The most amazing thing about vacation is how much time you get to spend outside and how much time you get to move. We’ve just returned from a week away where the boys spent the far majority of their days without a ceiling. Delicious.
Sure, it’s easy to live outside when you’re on vacation. The challenge is in our “normal” lives–the ones where we go to work, school, and complete activities. It turns out our parental efforts for safety and our need to cultivate “learners” may be getting the way of our children’s health. Sometimes we may be over-thinking things.
We’ve been touring preschoolers and kindergartens these past few weeks. I’ve been thinking a lot about the 3 dimensions in which our boys spend their days. So a qualitative study on preschool centers and physical activity published by the Academy of Pediatrics last week caught my eye.
Three-quarters of all preschoolers between the age of 3 and 5 years are in child care and more than half of them are in either preschooler, day care, or nursery school center. Most children spend the majority of their waking hours, after age 3, outside of their home. Many children spend very long days at school, leaving around 6pm to head home. After 6pm, there is little time for outdoor play.
With exercise (play) being a key strategy to prevent weight gain/obesity coupled with the reality of where children spend their day, hammering out how much children move while at school is essential. But after interviewing child care teachers and providers from diverse centers (in Ohio), researchers found 3 main concerns impeding and restricting children’s physical activity when in child care:
- Injury concerns–Children’s safety was reported by both parents an teachers as a main concern. Teachers, not surprisingly, felt pressure from parents not to allow children to get injured while at the centers and to restrict “vigorous” activity to avoid harm. State guidelines for safety equipment was strict, they said, but might actually be limiting children’s physical activity. Many teachers felt the climbers and play equipment were boring and uninteresting and because of that, children were inventive and tried to keep it challenging by using it in ways that were unintended (going up slides, etc). As every single parent knows, the play equipment our kids like best are the ones that aren’t designed for them. Rigid guidelines may be less helpful than we hope.
- Financial concerns— Many of the teachers reported that budgets restricted them from providing optimal physical activity. The equipment was noted be very expensive (“$10,000 per climber”) in some cases and not the priority of the school due to parental pressure to focus on “academics.” Curriculum took precedence over gross motor play, the teachers reported. And the spaces they were afforded for play were not always optimal.
- Focus on “academics”–This is really a blog post in itself, but the study found that parental pressure to prioritize academic classroom learning (prereading skills and colors or numbers) over active play time was a huge concern. Teachers reported this came both from upper-income and lower-income families and increased when incorporating the pressures from state early-learning standards. This focus on “learning” diminished a focus on physical activity.
Instead of pointing fingers to “helicopter” parenting or those gunner-parents who want their kids to “get ahead”, I wonder if we can all be more involved in designing thoughtful days where our children attend child care. Instead of balking at third recess, maybe we can learn to accept it is an essential part of our children’s lives and days. New data supports the notion that physical activity really does benefit learning. And in the preschool setting, we know it is an important part of health promotion. It’s simple really: we all know our quality of life improves the more we spend outside and in play and we certainly want our preschoolers to have the luxury to move.
Here’s what I am going to try to do: I’ll ask more about time outside and in play when I pick the boys up, and when picking schools for the coming year. I will think more about the spaces they are afforded to move when not in front of the books and screens. And I’ll check myself about inquiry prevention–being thoughtful but not so restrictive.
Do you worry more about injuries than adequate activity? How can we get over our fear of broken bones?
My toddler is currently in daycare, and as a parent, I do worry about injuries on the playground. But, like any parent, I know the daycare’s play area is safe, and I expect a certain amount of bumps and bruises, and would not be surprised by a broken bone. In fact, I would be worried more if my son did not come home with an occasional “incident report”.
More serious injuries are rare, but as such they often drive legislation towards a safer but non-stimulating setting. My son sleeps in flame retardant or uncomfortable pajamas for a similar reason – rare events (the actual numbers are devilishly hard to obtain and those in the scientific literature are fraught with problems) that made a congressman propose a bill that none dare oppose politically. The article you reference is a start at looking at how policies like this can backfire – just like dousing our kids PJs in expensive and possibly harmful chemicals.
Society needs to realize that it can’t legislate for safety beyond a certain point, and trying to do so is fruitless and can have unintended consequences.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Jeff, I agree. It’s what I mean to say in our over-thinking. When we focus so much on safety and legislation, we take out the opportunity for invention, freedom, and mouthwatering creativity. And I completely agree with you—without an “incident report” here or there, school seems entirely too benign. Those “incidents” happen on my watch, too so I would suspect they would happen in a sea of children at school. But I must admit, those incident write-ups and those dreaded phone calls still do take my breath away…
There are two great outdoor preschools in our area. A friend teaches one of them called Tiny Treks in Kirkland. They are outside every single day for preschool for the entire class no matter what the weather. I think she said they average 1-2 indoor classes a year for really really bad weather otherwise the gear up and out they go. At my daughters school the kids have three recesses through grade 6. I love it. Kids learn better when they are allowed to move. Too many kids are labeled with problems because we expect them to sit still like little adults all day long. Let them move and be busy and then they can focus to get the work done much better.
