Study: Preschools Forgo Free Play for Safety, Academics

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Jan. 4, 2012 — Kids need to be kids, and that includes running and playing throughout the day. But many preschools and child care centers are so focused on safety and academics that kids are not getting the activity they need to be healthy.

Many children in preschools and child care centers are spending most of their day — 70% to 83% — being sedentary. A mere 2% to 3% of their day is spent in doing “vigorous activities,” according to background information cited by a study from the journal Pediatrics.

With as many as 75% of all preschool-aged children spending time in a child care setting, the implications are clear.

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. One in three children today is overweight or obese, and this includes preschoolers. Regular exercise helps prevent weight gain, but this is not the only benefit. Physical activity and free play also help children practice gross motor skills, such as throwing and catching a ball, climbing, and skipping. It also boosts concentration and helps children learn to share.

“The emphasis on pre-academics, concerns about safety, and limitation in budgets and space have created the perfect storm for young children to get less than the desired amount of physical education and exercise,” says Andrew Adesman, MD. He is the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park.

“Certain learning takes place through unstructured physical activity, such as coordination, sharing, and possibly creativity,” he says.

Researchers ran nine focus groups of 49 child care providers from 34 day care centers and preschools in Cincinnati. Participants discussed values and policies that may serve as barriers to regular physical activity for preschoolers. The main ones were safety, a focus on academics, and financial issues.

Add these together and children are not getting what they need, says study author Kristen Copeland, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. “By ensuring that young children are smart and safe, we may also be keeping them sedentary,” she says in an email.

Whether or not these findings hold outside of Cincinnati is not known, but the barriers — concerns about safety, budgets, and academics — probably do exist elsewhere, she says.

First, Do No Harm?

Children should be taken outdoors twice a day in all but the most extreme weather conditions, Copeland says. “Preschool-aged children should have 90 to 120 minutes per eight-hour day allotted toward gross motor activities,” she says. Toddlers should spend 60 to 90 minutes running and playing. This does not have to occur all at once, she says. Five- to 10-minute bursts of activity can be spread throughout the day. “These activities can be indoors or outdoors, structured or unstructured,” she says.

Parents also need to get on board with these recommendations, she says. Many of the teachers interviewed in the new study felt that parents did not value physical activity and gross motor development as much as academics. In fact, parents were more likely to ask what their children learned in school than whether they had spent time in the playground. “Out of concern for potential injury, some parents requested their child not participate in outdoor activities, and ‘read a book instead,’” she says.

Adesman suggests that parents seek out a day care or preschool that has indoor and outdoor space to encourage gross motor activity. “There needs to be a balance between pre-academics and free play,” he says.

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