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.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.