Playing Outside: Are Child Care Centers Letting our Kids Down?

jungle gym
jungle gym

Do you remember this?

What about this?

merry go round
merry go round

Or, this?

teeter totter
teeter totter

It seems like a novelty, an almost rarity, to find these playground equipment classics.  When we drive through my husband’s small home-town in Nebraska, this equipment still stands in City Park. We just have to stop and play. My kids are able to hang, climb, and jump in new ways. The “antiquated” playground equipment shines with new life when the kids find joy in it.

Maybe my kids’ excitement and interest in the home-town City Park is because they are just happy to get out of the car. Or, you could argue, anything new is exciting for a child. A new paper in Pediatrics argues, however, that maybe my children's interest in these playground pieces of yesterday is the result of something bigger.

Dr. Kristin Copeland of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is the lead author of a new paper looking at physical play for preschoolers in child care centers. Previous studieshave determined that time spent in vigorous physical activity can be as low as 2-3% of the preschool day. The remainder of time spent is for eating, napping, and academic pursuits; basically, sedentary activities. Dr. Copeland was searching for an explanation of why child care centers are not prioritizing physical play.

In other words, why aren’t our preschoolers running around outside?

Getting sweaty and challenging your body are important for life-long health.Routine physical play is the keystone in the fight to prevent childhood obesity. And time on the playground also helps social development, problem solving skills, and gross motor (big muscle) development. With three-fourths of preschool aged children in the U. S. in some form of organized child care center, it would seem that would be the perfect place for routine exercise and physical play.

So, why aren’t child care centers doing something about this?

Because, in a lot of ways, they just can’t. Dr. Copeland’s paper suggests that the problem is not the child care centers themselves, but the limits and regulations that guide restrict what they are able to do. Most of the constraints are due to the concern of safety, the lack of money, and priority of “academics.”

Specifically, child care centers don’t want kids to get hurt on their watch. Licensing codes are created to make playground equipment secure and safe. As a result, the rounded-cornered, pre-fab, plastic play gyms are less physically challenging and less interesting. In the name of safety, there are no jungle gyms, no merry-go-rounds, no teeter-totters....BORING!

And some kids are not even getting close to the soft-cornered, butt-padded, low-to-the-ground play toys. Parents are demanding kids stay inside during certain weather conditions, preferring their child to do quiet and “educational” pursuits than dance with Mother Nature. Which leaves child care centers to prioritizing limited finances to indoor play items, not more interesting and dynamic outside play spaces.

Meanwhile, the state mandates and parental pressures are also incentivizing centers with indoor “academic” pursuits. It is no secret that parents value academic achievement. In our area, the most expensive and sought-after centers are often the ones that provide an extensive array of academic options. In other words, parents want to “get what they pay for,” and often that equates to a number on a standardized kindergarten readiness test.

Finally, allow me to add one other thought to Dr. Copeland's conclusions. Although most child care centers truly want children well-cared for during the day, child care centers are ultimately a business. It is necessary for centers to find a balance between what parents (potential paying client) believes to be beneficial for their child, the standards of education and safety as created by the state of residence, and the philosophy of the owner/operators.

In that regard, if an elaborate play-gym full of ropes, swings, and slides is not going to get as much attention as an afternoon of Mandarin immersion... Well, we are getting what we pay for.

The result? Unstructured physical play is getting pushed to the bottom of parent-driven expectations and desires for our children.

And that is not the child care center’s fault.

So, what can we do? As a parent of 2 children who are in child care during the day, I offer some suggestions:

  • Know how much time your child care center is allowing physical play. Preschoolers need outside time to work their bodies, practice social dynamics, and get some fresh air. If your kids are not getting much outside time at school, institute “fourth recess” at home. This could be as simple as letting them run around in the yard as you pick up the mail and bring in the garbage cans. Be thankful you are able to offer a place outside for your child to play. It is a luxury that some kids do not have. Alternatively, choose a child care center that prioritizes physical play, as you are making initial child care decisions.
  • Make play a priority on the weekends. Getting outside is important for the health and well-being of the whole family unit. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson wonderfully describes this in her post, “New Rule: Be Without a Ceiling.
  • In the words of my friend at my local gear shop, “There is no bad weather, there is only bad gear.” Dress children appropriately to play outside, even if the weather is not perfect. Better yet, grab some boots and jump in the puddles with them.
  • When at home, limit the screen time to 2 hours per day for kids over the age of 2 years.

And, when you get a chance, let them play on the old jungle gym. Let them get blisters from the metal bars, and scrapes on their knees.  Our kids are strong, and able, and desperate for play. So, let them.