by Christina Elston
Preschoolers spend as little as 20 percent of their days at school being physically active, and a new study suggests that much of the fault could rest with parents, who value academics over activity and fear their kids will be injured on the playground.
In focus groups conducted by researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, caregivers reported that parents often sent their children to school dressed inappropriately for outdoor play, and even asked caregivers to keep their kids indoors.
“Teachers told us that they did not feel that parents valued physical activity and gross motor development as much as their child’s cognitive development. We were surprised about this – that parents were more concerned about classroom learning than outdoor play for children as young as 3,” says Kristen Copeland, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study. “Several teachers commented that parents wanted to know what their child ‘learned’ that day, but were not interested in whether the child had gone outside, or had mastered fundamental gross motor skills.”
Caregivers also mentioned lack of financing for playground equipment as a reason why children in their centers weren’t more active. The study appeared in a recent issue of Pediatrics.
This was what Copeland calls an “exploratory” study, involving 53 childcare providers from 34 daycare centers in Cincinnati and designed to provide fodder for further research. But the participants came from a broad range of centers from inner-city, urban and suburban areas. They included Montessori, Head Start, church-affiliated, YMCA, university-affiliated and corporate/for-profit centers.
With as many as 75 percent of preschool-aged children in childcare centers, and child obesity rates in double digits, Copeland suggests that parents pay attention to how much physical activity their preschoolers are getting during the day. Child development experts recommend that all children be taken outdoors twice a day unless weather conditions are extreme, and that preschoolers have 90-120 minutes per eight-hour day allotted to gross-motor activities.
“It is important for parents to understand that outdoor play has many learning benefits,” says Copeland, “including better concentration, learning about science and negotiation with peers.”