The most amazing thing about vacation is how much time you get to spend outside and how much time you get to move. We’ve just returned from a week away where the boys spent the far majority of their days without a ceiling. Delicious.

Sure, it’s easy to live outside when you’re on vacation. The challenge is in our “normal” lives–the ones where we go to work, school, and complete activities. It turns out our parental efforts for safety and our need to cultivate “learners” may be getting the way of our children’s health. Sometimes we may be over-thinking things.

We’ve been touring preschoolers and kindergartens these past few weeks. I’ve been thinking a lot about the 3 dimensions in which our boys spend their days. So a qualitative study on preschool centers and physical activity published by the Academy of Pediatrics last week caught my eye.

Three-quarters of all preschoolers between the age of 3 and 5 years are in child care and more than half of them are in either preschooler, day care, or nursery school center. Most children spend the majority of their waking hours, after age 3, outside of their home. Many children spend very long days at school, leaving around 6pm to head home. After 6pm, there is little time for outdoor play.

With exercise (play) being a key strategy to prevent weight gain/obesity coupled with the reality of where children spend their day, hammering out how much children move while at school is essential. But after interviewing child care teachers and providers from diverse centers (in Ohio), researchers found 3 main concerns impeding and  restricting children’s physical activity when in child care:

  1. Injury concerns–Children’s safety was reported by both parents an teachers as a main concern. Teachers, not surprisingly, felt pressure from parents not to allow children to get injured while at the centers and to restrict “vigorous” activity to avoid harm. State guidelines for safety equipment was strict, they said, but might actually be limiting children’s physical activity. Many teachers felt the climbers and play equipment were boring and uninteresting and because of that, children were inventive and tried to keep it challenging by using it in ways that were unintended (going up slides, etc). As every single parent knows, the play equipment our kids like best are the ones that aren’t designed for them. Rigid guidelines may be less helpful than we hope.
  2. Financial concerns– Many of the teachers reported that budgets restricted them from providing optimal physical activity. The equipment was noted be very expensive (“$10,000 per climber”) in some cases and not the priority of the school due to parental pressure to focus on “academics.” Curriculum took precedence over gross motor play, the teachers reported. And the spaces they were afforded for play were not always optimal.
  3. Focus on “academics”–This is really a blog post in itself, but the study found that parental pressure to prioritize academic classroom learning (prereading skills and colors or numbers) over active play time was a huge concern. Teachers reported this came both from upper-income and lower-income families and increased when incorporating the pressures from state early-learning standards. This focus on “learning” diminished a focus on physical activity.

Instead of pointing fingers to “helicopter” parenting or those gunner-parents who want their kids to “get ahead”, I wonder if we can all be more involved in designing thoughtful days where our children attend child care. Instead of balking at third recess, maybe we can learn to accept it is an essential part of our children’s lives and days. New data supports the notion that physical activity really does benefit learning. And in the preschool setting, we know it is an important part of health promotion. It’s simple really: we all know our quality of life improves the more we spend outside and in play and we certainly want our preschoolers to have the luxury to move.

Here’s what I am going to try to do: I’ll ask more about time outside and in play when I pick the boys up, and when picking schools for the coming year.  I will think more about the spaces they are afforded to move when not in front of the books and screens. And I’ll check myself about inquiry prevention–being thoughtful but not so restrictive.

Do you worry more about injuries than adequate activity? How can we get over our fear of broken bones?