04 Jun How to Raise a Healthy, Active Child: A Summary of UW’s Latest Research

PT Sand hill exploration madison hayleeBy Andrew A. Jay, CEO

Six months ago I met with Dr. Pooja Tandon at Children’s Hospital to hear her thoughts on outdoor preschools and how to best give children a healthy, active childhood. A researcher on child development she has an interest on how outdoor settings lead to greater health outcomes for children – from executive functions like impulse control or empathy to health indicators like a healthy body weight outdoor play has shown to be an excellent and low-cost solution to some of our most pressing problems. As our children (and the American medical system) face growing and severe health challenges like childhood obesity and diabetes the question has become urgent: what can we as parents, educators and policy makers do to make sure every young person enjoys a healthy, active outdoor childhood?

You may have seen this article in the Seattle Times based on Dr. Tandon’s most recent work exploring how active children really are in preschool. She caused quite a stir when her study was published a couple weeks ago in the journal Pediatrics and then picked up by the NY Times. At 10 preschools in the Seattle area her research team followed the daily activities of 98 children (kids wore accelerometers, a simple version of the Fit-Bit). Her findings: children spent a vast majority of their time in preschool engaged in sedentary activities. In a 6 hour preschool day children spent only 48 minutes – or 12% of their time – actively moving. This is far less than the two hours recommended by national guidelines and is a woefully low number when you think about the health consequences that result from it.

What I found interesting in the study, and what wasn’t covered in the national press, was how preschoolers only spent 33 minutes of their day outdoors and that this short amount of outdoor time made up the majority of the 48 minutes of active play kids received. Dr. Tandon’s work also found that of the outdoor play time 99% of activity was child directed and 1% of total activity was led by teachers. In short kids are spending most of their preschool time indoors & teachers spend almost all of their instructional time focused on sedentary indoor activities.

Combine this with the fact that Children spend an average of 7.5 hours each day or about 53 hours a week in front of a screen (more time than their parents spend at work!) but less than 4 minutes a day in unstructured play in nature (2010 Kaiser Family Foundation) and you have a bleak picture of what an American childhood looks like today.

What can we do about it?

Give children more unstructured outdoor play time: The accelerometer data found that kids were more active when they could play, explore and run around on their own outside than when teachers led the activity indoors.

Praise and support preschool teachers for creating more opportunities for child driven outdoor play: For years policy makers and parents have been asking teachers to focus more on academic outcomes like reading & math. Research has shown however that heavy academic instruction at an early age can lead to lower long term academic performance (Washington Post) and that children are better served academically by developmentally appropriate play (play that can still include language, symbol and number elements). Ideally in a group setting with mixed incomes, ages and abilities. We need to recognize the great teachers who make active outdoor play part of their daily routine and support all teachers with the training and resources to create vibrant outdoor adventures.

Give children more freedom to explore on their own: kindergarten’s in Switzerland train their parents to let children walk home on their own after school so they can learn to manage risk and problem solve on their own. I recognize this does not work in all neighborhoods, not all of us have sidewalks or safe streets but there should space for more outdoor freedom in most homes.

Say “Go outside and play”: as a child when I started bouncing off the walls my mother, like generations before her, would shoo me out the door and tell me to go and play. She didn’t need to go with me, she just expected me to stay close enough I could hear her holler for dinner and that I would make safe decisions. Make the outdoors the default play space.

Budget playground time in your weekly schedule. Playgrounds are joyful exercise machines for kids and have the added bonus of building a community of neighborhood parents. One tip: next time when you are at the playground and you reach for the phone in your pocket try instead to strike up a conversation with another parent. We need to exercise our social brains just like our kids need to exercise their muscles. Some possible small talk: have you heard about this new preschool opening in Seattle parks?

And of course we need more outdoor preschools, in parks and green spaces across Seattle, Puget Sound and the country, where children can actively explore, play and learn. We also need to find ways for outdoor preschools to be licensed, qualify for state subsidies for low income families and offer full day care so all families have an active preschool option available to them.

As Dr. Pooja Tandon said in her interview with the NY Times: “We need to do better in setting kids up for success. 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.” We need Tiny Trees.

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