We know that there is an epidemic of inactivity in America when it comes to children. That didn’t start as recently as when electronics began occupying children’s time. In fact it has been a trend for many years and is leading up to the perfect storm of increased obesity, increased sickness and lowering academic skill. Now we are starting to pay attention. We see what effect this will have over time as it gets worse.
A study in Ohio by Dr. Kristen Copeland, a pediatrician in Cincinnati shows us that 75% of preschoolers spend most of their day indoors and not moving around. Many were active for only about 2-3% of their day. “Children develop mastery of gross motor skills — climbing, throwing and catching ball, skipping and learning to control their body — on their own at an early age, and these skills aren’t taught in school,” says Copeland. “And children who are most comfortable with these skills show more self confidence and have better peer relationships than children who don’t.” But we know this, so why are they not getting active?
Dr. Copeland’s study found that mainly 3 factors were influencing centers to reduce or eliminate outdoor activity. Let’s look at them individually
Reason # 1: Financial constraints It is true that many centers struggle to provide appropriate equipment. I know, after pricing some items, that learning tools are very expensive. I understand this issue but I also feel that to receive accreditation a school or center should have to prove that they have the resources to play inside and outside. And if there is truly a need I believe that any parent would be happy to donate money for equipment or donate time to dig a sandbox or create a play structure. And if parents won’t do it, there are foundations who will. In fact as a business that focuses on children we have donated to schools and centers to the tune of well over $10,000 over our short lifespan (we opened in 1999). I know that other businesses would be happy to help schools and centers. So, reason # 1: DEBUNKED.
Reason # 2: Parent’s concern about injury or threat of legal action: I have written on this before. Parents need to “mellow out”. So much is learned from a skinned knee, yet I know that it’s not the skinned knee that they worry about, it’s the broken neck or worse; and yes those are realistic concerns. But if children are wrapped in bubble wrap they cannot experience life and they become dysfunctional. And as for the center being worried about lawsuits: I am in a business that can be destroyed by such an assault. But we do what we do the best that we can. We train staff, develop systems that maximize safety and minimize risk. But after it’s all said and done, we still have to do what we do, risk and all because it’s what we believe in. If you run your business based on fear then you forget to do what you specialize in; teaching children and giving them opportunity to grow up healthy. Reason # 2: DEBUNKED.
Reason # 3: Parents wanting emphasis on academics over activities. Oh here we go. There are so many studies that show that the brain absorbs more and better when it’s encased in a healthy and active body that I can’t believe that people still don’t get it. Maybe teachers and administrators have to start shouting it for more mountaintops. It is after all, the reason German educators introduced the idea of recess over 500 years ago. They knew that activity breaks and fresh air would increase academic learning. Anyone want to argue that German engineering came about by luck? Also it is much easier to get a young child to appreciate activity and get them to develop healthy habits than it is to get a fat teen off the couch and try to convince them that it’s good for them. The daycare where my children went use the time outdoors to teach left brain skills like measuring distance, time, nature facts, weather watching and more. They learn right brain skills like building, creating, drawing, space relationships and appreciation of weather and nature. Not to mention reinforcing social learning like sharing, caring, giving, empathy and conversational skills. So Reason # 3: DEBUNKED! BIG Time.
“Children are naturally active”, says Copeland, “they love to play, and to play vigorously, if given the time and place and freedom to run, they will do that. But children at this age are entirely dependent on caregivers for the opportunity to be active.” We need to be realistic in what we ask of our schools and centers: we cannot simultaneously demand less play and less risk while complaining about declining health and crashing intellect.