This study compared the physical activity levels of preschool children during childcare hours with outside care hours. The study also investigated physical, organizational, and policy characteristics of the participating preschool/childcare centers as potentially influencing the physical activity of children while at the center.
The study involved 71 childcare centers, 65 preschools, and 1002 preschool children. Accelerometers worn by the children measured the frequency, intensity, and duration of their physical activity. Trained research staff assessed the physical environment, policies and practices of the preschool/childcare centers. Data were analyzed separately for boys and girls. The assessment tool used for assessing the physical environment included items addressing the availability, quality and accessibility of shrubs, trees and undulating terrain. The tool also addressed the availability and accessibility of equipment. Policy-related items addressed physical activity training for staff, children and parents, as well as other related concerns such as restrictions to active play, the duration of active outdoor free play, and staff involvement in active play.
Findings indicated that boys spent a significantly higher percent of time active during care hours than did girls. Both boys and girls spent a significantly lower percent of time being physically active during care hours than outside of care hours. While most of the children met the National Academy of Medicine recommendation of 15 minutes of physical activity per hour on an average day, 17 % of the children failed to meet the recommendation on all days of monitoring. A number of characteristics of the indoor and outdoor care environment were analyzed for their association with physical activity. Of those, only the number of spaces with natural ground covering was important for boys physical activity: for each additional outdoor space with natural ground covering at the center, boys' physical activity increased by 0.5 %. For girls, only the amount of time indoors before being allowed outside remained significantly associated with girls' physical activity during care hours when other variables were controlled for: for each additional hour girls spent inside before they were allowed outdoors, their physical activity decreased by 0.03 %.
While the participating programs typically provide supportive environments for physical activity, the greater percent of time spent being active outside of care hours suggests that children could be more active during care hours. The authors suggest that future research should explore other aspects of preschool centers that might influence physical activity levels, such as what children actually do while they are outside. They also suggest exploring broader potential influences on children's behaviors including social, cultural and policy contexts within which centers operate.