Many young children in child care centers are not getting as much active playtime as they should, according to new research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A study published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Pediatrics found only 13.7 percent of child care centers in North Carolina offered 120 minutes of active playtime during the school day.
Researchers at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention observed and reviewed physical activity and playtime practices and policies in 96 centers across the state. An earlier study by the same group developed the 120 minute benchmark as part of best practice guidelines for promoting healthy weight in young children.
"We think that our guidelines are a starting point for child care centers looking to develop physical activity policies," said Christina McWilliams, a research associate at the center and lead author of the study. "Unfortunately, a lot of the best practice guidelines are not being met in North Carolina."
However, the study also showed positive signs. In 82 percent of the centers, children were not sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time and about 56 percent of centers had a written policy on physical activity.
The investigators began studying activity in child care settings in response to the United States' rapidly increasing rates of childhood obesity. Nationwide, the percentage of obese children aged 2 to 5 years increased more than 30 percent between 2001 and 2004.
"What happens in child care centers is a very important indicator of preschoolers' physical activity levels, since children spend on average 25 hours a week in such centers and physical activity protects against obesity during the preschool-age period," said McWilliams. "More specific physical activity recommendations for centers will be a positive step in fighting childhood obesity."
Meanwhile, another study published by the same group in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that research into finding effective ways to increase physical activity in child care centers is still a new field.
The study, led by Dianne Ward, a research fellow at the center and a nutrition professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, is the first to systematically review research databases for such papers. Ward and her colleagues found that only nine studies, all conducted since 2003, have tested ways to help young children in child care centers become more physically active.
Ward's team recommended that researchers look at all areas of the child care environment, not just the amount of time children are provided for play. For example, other areas that relate to physical activity at preschools include the physical environment (such as fixed and portable play equipment), sedentary environment (such as television viewing time and the presence of TVs and computers in classroom), staff training and behaviors (such as staff joining in active play and providing verbal prompts to increase active play) and a written physical activity policy.
Along with McWilliams and Ward, the co-authors of the Pediatrics journal study are Sarah C. Ball, Derek Hales, Ph.D, and Amber Vaughn, all from UNC; and Sara E. Benjamin, Ph.D., from Harvard Medical School's department of ambulatory care and prevention.
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