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Are Safety and Academics Keeping Preschoolers from the Playground?

January 5, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Hopscotch, jump rope and tag are simple childhood pastimes, but Ohio preschoolers in child care may not be getting enough of that outdoor play, according to a study released Wednesday.

A focus group of Cincinnati-area child-care providers looked at potential barriers to physical activity in child care and found that financial constraints, safety concerns and a focus on academics over play were the three main obstacles.

The finding goes to show how well-intentioned policies may have unintended consequences, says Dr. Kristen Copeland, of the Division of General and Community Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, who led the study.

"Daily physical activity is essential for preschool-aged children's development and for preventing obesity, but parents' and teachers' concerns about injury and school readiness may be keeping children from being physically active."

Childhood obesity is a national epidemic, Copeland says, and time in child care may be a child's only opportunity for outdoor play. She says these findings show that there may be a need to re-balance the priorities of injury prevention and kindergarten readiness with the promotion of physical activity. Three-fourths of U.S. preschool-age children attend child care.

In the study, many providers cited budgetary reasons for why their centers could not offer children optimal physical activity. But Copeland says fancy playground equipment isn't needed for children to be active.

"What's more conducive to physical activity is portable play equipment - so things like balls or jump ropes - and also the adult's activities on the playground. Children are more active when their teachers or their parents are being active with them."

Several care providers in the study did recognize that learning can be incorporated through active play and that the energy release from outdoor activities can help put children in a better mindset to learn.

The study, "Societal Values and Policies May Curtail Preschool Children's Physical Activity in Child Care Centers," will be published in the February 2012 issue of Pediatrics.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH