A new report on why children in day care are sedentary suggests that it’s not the care providers, but the parents, who are mostly to blame.

The study, “Societal Values and Policies May Curtail Preschool Children’s Physical Activity in Child Care Centers,” will be published in the February issue of Pediatricsand was published online today.

It focused on childcare centers where, according to previous research, close to three-fourths of pre-school-aged America children are enrolled and where they spend only 2 to 3 percent of their time playing vigorously.

Researchers set out to find out why so little time was spent playing. They studied 34 racially and demographically diverse Cincinnati-area child-care centers and found three consistent obstacles to exercise.

Providers told researchers that they felt pressure from parents to keep children from vigorous play that might lead to injury and also pressure to focus instead on academics.

The third consistent barrier was financial, as some providers said their funds were too limited to purchase up-to-code safe, outdoor equipment. (An ironic twist in this finding is that providers told researchers repeatedly that these “safer” playgrounds were oftentimes the least interesting to children.)

“We were surprised to hear that parents — both low-income and upper-income — were focusing on traditional ‘academics’ (letters, numbers, colors) instead of outdoor play, even for children as young as 3 years old,” lead author Kristen Copeland of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center wrote to me in an e-mail conversation about the report.

“At this age, many children don’t know how to skip, and are still learning how to share, and how to negotiate peer relationships. Yet teachers told us that many parents wanted to know what their child ‘learned’ that day, but were not interested in whether they had gone outside, or had mastered fundamental gross motor skills,” she said.

I could almost hear her frustration after I asked what she would say to a parent who says: “Play is not as important as academics. I want my child to learn her letters, to learn how to read, so when she gets into school she can succeed. I don’t much care if she masters the monkey bars.”

She responded:

“Children learn through play — through puzzles, games, and questions and answers. They also learn on the playground — they learn about nature, weather and the seasons, motion, concepts of distance and speed, and cause and effect. They learn how to negotiate and talk with their peers.

And, they learn fundamental gross motor skills, like how to throw and catch a ball, and how to skip. They don’t teach these in school. But children who have mastered these fundamental skills are more confident, and interact better with their peers later on in school. 

Lastly, research has shown that children can concentrate and learn better after brief periods of vigorous activity.  So ‘active time’ does not need to come at the expense of time dedicated to ‘academics’ and ‘learning.’”

I’ll post more from my interview with Copeland, including what her research revealed regarding changing parental attitudes, in a later post.

In the meantime, what’s your take on what seems to be a parental de-emphasis on play?