Kalkwarf, Heidi J. “Child Care Center Characteristics Associated With Preschoolers’ Physical Activity.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 12 November 2015. Accessed 18 November 2015. http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(15)00518-8/abstract The subjects were 388 children between the ages of three and six who spent their days at one of 30 different day care centers around the Cincinnati area.
The scientists visited all of these facilities between November 2009 and January 2011. They tracked the children’s physical activity levels using accelerometers, which are used to measure movement. Other points the investigators evaluated were the square footage of the playground, quantity of both indoor and outdoor play equipment, selection of balls available, and number of ride-on toys present.
While the child care centers did have plans in place to get the kids outdoors and active–90 percent of them had two or more sessions of outdoor play time on their schedules–the reality did not even come close. Only 30 percent of the children in full-day programs spent a minimum of 60 minutes outdoors daily. A slightly better 40 percent of the children participated in two outdoor play times a day of shorter durations. And worst of all, close to one-third of the preschoolers, 32 percent, had no outdoor recess whatsoever. Even though some of the day care facilities had open rooms and lots of indoor play equipment, the findings showed that these were not factors that related to an increased level of activity in the kids.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a nonprofit group with the purpose of supporting physical education, recommends that preschoolers get 120 minutes of physical activity every day, which clearly most of the kids in this study are not coming anywhere near. Some parents might not be bothered by their children spending most of the day indoors, thinking that quiet, educational play might be best for their future academic performance. However, that’s not really the case. While there are definite benefits children obtain from listening to stories, working on puzzles, and building with blocks, they receive equally important advantages when they are physically active.
Not only is exercise helpful to young children (as it is for all of us) in strengthening bones and muscles, maximizing cardiovascular health, and keeping weight in check, but a 2007 study at the University of Illinois, Urbana showed that it may be a valuable way to improve both attention span and cognitive abilities,2 Castelli, DM; et al. “Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students.” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. April 2007. Accessed 19 November 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17568069 which will benefit these kids greatly once they are in elementary school and beyond.
So what’s a parent to do if you love your day care center but recognize that your little one is probably not getting outside as often as necessary while you’re at work? One possibility is to schedule a meeting with the director of the facility and discuss the importance of outdoor playtime based on evidence. Another option is to work with the staff to promote exercise and suggest specific activities.
Don’t forget that you can make up for some of this lack of exercise when your child is with you too. After work may not always be ideal with dinner preparation and bedtime looming, but even if all you can do is squeeze in half an hour most days, it will contribute to overall activity time. And put your weekends to good use as well, taking nature walks, bike rides, playing games from your childhood such as running bases and tag, backyard T-ball–the list goes on and on. Whatever you and your child enjoy can be quality time spent together and beneficial for both of you in a multitude of ways.
|↑1||Copeland, Kristen A.; Khoury, Jane C.; and Kalkwarf, Heidi J. “Child Care Center Characteristics Associated With Preschoolers’ Physical Activity.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 12 November 2015. Accessed 18 November 2015. http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(15)00518-8/abstract|
|↑2||Castelli, DM; et al. “Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students.” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. April 2007. Accessed 19 November 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17568069|