Toddlers Aren’t Playing At Child Care—And Here Are Some Reasons Why

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Toddlers Aren’t Playing At Child Care—And Here Are Some Reasons Why

A stunning new paper (published online in the journal Pediatrics) focuses on a troubling trend— many toddlers in child care (preschool, nursery school, other organized child care) devote very little time to physical activity—and provides some surprising reasons why this may be the case. Bear in mind that this study is especially relevant to the vast majority of parents of preschool aged kids, as 75 percent of three to five year-olds in the US are in some form of child care.

Here’s an overview of the paper, focusing on: some startling statistics; public health concerns; research questions asked; findings; and take-home messages.
Some Startling Statistics:
The study provides a persuasive literature review that suggests the following:

  • Even after accounting for naps and meal times, somewhere between 70-83 percent of the daily activities for kids in child care are sedentary
  • On average, only 2-3 percent of daily time in child care is devoted to vigorous activities

Childcare Conundrums, Solved

Public Health Concerns:
The lack of physical activity—meaning good old-fashioned running around and playing—is troubling for the following reasons: 

  • It’s clear that we have a child obesity epidemic in the US which keeps getting worse
  • Research continues to show that physical activity is directly associated with cognitive development and academic performance—check out a recent blog post on Parents News Now that describes an especially important paper
  • The preschool years are critical time for the development of a number of gross motor skills— click here to read more about them
  • Unstructured play during the preschool years is a vital context for the development of a number of social skills

Research Questions:
Given these concerns, the researchers conducted focus group interviews with forty-nine child care providers (the study took place in Ohio) drawn from a variety of child care centers (both urban and suburban). They designed these focus groups to ask open-ended (qualitative) questions to get at the child care providers’ perceptions of the reasons why toddlers aren’t playing in child care these days. Note they acknowledge that there can be big differences across different child care centers (some may indeed have lots of playtime built into the typical day), but their focus was to find out what might be the barriers preventing playtime from the perspective of the child care providers.
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The researchers extracted three big reasons that physical activity is discouraged in child care settings. They are: 

  • Concerns about safety. Parents express concerns to the child care providers about the possibility that their kids may get hurt and some directly ask that their kids not be permitted on playground equipment. The child care providers suggest that the state has provided overly strict standards that has resulted in boring, unchallenging playground equipment that toddlers don’t want to use. As a result, kids end up seeking out equipment  that is designed for older kids and, in fact, poses dangers to them.
  • Economic issues. Lack of funding does not permit spaces devoted to physical activity—especially dedicated indoor areas that can be used year-round. In part, this reflects a lack of appreciation for the importance of physical activity in the preschool years.
  • Emphasis on academics. Child care providers suggest that many parents ask that kids’ spend the bulk of their time doing pre-academic work (such as learning shapes, colors, and pre-reading skills) and “not just running around”—parents also want physical activity to be overtly tied to academic lessons and learning.

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Take-Home Messages:
As the authors of this paper suggest, many toddlers spend full days in child care during the preschool years—meaning that this is the primary daily opportunity for physical activity for lots of kids. Yet there is, on average, a ridiculously small amount of time devoted to physical activity. So I see two especially important take-home messages for parents. 

  • Parents should be encouraged to partner with their kids’ child care center to make sure that the playgrounds are age-appropriateneither too babyish nor too challenging. They should also be reassured that their kids should be doing lots of physical activity that involves age-appropriate risk. Look, nobody wants to think about their kids getting hurt, and it’s tough if you are not there to supervise them. But …. kids need to play and to take some appropriate physical risks. That’s true throughout development. This issue is complicated, and also touches on the realities of budgets these days in child care centers, but clearly a change in thinking needs to happen to get back to appreciating and promoting the importance of devoted space for physical activity (both indoors and outdoors).
  • Parents also need to be told explicitly that the preschool years are a critical developmental period for learning all kinds of things, but that much of this learning happens experientially during play. This is where cognitive, emotional, and social development all come together. I would suspect that nearly anyone who studies development would agree that preschoolers need a whole lot of balance between physical activity, play, and “academics.” And despite all the pressures on parents to want their kids to be precocious academically, it is imperative to understand that your child’s brain will develop best via this balance—this has been shown to be the case over decades of research.

Mommy Timesavers

There’s a real bottom line here. If you want to promote the optimal development and health of your toddler, make sure they have plenty of time for free play and physical activity. Convince yourself that this will be as important—if not more so—than the “academics” they are learning during the preschool years. And do what you can to make sure they get it.

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Richard Rende is an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School and Butler Hospital. He deciphers the latest child health and development studies on his blog Red-Hot Parenting.

This article first appeared on Parents.com.