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January 4th, 2012
07:22 AM ET

Playtime for preschoolers essential, study says

Preschoolers in child care centers aren't spending enough time playing outdoors and just being kids, according to a new study published in this week's Pediatrics journal.

Three quarters of American children ages 3 to 5 are in child care and, like most kids, they need to be more physically active, say researchers. But children who aren't in day care may also lack enough active time outside.

"Daily physical activity is essential for preschool age children both for preventing obesity and for their development - their physical development and their cognitive development," says study author Dr. Kristen Copeland from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.

Dr. Copeland and her team of researchers wanted to find out why children weren't more active so they talked to the staff at 34 child care facilities in Cincinnati. They discovered that centers often emphasized classroom learning at the expense of outdoor playtime. Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics say this is not limited to Cincinnati, but occurs in many parts of the country as well.

"We were somewhat surprised to find this in this young age group," says Copeland. "But teachers told us that parents - both upper income and lower income parents - seemed to be more concerned about what their children were learning than about whether they went outside and mastered fundamental gross motor skills."

When kids are running, skipping and learning to ride tricycles, they aren't only exercising their bodies, they're also exercising their minds, which is why playtime is so important, experts say.

"If you're [a child] taking turns and you're playing 'Duck, Duck, Goose,' and you're running outside playing 'Hide and Seek' and counting to 10, you're got a lot of cognitive skills added in there," says Dr. Laura Jana. "They are applying what they learned in a book; they are projecting out and figuring out or making up rules. All of these things are cognitive skills."

Jana is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and member of the AAP's executive committee for early education in child care.

Researchers found concerns about playground safety by staff and parents contributed to more sedentary activities in youngsters. Some parents even requested that their child stay indoors instead of heading outside to play. Another contributing factor to kids getting less playtime are state safety guidelines for play structures, which have gotten stricter over time, rendering some of the equipment less challenging or interesting for children.

Children tended to either use the equipment less or climb on it in ways that were not intended, like up the sides of support poles. Budgetary constraints also kept some centers from purchasing updated playground equipment or providing adequate spaces for children to run and play.

How much playtime do children need? Pediatric experts recommend that preschoolers get 90 to 120 minutes of gross motor activity daily, and be taken outdoors twice a day. But Copeland found that children spent only 2 to 3% of their time engrossed in vigorous play during an 8 hour day in child care.

According to the CDC, 17% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, so intervening early with more physical activity is important.

Copeland suggests that parents get involved and help shape child care practices about physical activity. First, start by dressing children appropriately. Close-toed shoes on warm days and coats and mittens in cold weather are essential for safe outdoor play. And that old wives tale about catching a cold in frigid weather, it's just not true, so let your child participate. Also, when you look for a child care center, go explore the playground and ask the staff if children have a place to play during inclement weather.

Classroom learning such as mastering shapes, colors and letters is important for school readiness, but exploring outdoors and just plain being a kid is vital as well.

Jana explains: "Safety is important, supervision is important and academics too, but play should be elevated to the same level as early literacy.... play gets left off that list, it's almost too simple."

What you learn in preschool and kindergarten can help shape your success later in life, says Copeland.


soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. custom papers

    Excellent post! I think you've encapsulated the mission of this blog and our challenge.

    January 4, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jason

      This why we need quality physical education programs in the United States. For our children to receive the benefits of physical activity, and to live an active/healthy lifestyle!

      January 4, 2012 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
  2. portland tony

    This is a no brainier! However in today's world, the primary concern of most parents is safety. With both parents working, it's hard to find supervised outdoor activities for preschoolers or young children. Gone are the days when kids came home from school and were told to go play and just be home for dinner. Gone are the fields and wooded areas where they could run, hide, build forts, tree houses, etc...Gone are the neighbors who would occasionally look out their windows to check on the kids play. Sure youngsters need to play outdoors, The problem is where?

