Preschool, Daycare and Physical Activity

Do kids get enough active play at preschool, daycare or family child care?

Climber at preschool, daycare
Kids need places to climb and play at preschool, daycare. Catherine Holecko

When you choose a preschool, daycare or other care setting, you have a lot of criteria to evaluate. Is the facility safe? Are the teachers trained and loving? Can you afford the tuition? And also important: Does the preschool, daycare or home-based center have a plan in place for kids' physical fitness?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published guidelines on physical activity at child care in late 2009.

Then researchers developed a list of best practices, then checked them against 96 child care centers in North Carolina. Only a few guidelines were regularly practiced at a majority of those centers and schools. How does yours stack up?

Activity Guidelines for Preschool, Daycare Kids

Just like bigger kids, preschoolers need at least an hour a day of unstructured physical activity, and another hour of structured (that is, adult-led) physical activities. To achieve this, the AAP guidelines suggest:
  • Teacher-led physical activity at least twice a day
  • Outdoor play at least twice a day
  • Outdoor play space with open grassy areas, a paved surface for wheeled toys, and a wide variety of fixed play equipment (sandboxes, climbers, etc.)
  • Indoor play space large enough for running
  • Large variety of portable play equipment (balls, floor mats, jump ropes, etc.)
  • TV or videos rarely shown
  • Children not seated for more than 30 minutes at a time
  • Visible support for physical activity provided in classrooms and common areas through use of posters, pictures, and books
  • Active playtime should never be withheld as punishment, but additional active playtime should be given as a reward
  • Physical activity training (not including playground safety) should be provided for staff two or more times per year

    TV in Preschool, Daycare and Home-Based Centers

    When you think about your child's daily TV time tally, don't forget to include the hours he spends at preschool, daycare or in a home-based center. More time spent watching television is less time spent on active, physical play. Find out if your child's preschool, daycare or family child care home has a television and whether there are guidelines in place regarding its use.

    Toddlers and preschoolers in home-based, family child care programs watch significantly more television than those in child care centers, according to research from the Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Seattle. Toddlers in home-based settings watched about 1.6 hours a day (vs. 0.1 hour in center-based care), and preschoolers more than 2 hours (vs. 0.4 hours in centers). In the North Carolina research mentioned above, 17% of centers allowed between 30 and 60 minutes of TV on the day of observation, and 9% allowed more than an hour.

    Appropriate Clothing for Preschool, Daycare Outdoor Play

    Preschoolers can have very particular ideas about what they wear: tutus paired with cowboy boots, swimsuits in January, superhero capes every day.

    But some of their choices—and, sadly, those of their parents—can interfere with their ability to get enough active play. A team of researchers from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center conducted a study of 49 child care providers, with surprising results. Clothing, it seems, is "potentially an important barrier" to active, outdoor play.

    The research showed that some kids came to school with unsuitable footwear, such as flip-flops; some didn't have winter coats or mittens; and some wore formal, expensive, or ill-fitting clothing that didn't allow them to play actively outside. And if one or two children in a class weren't dressed appropriately, the whole group would have to stay indoors.

    "Even more surprising was the fact that some parents appeared to send children to the centers without coats so they'd have to stay inside," says Kristen Copeland, MD, who led the study. "The staff attributed that to parents' concerns about their children getting injured or dirty or having a cold that may be exacerbated by cold weather," she said. "The study suggests that parents may need to be reminded about the importance and benefits of active play for children's development," Copeland said.

    So find a compromise with your little ballerina or superhero. Make sure her clothes (or costume) don't prevent her from playing at school. She needs the exercise!


    McWilliams, MPH, Christina; Ball, MPH, RD, Sarah C.; Benjamin, PhD, MPH, RD, Sara E., et al. Best-Practice Guidelines for Physical Activity at Child Care. Pediatrics Vol. 124 No. 6 December 2009.

    Christakis, MD, MPH, Dimitri A. and Garrison PhD, Michelle M. Preschool-Aged Children's Television Viewing in Child Care Settings. Pediatrics Vol. 124 No. 6 December 2009.

    Copeland KA, Sherman SN, Kendeigh CA, et al. Flip flops, dress clothes, and no coat: clothing barriers to children's physical activity in child-care centers identified from a qualitative study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity Vol 6 No. 74 November 2009.

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