My 3 year-old son attends a preschool on a small farm in Sammamish for 5 hours each week. They spend about half the time outdoors regardless of the weather – with the kids making their own choices on how to spend that time and with watchful (yet non-intrusive) adults monitoring their safety. The amount of learning that goes on outside is phenomenal and I’m often amazed by the stories my son tells of what they chose to do. It’s truly emergent curriculum. I suppose there’s a slightly greater chance they’ll get hurt when they’re “free range” on a farm, but I’ll take that risk any day because of the benefit gained by learning from the physical environment. Not to mention the amazing amount of exercise they get! I feel lucky my child has this opportunity but do realize, sadly, it’s not the norm.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Wow, Sara. That sounds simply amazing.
I always joke that couch potatoes never get injured, but they die early of heart disease. Athletic kids will probably get injured at some point, but they have better overall health. My daughter needed laceration repair from climbing from her chair onto the table at daycare. She was a daredevil as a toddler, and I worry more about that trait now that she is a tween– risks are higher! Nothing is 100% safe, but we all learn from experience.
I read this study this week, too, and found it fascinating. I feel very fortunate that the daycare that my daughter is in (the university-run daycare here on campus at Penn) is awesome and clearly prioritizes both outdoor play and indoor physical activity in their huge gym. Even in the classroom, the kids sing and jump around as a regular part of their day — just this week I went to pick her up early and found the teacher singing a special handwashing song that had the kids dancing around like tiny banshees while they listened for their name and followed instructions to go and wash their hands before snack. Genius! I don’t think I thought all THAT critically about how physical activity was built into the day when I toured daycares (I was too preoccupied with worrying about finding a good one that didn’t have a 10-year-long wait list!), but I know I immediately ruled out ones that either didn’t have good outdoor play space (ie in a part of the city where they couldn’t get outside/didn’t have a playground) or had playgrounds/outdoor space that didn’t seem safe, like one that memorably had enough rusty nails sticking out of the equipment that it seemed like tetanus waiting to happen.
And of course now that I have a toddler who is clearly at her very best and most engaged and excited when she has plenty of opportunities to run around and explore new things, I really, really appreciate this type of program. I also was further convinced about the importance physical activity in helping kids learn when I read “Fed Up With Lunch,” the new book by the author of the blog by the same name, who detailed how the kids in the author’s school didn’t have recess and she therefore tried to integrate some type of physical activity — tossing a beanbag around, etc — into the start of each class to get the kids warmed up to learn. I really hope that anyone who cares about what their kids “learn,” in a purely academic sense, can see the clear value of physical activity during the daycare/school day, too.
Joy Stramer says
Thank you for the great article it is being read as I realized this week that our local preschoolers are losing half of the toddler time program available to the preschool aged children. Kids need and thrive on large motor skill activities balanced with early child education . At the end of January Maple Valley Community center will be closing the Mon and Wed morning sessions of Toddler Time. This is a great loss to lose the large indoor play space for kids five and under. I am printing out your article to give to the director of MVCC .
Mark Criswell, MD says
Exercise is not just a nice thing to do and good for the body. It’s necessary for many kids, especially many boys, for them to get some energy out of their system before you can expect them to be happy sitting down for an extended period of time and paying attention in class. Creative, self-directed play (e.g. recess) is also one of the best ways for young kids to learn and cement school days as enjoyable time. Many kids, especially some boys, strapped into seats too long with structured academics will grow to dislike school. Early advantages in standardized testing prove short-lived and backfire, with 8 year olds who dislike school and start falling behind. Let our kids play!!
(For those wanting a much more thorough discussion and the academic studies behind it, see the phenomenal book “The Trouble with Boys” by Peg Tyre. A must read for professionals involved in preK and elementary education as well as any parents with a boy.)
Not only am I a parent of 2 very active kids but I’m also a gym instructor. One of the things that I have done to help my local preschool is arrange (each term) a field trip to the gym that I own. The kids love it! We chase balloons, go on an age appropriate obstacle course, but it never ceases to amaze me how little body awareness some of the children have, and quite frankly I find it a little alarming.
But I have to say the teachers at this preschool are so forward thinking with this and brave as well as to go against what is generally happening across most of the globe. They are definitely not the norm.
Maybe if like you say enough of us parents ask about playtime and express our desire for it, we could get enough momentum going to make a change.
Thanks for the article
YOu brought up something that I had not really thought about. I let my child do whatever he wanted to do in summer vacation but I just realized that giving them for shaeducational activities is necessary not just in school but as well as inside your home. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!