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Study: Academic, Injury Concerns Limit Physical Activity in Child Care

Injury concerns, financial considerations, and an increased focus on academics have been identified as the three primary hindrances to physical activity in child-care centers, according to a study published online Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics.

Three-fourths of U.S. preschool-age children are enrolled in child care, according to the study, but many aren't meeting the recommended levels of physical activity per week. The study authors estimate that children spend between 70 percent and 83 percent of their time being sedentary.

For the study, researchers examined nine focus groups with 49 child-care providers assembled from 34 centers in Cincinnati, 55 percent of whom identified themselves as African-American.

In the focus groups, participants often fretted over the possibility that child care provided some children their only realistic chance to play outside safely. That concern was also expressed in a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics about low-income students' need for playtime. (Pediatrics is the official journal of the AAP.)

However, focus-group participants pointed out three main stumbling blocks:

• Some participants felt that state playground inspections and licensing codes had become too strict, leading to the development of playground equipment that children found "boring."

• A number of centers had limited budgets, and thus, couldn't purchase a swath of exercise equipment to provide children opportunities to remain physically active. Many lacked rooms where children could play indoors, in times when the weather turned foul.

• High-stakes accountability apparently has reached child care, as focus-group participants often cited pressure from parents who wanted academics emphasized over all other offerings. Others felt pressured by state early-learning standards.

"Societal priorities for young children—safety and school readiness—may be hindering children's physical development," the authors write.

What's the solution, at least for the moment?

"In designing environments that optimally promote children's health and development, child advocates should think holistically about potential unintended consequences of policies," they conclude.

After all, as they note, childhood obesity is quickly approaching childhood injury as being the leading cause of morbidity. If child care serves as a child's main opportunity to engage in physical activity, the authors suggest that licensing standards may need to "explicitly promote physical activity in as much detail as is devoted to safety."

Hook 'em (on physical activity) while they're young, right?

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