    January 4, 2012 at 09:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. rebecca

    I think the opening sentence should read "Preschoolers in SOME child care centers." Both my children are in full-time care at a center. They spend a very large amount of time outside, sometimes twice a day and so much that I actually think its TOO much at times. The go out unless it's 32 degrees or colder. They go out in snow. They go out in drizzle. Their center has several acres of playspace outside. I am constantly up against family members and others who have opinions about our children's day care situation (I must work or we would lose our home, simple as that). Generalizations like the one in this article paint all child care arrangements negatively, when that simply is not the case. Kids can fare very well in high-quality programs. Honestly, my children learn a lot more from their child care providers who are able to devote 100% of their time on my children then they would fare if they were home with me and I was dividing my time between them, housework and daily life tasks.

    January 4, 2012 at 09:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Natalie

      I second you. As a working mother with 2 young children, I understand you and I know exactly what are you saying. At the Daycare there are people who's job is to take care of the kids and at home is catch up time between errands, bills and all the chores that we try to do when we get back from work. There is no time or energy left to play with kids. People are overworked nowdays and it is getting worst.

      January 4, 2012 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
  4. Heather

    Free Range Parenting. Check it out.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. becca

    Yes, this is so true! Play is a developmental way of learning and children should certainly engage in play with other children of the same age range. It's unfortunate when academic skills take precedence over play with the push for high stakes testing. Now we see the benefit of playtime!

    January 4, 2012 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. hamsta

    They had to waste money doing a study to prove the same point parents have been telling these eggheads to begin with?i have a better idea-the government cant be trusted to know whats good for my child.yes im talking about u michelle obama.most fat kids dont eat twinkies.could it be the steroids and chemicals in the foods we eat.(fda)

    January 4, 2012 at 10:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • portland tony

      Politics aside, this article was about playtime. Not about nutrition or government suggested dietary habits. Albeit, some parents are not the greatest at feeding their kids wholesome meals and may need suggestions. Michelle Obama being a mom and. first lady, who incidentally gets a. lot of publicity, gets credit for. recommending, not mandating. Loosen up.

      January 4, 2012 at 11:59 | Report abuse |
    • c s

      Government has very little to do with pre-school in this country. Or does the government provide pre-school care for you? Almost all of the pre-schools is run by non-government organizations. I really beleive that the pre-schools prefer to limit outdoor time because it take a long time to get little children dressed with coats, hats and gloves. Then you have to get them undressed and put away all of their coats, hats and gloves. In order to spend 1/2 hours outside, it takes about 1/2 hour to put on and take off their coats, hats and gloves.

      January 4, 2012 at 20:50 | Report abuse |
    • Christine

      Most fat kids have a poor diet of burgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, pasta, cookies, and candies. And also sodas, chips or fries and some things that should no even be edible. They never see (and even less eat) fruits of vegetables or drink plain water. Since they are fat they don't exercise and since they don't exercise they get fatter. They are bored and eat to fight boredom instead of playing (I am talking real play, not video games glued to a sofa).
      And then active kids are labeled "hyperactive" by people so used to kids unable to unglue themselves from the sofa.

      January 6, 2012 at 13:30 | Report abuse |
  7. Brandon

    It is sort of a lose-lose situation for those of us who work in child care centers. If we give the kids a lot of free play time (so important for well rounded development) we are called "babysitters" and accused of not helping to prepare children for school. If we focus on academic activities then we aren't allowing enough time for kids to be kids. This often blows up in our face because young children have a lot of energy and are tired of the classroom structure they have been in all day. As much as we want to just let children play and be creative on their own terms we have to answer to the pressures of parents and different administrations to focus much of that energy on other things.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • c s

      You are right. I cannot believe the academic pressure be putting on pre-school kids today. Kids need to learn to play with each other before they start kindergarten. Children now a days are so regimented that it does not surprise me when they have a hard time sitting still in schools. Unfortunately fear is so prominent in our society due to 24-hour news channels, that normal childhood is being suppressed. Kids no longer walk to school because everyone is so fearful of their children being harmed. I suspect that children kidnappings were much more frequent when I was a child but knowledge of it was limited to the local area. I do not doubt that stranger kidnapping happen but it is a very rare event compared to years ago.

