Study: Preschoolers Need More Active Play

Most 3- to 5-year-olds not getting two hours of physical activity per day

active play for preschoolers
Does your preschooler engage in at least two hours of active play a day? A new study found that she might not!. Billy Hustace

Children in the 3- to 5-year-old age group are not only not as active as they should be on a daily basis, but they are not given enough opportunities to be active, according to a new study.

In “Active Play Opportunities at Child Care,” published in the June, 2015 issue of Pediatrics, researchers observed nearly 100 kids from 10 different preschools and day care centers in the Seattle area.  While each location had at a minimum of one hour per day scheduled for active play, most kids only had about 48 minutes of active play, with 33 minutes of that outside and less than 10 minutes per day of teacher-led physical activities.

“We discovered that on average, children were sedentary for 73 percent of their day,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, the study’s lead investigator and member of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “But what is even more troubling is the fact that kids are not even being offered the opportunities to achieve the recommended amount of active play. If they are not getting the opportunity, they obviously will not meet the overall recommendation of 120 total minutes of physical activity.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that preschoolers need an hour a day of unstructured physical activity, plus an hour of adult-led physical activities. To help parents and caregivers figure out how to include that much playtime in every day, they've put together suggested ways to get some physical time in, including attending a preschool that has large, open play spaces, lots of play equipment like balls and jump ropes and staff that has been trained in physical activities.

“The results are problematic because physical activity is important to the health and well-being of children,” Tandon said. “Active play helps develop muscles and bones, improve cardiac health and prevent obesity. It is also associated with positive mental health and academic performance.”

Tandon and her team spent 10 weeks -- approximately one full week at each center -- studying the children and their active play opportunities (APO).

Children wore devices that measured their movements. The children's time at the center was divided up into six key categories:

  • not an active play opportunity
  • naptime
  • APO outdoor free play
  • APO outdoor teacher-led play
  • APO indoor free play
  • APO indoor teacher-led plays

Since the study took place over a two-year period, weather was not taken into account as a factor.

Tandon says that everyone who plays a role in a young child's life, including parents, child care providers, health care providers and policymakers do what they can to make sure that kids are getting enough chances to engage in at least two hours of physical play daily.

“Communication is key,” she said. “Parents need to be advocates for active play and ensure that it is a priority as a learning opportunity for everyone caring for their children. Conversely, child care providers need to be supported in their efforts by parents who send their kids appropriately dressed and prepared for active and outdoor play every day."

If you aren't sure how much active play your preschooler engages in at preschool, don't be afraid to talk to the teachers or day care provider.

Find out how often the kids go outside or do physical activities as part of a class. Some preschool teachers and administrators say they often feel pressure from parents to make classroom learning a priority over outdoor activities. So getting kids more time engaging in physical activities may just mean speaking up.

Not sure how to engage your preschooler in active play when you are at home? Try some of these fun family activities:

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