A new study of 10 Seattle child-care centers finds preschoolers are offered only 48 minutes a day of active play, far less than the two hours recommended by national guidelines.
Most parents of preschoolers would swear their kids can’t sit still, but a new Seattle-based study finds that little ones in day care spent most of their time in sedentary activities, with too few chances for active play.
Overall, 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled at 10 Seattle-area child-care centers were offered opportunities to move around, either indoors or outside, only 48 minutes, or 12 percent, of the time in a typical day.
That’s far less than the two hours of physical activity recommended by national guidelines, and it’s only a fraction of 88 percent of the time kids spent in quiet activities or taking naps, according to research led by Dr. Pooja Tandon, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
“I would say it’s surprising,” said Tandon, who is also a scientist with Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “When you think of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, most people would assume they’re spending a much higher proportion of their day moving around.”
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It’s an important question in Seattle and the United States, where about 5 million young children attend preschools or structured child-care programs, with the average child spending more than 30 hours a week in that care, according to federal statistics.
“The amount of physical activity a child gets is dependent on the program,” said Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
The results, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, point to a need for more attention, resources and training for child-care directors and teachers to help boost kids’ physical activity, he added.
Tandon and her colleagues spent two years between 2012 and 2014 observing activity types and levels for nearly 100 children at the 10 local child-care centers. They excluded government-run centers such as Head Start programs.
The researchers spent at least four full days at each preschool, watching and recording data from kids outfitted with devices that measure activity through hip movement.
The goal was to see whether the youngsters were actually getting the two hours of activity a day (24-hour period) recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
“Physical activity is important for a wide range of reasons,” Tandon said.
There’s the matter of weight, obviously, in a nation where one-third of adults and about 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 19 are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among those aged 2 to 5, about 8 percent were obese in 2011-2012, down from about 14 percent in 2003-2004, CDC figures showed.
But weight isn’t the only concern, Tandon said.
“Physical activity, independent of weight status, has numerous benefits as far as cardiovascular health, muscular health, even learning and brain function,” she said.
So the researchers were concerned to learn that preschoolers spent 73 percent of their day in sedentary activities, 13 percent in light movement and only 14 percent engaged in moderate to vigorous activities such as running and skipping.
The kids were most active when they were sent outside for free play, but that amounted to only about 8 percent of the day.
Tandon revealed the research results to the centers, which she declined to identify. The managers and directors recognized the problem, but said there are barriers to offering active play.
One is the push for academics at ever-younger ages. Most parents believe preschools should prepare their kids for kindergarten and beyond, so schools feel pressure to focus on sit-down skills such as reading and math.
“I think the role of active play or movement has been deprioritized at the expense of these other activities,” Tandon said.
Weather is another obstacle to outdoor play in rainy Seattle, the teachers told Tandon. And many kids don’t come to school with coats or other appropriate clothing.
Those concerns are echoed by staffers at Child Care Resources of Seattle, a nonprofit that works with parents and providers to ensure quality care. Deeann Burtch Puffert, chief executive officer, said child-care centers work for kids to be active at least an hour a day, according to state guidelines. But the pressures of practicality sometimes get in the way, especially when there are as many as 10 children for every teacher.
“About half the kids can operate zippers and tie their shoes,” she said. “It’s a profound workload issue.”
Adrienne Wingo, who provides technical assistance, said that the group encourages providers to take children outside every day, regardless of weather.
“We encourage our providers to think of the outside environment as a classroom,” she said.
Still, some parents object when kids go outside in bad weather, or when they come home dirty, Puffert added. “Teachers don’t want parents to be upset with them,” she said.
But Tandon and Snow, from the NAEYC, said it’s important to try to find solutions to such obstacles.
“I do not want to diminish their importance, but they ultimately are surmountable,” Snow said. “Part of it is thinking about, not do we do this or do we do that, but can we do multiple things at once that are mutually beneficial?”
“On the count of three, everybody find the blue tree stump across the yard,” he suggested, noting that such curriculum teaches colors while also engaging kids in physical activity.
The study should prompt parents to ask child-care providers about activity opportunities and to make sure they send their kids to school prepared for outdoor play, Tandon said.
“Think about it just like a balanced diet,” she said. “Is my child getting enough outdoor time?”