Play's the thing for kids in day care
A 4-year-old walks along a balance beam while being supervised by Taryn Revak during playtime at ABC's for Children day care in Scott.
Another 4-year-old child rolls over an exercise ball. The day care center sets aside time for physical play every two hours.
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Most children in day care don't get enough exercise, according to a study published earlier this month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Researchers headed by Kristen Copeland of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center found that children in day care spend only 2 to 3 percent of their time in vigorous physical activities.
"This is particularly concerning, because daily physical activity is not only essential for healthy weight maintenance, but also for practicing and learning fundamental gross motor skills and socioemotional and cognitive skills," the researchers said.
The time children too young to go to school spend in day care may be the only opportunity for physical activity and outdoor play, the study indicated.
"Because many of the children were in care for such long hours, there was little free time for outside activities," the researchers said. "This was particularly the case for parents who worked multiple jobs and/or did not earn sufficient income to afford outside extracurricular activities."
In its previous issue, Pediatrics published a clinical report on the importance of play in healthy child development.
"Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being of children," concluded the report, written principally by Regina M. Milteer, a pediatrician in Fairfax, Va., and Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Active play is so central to child development that it should be included in the very definition of childhood."
Play allows children to be creative, and helps them learn to cooperate, overcome challenges and negotiate with others, the report said. But schools have reduced the time allocated to creative arts and physical education.
"Even afterschool activities have shifted away from play and physical activity and toward being an extension of academics and a space for homework completion," the clinical report said.
Safety concerns, financial issues and an emphasis on academics are the principal reasons why children in day care get so little exercise, Dr. Copeland and her fellow researchers concluded from their interviews with 49 child care providers from 34 centers in Cincinnati. The study focused on 3- to 5-year-olds.
"[Study] participants relayed pressure from parents not to allow their children to get injured while under their watch, and at times were asked to keep children from participating in vigorous activity to keep them from being injured," the study said.
Strict new standards for playground equipment were another obstacle to exercise, the researchers found.
"The new equipment that was safe per these standards soon became boring to the children because they quickly mastered it," the study said. "Child care playgrounds had been modified to prevent child injury, but the modifications also rendered them less challenging and less interesting for children."
"Given that childhood obesity is quickly eclipsing childhood injury as a leading cause of morbidity ... licensing standards may need to explicitly promote physical activity in as much detail as is devoted to safety," the study concluded.
Many day care centers can't afford expensive playground equipment. And, the researchers found, "many did not have a dedicated indoor gross motor room where children can be active during inclement weather."
Day care providers told researchers they felt pressure from parents "to prioritize academic classroom learning over outdoor and active playtime." The pressure is applied uniformly by parents of all socio-economic status, the researchers were told.
"Pediatricians may need to highlight for parents the many learning benefits of outdoor play (better concentration, learning about science, negotiation with peers), and reassure parents that active time does not need to come at the expense of time dedicated to academics and learning," the study concluded.
Day care providers in Pittsburgh say they devote more time and attention to physical activity and play than do the day care providers who were interviewed for the study.
Brightside Academy, headquartered here, operates 52 day care centers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, nine in and around Pittsburgh. Children at Brightside get at least an hour of physical activity a day, said Donna Piekarski, vice president of education.
"We take every effort to make sure kids have an outdoor play experience every day, weather permitting," she said.
Most Brightside centers have both indoor and outdoor play areas.
"If we don't have an outdoor playground at one of our facilities we make provision for the kids to take a walk or to visit a public park," Ms. Piekarski said.
"We have a gym accessible to all the children but the infants," said Patsy Cefalo, office manager for Small World Early Learning and Development Centers, which has Downtown facilities at 607 Penn. Ave. and 960 Penn Ave. "We take all the kids outside each day, weather permitting."
ABC's for Children Inc., 1630 Greentree Road in Scott, has playgrounds, sports courts and apparatus on which kids can develop gross motor skills.
Time is set aside for play every two hours, said owner Jennie Crandall.
"Even in snowy weather, the children bundle up and get outside to use our playgrounds," she said. "While academics, social skills and life skills are vital to development, physical health is parallel."
Massachusetts-based Bright Horizons is the nation's leading provider of corporate-sponsored child care. In Pittsburgh, Bright Horizons operates child care centers for Allegheny General Hospital, UPMC, PNC and Phillips Corp.
Physical activity, both structured and unstructured, is an important part of the learning experience Bright Horizons offers, said Susan Brenner, senior vice president.
"We want children to be outside at least an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon," she said. "There's fixed play equipment outside. There's gardening. There are games teachers bring outside. Children are naturally active. We like to provide them with the setting and the materials. There should be some risk and there should be some challenge."
Most Bright Horizons centers also have indoor play areas, Ms. Brenner said.
First Published January 23, 2012 12:00 am