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A recent report has simple advice for child care teachers: If you want children to be more active during the day, brush up on games like “Duck, Duck, Goose” and play along with them.

A federally-commissioned study of child care centers found that staff should spend more time letting kids be physically active. But the study also found that when staff members played with the children, kids spent more time being active than when the adults did not participate. Children in classrooms where adults didn’t join in the play had 30 minutes less active time, on average, than kids in classrooms where adults got involved.

“Especially for these very young kids, teachers are the main gatekeepers to physical activity during child care. They are the ones who control when and how many times the children go outdoors to play each day. Just being outside with enough space and freedom to run around makes a huge difference,” said Lauren Olsho, a co-author of the study that produced these findings and a senior health economist with the research firm Abt Associates.

Researchers also found that bad weather too often put a damper on activities. On days when weather prevented outdoor activities, children averaged over an hour less active time.

“Teacher choices set the stage for activity inside as well — everything from the setup of the classrooms to make space for play, to rules about jumping or running indoors can be important,” Olsho said. “Finding ways to get the kids moving while indoors — dance parties, musical games, stretching or balance exercises — is even more important when there’s bad weather.”

Why does this matter? The American Academy of Pediatrics says that physical activity not only improves children’s body composition, bone density and cardiovascular health, but it has also been linked to decreased rates of smoking and depression, among other benefits.

Because millions of American children spend much of their time in a child care setting during the week, it’s important that they are physically active there. Kids are naturally inclined to move, wiggle and jump, Olsho said, so adults should encourage that movement and provide them with enough opportunities.

“Kids who are less active not only have poorer physical fitness and coordination and higher rates of obesity, but also shorter attention spans and poorer cognitive development,” Olsho said. “I hope that the results of this study will help child care providers better understand both what’s recommended and where they may be falling short.”

Data for the physical activities study was gathered in 2017, from child care centers that participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meal reimbursement program. The results of the research were released this year.

Of the 227 child care center classrooms observed, the study found half — 50 percent — met the AAP’s guidance that children ages 1 to 6 get at least 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity. Almost three quarters met the guidance that kids should have at least two, nonconsecutive, opportunities for outdoor play each day, weather permitting. Only about 43 percent of the classrooms met the AAP’s guidance on both aspects of activity.

Children need multiple outdoor opportunities rather than one long session outside because they do most of their activity in short spurts, the AAP says.

“Kids wear themselves out quickly,” Olsho said. “Studies show that kids are much more active in the first few minutes of an outdoor play session. So multiple short, active, play sessions spread out through the day are better than one long one.”

The Office of Head Start has a list of tips for child care providers to help plan outdoor and indoor activities:

  • Play games like “Simon Says” or “Red Light, Green Light,” which don’t require equipment but involve movement.
  • Create play scenarios for kids to act out – they can pretend they are zookeepers or post office workers, caring for animals or sorting the mail.
  • Bring music to choreograph dance moves.

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Ariel Gilreath covers early education and K-12 schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. She most recently...

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  1. Dear Ms. Gilreath,

    While I wholeheartedly agree that keeping children active is very important, I feel that this article is in bad taste considering the current climate and status of childcare workers. Researchers all seem to agree that the first three years of a child’s life are the most important for brain development, yet childcare teachers are considered to be glorified babysitters despite the large amount of education and training many states now require. Teachers are universally underpaid, and none more so than those found in early education. Add to that the lack of adequate staffing and you have employees who are stretched thin. My husband’s small business never recovered from the pandemic, and I found myself suddenly the sole provider for my family of four on less than $35,000 a year. Thank goodness my children are in public school now so I don’t have to pay for their care! I work in the infant classrooms at my childcare center and do the cooking there as well. I also do weekend babysitting on the side to help make ends meet. My Facebook friends are posting pictures of their summer vacations. I’m wondering which of my children needs shoes the most. I am tired. We are all tired; and most of us are still doing the absolute best we can. Maybe we can use our voices to fight for climate change measures (so we can go outside more) and free education for potential educators (to entice more employees to walk through that door). Maybe we can ask our representatives to petition for better pay for early childcare teachers using grants so that the parents paying the exorbitant fees can catch a break as well. ‘Tis but a dream, but one I have to hold on to if I am to stay in this profession. Please don’t place more responsibility on our shoulders, we already have more than enough.
    Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Katie Bailey

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