Where care is most like home.

Most children at child care centers, preschools and nursery schools spend hours doing sedentary activities and aren’t spending much time playing, research has shown.

  • Some schools and centers have limited outdoor space, and some don’t have funds or access to much playground equipment. Many don’t have a room where kids can do vigorous activities on a rainy day, Copeland says.

Some schools and centers have limited outdoor space, and some don’t have funds or access to much playground equipment. Many don’t have a room where kids can do vigorous activities on a rainy day, Copeland says. 

A new analysis suggests possible reasons include concerns about injuries and parents’ pressure on schools to pursue academic pursuits such as teaching kids shapes, colors and the ABCs.

“We know children learn through play, including vigorous play,” says Kristen Copeland, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the study’s lead author. “They practice fundamental motor skills like skipping, playing with balls, jumping and climbing.” Physical activity helps prevent excessive weight gain and helps children develop healthy habits that can last them a lifetime, she says. But such play is getting squeezed out because of other priorities.

“These kids finish preschool and don’t know how to skip, and that doesn’t upset their parents as long as they know their ABCs and can count to 10,” Copeland says.

About 75% of children ages 3 to 5 are in some kind of child care; 56% are in centers, including nursery school, preschool and full-day centers, she says.

Other research shows kids spend about 70% to 83% of their time in child care being sedentary, not counting the time spent eating and napping. About 2% to 3% of the time is spent in vigorous activities.

Copeland and colleagues held focus groups with 53 early-childhood educators, both preschool and child care teachers, from 34 inner-city and suburban centers in the Cincinnati area, including Head Start and worksite child care centers.

The study, published today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that educators said they know vigorous activity is important to children. But they cited several barriers, including concerns about injuries, focus on academics and limited outdoor space and playground equipment.

It doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment for children to be active, Copeland says. “They just need to be taken outside and given the time, space and freedom to run. Many kids spend all day in child care, so this may be their only chance to be physically active.”

Russell Pate, an exercise researcher at the University of South Carolina, says his research shows children are more likely to be active if the play space has toys such as tricycles, balls and hoops rather than static playground structures.

Educators said they know that vigorous activity and outdoor play are important to children, but they cited several barriers, including:

Safety and injury concerns. Teachers are worried about injuries occurring on their watch, and they say some parents request that their children not do outdoor activities because of concerns about safety, Copeland says. The educators say stricter state licensing codes on playground equipment for injury prevention have resulted in equipment that is not physically challenging or interesting to kids.

Focus on academics. The teachers say many parents are putting pressure on schools/centers to focus on academics, including helping kids learn to count and develop pre-reading skills.

Budget constraints. Some schools and centers have limited outdoor space, and some don’t have funds or access to much playground equipment. Many don’t have a room where kids can do vigorous activities on a rainy day, Copeland says.

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