Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children


The action never seems to stop in preschool classrooms. But appearances can be deceiving. Researchers from the University of Washington report that children are not always getting enough opportunities for active play.

“Parents feel as if their young children are constantly in motion. But new research suggests that children in preschool have few opportunities for active play and are often sedentary,” a blog on the New York Times’ Motherlode website says.

To conduct this study — “Active Play Opportunities at Child Care” — researchers observed 98 children attending 10 preschools in Seattle. Each preschool was observed for four full days.

The study found that children’s activity was 73 percent sedentary, 13 percent light, and 14 percent of what researchers call “moderate-vigorous physical activity.”

The study found “that for 88 percent of child care time, children were not presented opportunities for active play, so the finding that more than 70 percent of children’s time was sedentary is not surprising.” 

The recommended amount of physical activity for preschool age children is 120 minutes per day, 60 minutes structured and at least 60 minutes unstructured, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). But in Seattle, the study found that children were only getting a “suboptimal” 48 minutes per day.

The Times adds: “The study showed that most of the time children were in preschool, they were not given the opportunity for active play either indoors or outdoors. Even when they were given play opportunities, much of the activity was sedentary. Over all, children did not have the opportunity for active play for more than six hours of the school day. Just under two of those hours were spent in nap time, but during another 4.5 hours a day when the children were awake, they did not have an opportunity for active play.”

Trends in Early Childhood

The importance of physical education for young children is detailed in policy papers published in 2012 by Head Start Body Start, which is a project of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

As one policy paper says, “Over the last three and a half decades, the prevalence of overweight more than quadrupled among children ages two to five, from 5.0 percent in the late 1980s to 21.4 percent in 2008.”

A second policy paper adds, “Physical health in early childhood can influence both school readiness and the development of healthy behaviors. For this reason, it is concerning that one in five preschoolers are overweight, which puts their longer-term health – and learning potential – at risk.”

Because millions of American children are enrolled in preschool programs, these programs “are well positioned to assist in addressing overweight and obesity in young children by providing environments that promote and facilitate healthful eating and physical activity…”

Practical Solutions 

“If kids are encouraged to move from a young age, they enjoy it more, and they become more confident in fundamental movement skills like jumping, throwing, kicking, balancing,” Dr. Pooja Tandon, the lead investigator for the University of Washington study, told the Times. “Those skills are precursors to being involved in sports or athletics later.”

The Times adds: “These researchers suggest that pediatricians talk to families about the physical activity opportunities for children in every place where those children spend time. Parents can look at the opportunities offered in their children’s preschool or child care setting, considering both what the researchers call ‘child-directed’ active play opportunities (running around outside) and teacher-led activities, which are more likely to include even those children less inclined toward active play.”

“There’s a huge range of what’s out there,” Dr. Tandon said. “Every child should have access to high-quality care, with enough opportunities to play actively. We need to step back and look hard at how our kids are really spending their days.”