      January 4, 2012 at 21:03 | Report abuse |
    • IllDrinkToThat

      I don't think they're saying give the children free reign to do what they want, there should be a designated play time. I don't think this article is that accurate. If I'm driving around a neighborhood around lunch time, past a school, I always see kids outside playing, running around, just like I used to when I was in school. That goes for driving past day cares too. There needs be designated play times. I used to get 2 recesses, 1 in the middle of the day, another one after lunch, not including PE. And there were afterschool activities. Then I went home and played outside more. It's good for physical and social development which is so much more important than people acknowledge. Kids need to play with other kids. You learn kindness, you learn how to trust, you learn when not to trust. As far as obese kids, parents need ot take more responsibility for this.

      IF YOUR CHILD IS OBESE, IT'S YOUR FAULT. My nephew is 11 months old. We can already tell that he will eat anything you put in front of him. He isn't fat but he is going to be a big boy because he likes to eat. His parents don't feed him very healthy foods. If they don't put him in sports like I tell them to, he will be another obese kid. PUT YOUR KIDS IN ACTIVITIES THAT PROMOTE PHYSICAL HEALTH. Ask them what they want to do. Football. soccer, gymnastics, dance, ballet, track ANYTHING. START EARLY. If you don't expose them to it, you'll never know that they could have been the next Jordan, Phelps, or Lipinski. Invest in your children. In their health and theit futures. Stop sitting them in front of the tv for hours at a time. Stop giving them huge bags of chips to themselves. When I was little, my little brother and I had to SHARE the 30 cent bag of chips. Not because we were poor, because we didn't need a whole bag to ourselves. I see toddlers walking around with 1.50 bags of chips and a big gross bottle of juice for themselves. I blame that on the foodstamp epidemic. I didn't get a bag of chips to myself until I could walk to the store and buy it myself.
      Stop giving them McDonalds all the dam,n time. That stuff is DISGUSTING AND SO BAD FOR YOU.

      I can't wait to have kids. They won't get video games. They will play sports/dance/whatever. I already expect them to probably be chubby. I was chubby even doing all these things. They will be healthy though. And confident because they will have found something they are good at and can take pride in. I don't plan on giving them fast food either. They'll know how disgusting that stuff is. If they want burger, fries and a toy, I'll cook it myself then we can go to the dollar store a pick one out. Cheaper and tastes better. Plus, they'll get a better toy.

      January 11, 2012 at 07:21 | Report abuse |
  8. hamsta

    its the government being to intrusive that makes everything political.we dont need the government involved in every aspect of our lives.government is very inneficiant and corrupts every thing they get involved in.the government caused the columbine massacre.

    January 4, 2012 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • portland tony

      Troll somewhere else. This blog is a about kids. Not governmental interference in your and my life!

      January 4, 2012 at 13:50 | Report abuse |
  9. Julie

    I feel fortunate to be a full time stay at home mother and we play outside often. It's great exercise for me, my girlfriends and their kids often come along, and we make a fun time of it. They play, learn how to socialize in a positive manner, we bring stories and picnic blankets, snacks, etc. There are great websites for ideas to help find fun and creative projects/games/ really neat activities that I wouldn't have thought of. It's just so healthy for them to be out in nature and the fresh air.

    January 4, 2012 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. tabbi

    the pediatric experts.... $55 for the book they want to sell, not that i disagree with the article.... just sayin

    January 4, 2012 at 19:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. bella11

    They mean to restore what was a norm several years ago, until schools and preschool got terrified of lawsuits after even the smallest accident. We really abuse our children. It should be a crime to limit physical activity for preschoolers, especially outside activities (kids need sunlight), to deprive small children of warm, cooked meals during the day and keep them in schools without windows.

    January 4, 2012 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • That Guy

      We have a culture that encourages people to sue on a whim and use the least amount of common sense possible. Its caused an irrational fear that prevents us from doing the simplest things these days.

      January 4, 2012 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
  12. bella11

    Really? Now, we need a study to prove that water is wet.

