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Preschoolers Need More Opportunities for Active Play, Study Concludes

Preschool-aged children at child-care centers need far more opportunities for physical activity, suggests a study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The study authors observed 98 children between the ages of 3 and 5 at 10 Seattle-area child-care centers between 2012 and 2014. All of the centers had schedules that called for at least 60 minutes of daily outdoor playtime, which coincides with recommendations for children of that age. A researcher observed each of the child-care centers for at least four days, dividing time into six categories: not an active play opportunity (APO), naptime, outdoor free play, outdoor teacher-led play, indoor free play, and indoor teacher-led play. Each of the children wore accelerometers to gauge their exertion levels throughout the day.

In total, only 12 percent of the activities in an average day at these child-care centers were considered active play opportunities. Outdoor free play was the most common active-play opportunity, followed by indoor teacher-led, indoor free play, and outdoor teacher-led following, respectively. On average, children logged 33 minutes outdoors on a daily basis—far lower than the 60 minutes scheduled at each. Beyond that, 26 percent of the average day was devoted to naptime, while the other 62 percent of each day was categorized as not providing active play opportunities.

Based on accelerometer data, children were sedentary for 73 percent of their overall time, engaged in light physical activity for 13 percent of their time, and engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for the remaining 14 percent of their time. During their 48 minutes of daily active play opportunities, children were sedentary for 41 percent of the time, engaged in light physical activity for 18 percent of the time, and engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for 41 percent of the time. Their mean amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was 55 minutes per day, with 34 percent of children reaching 60 or more minutes per day.

Well and Good

"Compared with the recommended 120 minutes per day of [physical activity] time, our average of 48 minutes per day of [active play opportunities] is considerably suboptimal," the study authors wrote.

During teacher-led indoor active time, the study found children to be more sedentary than during either indoor or outdoor child-initiated free play. When comparing indoor and outdoor active play opportunities—either child-led or teacher-led—children spent less time sedentary and more time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity outdoors.

Based on their findings, the study authors recommend child-care centers allow for more child-initiated activities, either indoors or outdoors, along with an increase in outdoor time. "Because many preschoolers spend considerable time in child care, usually during the daytime when outdoor play is most feasible, increasing outdoor time there is a strategy for increasing their overall [physical activity]."

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