Improve Play Areas to Get Preschoolers Exercising

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Forming a daily habit of physical activity each day begins early in life – even as early as preschool. But today’s child care facilities are up against a lot of rules – strict safety guidelines, budget restraints, and academic requirements – and this could be one of the reasons why our kids are getting enough exercise.

Between the ages of 3 and 5, nearly three-fourths of US children attend a childcare facility. Unfortunately, much of that time is spent being sedentary. Only about 2% to 3% of the time is spent in vigorous activities.

"We know children learn through play, including vigorous play," says Kristen Copeland MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "They practice fundamental motor skills like skipping, playing with balls, jumping and climbing."

Dr. Copeland and colleagues conducted nine focus groups which included a total of 49 childcare providers taking care of children at 34 centers within Cincinnati. The centers included those some Head Start and Montessori centers as well as public facilities in a variety of areas both inner-city and in suburban areas. The majority of those interviewed were college-educated African American women.

The childcare providers cited many reasons for the lack of physically active play time for the children.

First, "Fixed playground equipment that meets (strict) licensing codes is unchallenging and uninteresting to children," the authors write in the February issue of Pediatrics. Several providers also mentioned pressure from parents to keep their children from getting injured, even being asked to keep a child from participating in any vigorous activity.

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Secondly, the providers felt pressure to focus on academic readiness, as active play was sometimes seen as “just running around” without purpose. Pressure to teach children pre-reading skills such as shapes and colors is given priority over physical exercise.

Thirdly, as the study was conducted in the Northern state of Ohio where warm days during the year are fewer, many of the facilities had no dedicated room was provided for physical activity during bad weather. Some centers cited financial restraints for lack of resources for exercise.

"Societal priorities for young children -- safety and school readiness -- may be hindering children's physical development," writes Dr. Copeland. "Because children spend long hours in care and many lack a safe place to play near their home, these barriers may limit children's only opportunity to engage in physical activity. This is particularly concerning because daily physical activity is not only essential for healthy weight maintenance, but also for practicing and learning fundamental gross motor skills."

Parents can work in cooperation with childcare facilities to try to meet all of a child’s needs, both academically and physically. Children should be dressed appropriately for active play and allowed to participate in safe activities if health permits. Childcare providers can incorporate learning standards into the preschooler’s active time, such as playing a game where children jump from colored shapes on the floor when called out.

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The safety of the children should never be compromised, and school equipment should be used in the manner it was intended. One provider stated “You see children trying to climb into places they're not supposed to climb in because it's just not challenging. They're walking up the slide much more than they ever did with the other one. You can see they are just trying to find those challenges." Workers can incorporate challenges into playtime by creating obstacle courses or have kids work in teams to accomplish a goal, for example.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education recommend that preschoolers should be allowed an hour and a half to two hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.

Journal Reference:
Copeland KA, et al "Societal values and policies may curtail preschool children's physical activity in child care centers" Pediatrics 2012; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2102. The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Physician Faculty Scholars Program, and by the Dean's Scholar Program at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

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