    January 4, 2012 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. That Guy

    Yes, children need good physical education, but if they don't enjoy it they just resent it. One of the worst classes I ever took in high school was fencing. It was a workout, yes. But I hated every second of it and would have just preferred running track or something. Experiences like these (and being an engineering student) always made me think that physical education was a joke and looking back I should have taken it more seriously.

    January 4, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tony

    Hard for some stay at home parents to put their child in an outdoor play situation if there are not other children to play with. My personal opinion is that they also need playmates of varying ages to let them emulate, teach and generally learn how to integrate themselves into "society".

    January 5, 2012 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sara

    I think this is a great article, but it seems that gross motor play and time outside are used interchangeably. In my area there are centers with indoor gross motor rooms for when the weather is bad. Kids get gross motor play, though outside on those days.

    January 5, 2012 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Zen Angel

    Kidnappings weren't "rare" back then; neither were any of the other abuses of kids. We were simply taught to be ashamed & "keep it private."

    January 5, 2012 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jill H. Mays

    We are facing a crisis in our society. The commercialization of children for profit is staggering. NYTimes just ran an article about gender and play. The article mentions that Lego has spend millions on marketing decisions this past year. Billions are spent every year to try to captivate children with worthless plastic and electronics. Kids need to go outside and play and create from simple supplies at home (cardboard, scissors, boxes, cushions etc). This is a neurological necessity. Movement is critical to brain organization and development. We're all scratching our heads about the increased rate of medicated children and alarming obesity rates. Look outside, how many kids do you see playing right now?! Jill Mays, author of Your Child's Motor Development Story

    January 5, 2012 at 22:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Maciej

      I had to laugh... I was the same with mine and still are with the don't harrass me or you don't get ainhtyng. When they boys were little I had a couple of embarrassing moments, like the time a son needed to go to the toilet so did so in the display toilet (thankfully it was a wee!)My boys like coming to Ikea coz they get the hot dogs and ice creams. Although recently I had to go to Freedom(yep HAD too ;)) and found my 14 year old sitting at the diningroom table in the display window. Arghhhh!Good luck and keep it up. jojo :)

      November 16, 2012 at 01:21 | Report abuse |
  18. P Choice

    Sedentary adults make sedentary kids. Our biggest crises is not having adequate staff for our children. Childcare takes a lot of time and energy, caretakers have to be committed, trained and valued if they are to be entrusted with our children. An educated society produces results, it starts early and it needs to start now. We have dropped the ball people. Placing value in our children and their development is an investment in their lifetime and our future (as seniors).

    Show me a society that values their young and I will show one that values and cares for their elders(seniors).

    January 6, 2012 at 02:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. IllDrinkToThat

    Plus, the break from academia is good for academia. So many kids are diagnosed with ADHD these days. You can't expect a child to sit still and pay attention for hours at a time. I am an adult with ADD and mental breaks in the middle of studying help me focus when I get back to it. Kids are so full of pure energy. They need to be able to run it off so they can pay attention in class instead of sitting in their chairs, restless.

    January 11, 2012 at 07:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bruno

      I handle my shops in the same mnnear, but I've only got 2. But I can see how it would work with 7, though it seems you do have a lovely 7 to work with. :) <3 (Big families make me all gushy, sorry. I always wanted a BIG family, but my body wouldn't play ball).I would be one of those people complimenting you though. I hope it wouldn't be offensive. I just like complimenting mothers with polite, well put together children. Because I see so many that aren't, and I do believe that Mums need to hear the good far more than they need to hear the bad.

      November 14, 2012 at 10:00 | Report abuse |
  20. Samuel Getaneh Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Great article – agree 100%

    January 19, 2012 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. John

    Thanks for sharing this article. I am a Massage Therapist and I have believed in the importance of physical activity. I now have some research to back my rationale to implement at least 20 minutes per day of aerobic activity. I am going to search for some supplemental to jogging, jump ropes and kids aerobic dance dvd's so that I advise my clients to try incorporating exercise as a lifelong habit! I love the ideas of using stationary bikes, dance dance revolution type games etc. Thanks so much for your blog.

    January 23, 2012 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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