Are you the parent of a preschooler? Do you struggle to prioritize work, play, discipline, chores, bedtime, meals, tantrums, and more? Does outdoor play time often get left off the list? Findings of a Seattle-based research team suggest that you’re not alone: Only half of preschool age children in the United States spend at least an hour playing outside with a parent every day.
The study, which was published April 4 in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, was led by Pooja Tandon, MD, MPH, of Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Tandon’s team reviewed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort. The researchers analyzed the behaviors of 8,950 children and their parents. representing approximately four million U.S. children. Preschoolers in the study were defined as children one year away from starting kindergarten, generally ages 4 to 5.
Outdoor play is important to children’s physical and mental health. Children who play outdoors are more likely to be active, develop large muscle skills and strength, and develop life-long habits that lead to better health. And an increasing body of research suggests that outdoor play is essential to brain development.
“Physical activity through play is essential for preschoolers’ growth and development,” said Dr. Tandon, who is also acting assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. “Outdoor play is also beneficial for motor development, vision, cognition, Vitamin D levels and mental health,” she added.
But for working parents, that might be a challenge – especially in the winter months, and especially in northern climes. Children may spend most of the day in childcare, and parents pick them up after work only to return to an evening filled with the rush of preparing and eating dinner, preparing for the next day, and baths and bedtime routines.
Researchers chose to look at time spent with parents or guardians, because those adults have the greatest influence on children’s behavior. Even children in child care spend the majority of time in the care of a parent or guardian, as preschoolers in the U.S. spend an average of 32 hours per week in child care.
Tandon's team examined other factors in families lives that seemed to influence – or not – the amount of time children spent outside with a parent. Some of their findings were predicatble, while some were surprising.
Gender was an important factor in outdoor play time. Mothers were more likely to take children outside to play than were fathers, and girls were less likely than boys to play outside.
- Forty-four percent of moms said they took their kids outside daily, compared to 24 percent of dads.
- Fifteen percent of mothers and 30 percent of fathers did not take their child outside to walk or play even a few times per week.
Racial and ethnic disparities were also notable.
- Children with white parents were the most likely to spend outdoor time with at least one of those parents.
- Asian mothers were 49 percent less likely, black mothers 41 percent less likely and Hispanic mothers 20 percent less likely to take their child outside than were white mothers.
“Racial and ethnic disparities in rates of children who are overweight or obese start early on in life,” said Dr. Tandon. “Children in a low socioeconomic status may have fewer opportunities to be active and play outside.”
A few things did not affect the amount of outdoor play time children spent with parents.
- Surprisingly, children who spent more time watching television or on computers were equally as likely to spend time outdoors with parents.
- Play time was not influenced by household income, mothers’ marital status, or parents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety.
On the other hand, two factors increased the likelihood that parents and children spent outdoor play time together: Having playmates, and having parents who exercise.
- Preschoolers with three or more regular playmates were twice as likely to go outside daily.
- Mothers who exercised more than four times per week were 50 percent more likely to take their child outside daily than mothers who did not report any exercise.
Tips for Parents to Increase Kids' Outdoor Physical Activity
Dr. Tandon offers the following tips to help children and parents get moving:
• If your child is in day care or cared for by others, ask about outdoor play time
• Increase awareness among friends of why it’s important for children to play outdoors • Encourage and support girls in outdoor active play
• Don’t let darkness or weather deter you from getting outside with your kids: Take a “flashlight walk” or a rainy day hike; invite your friends
“Preschool age children should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day,” said Dr. Tandon. “But many preschoolers are not meeting that recommendation. Young children need more opportunities to play outdoors and to help them be more active.”
The study findings suggest that parents need to find creative ways to play with their children outdoors – and make it a priority. “Even if parents are not able to take their children outside to play due to logistics or time constraints, they can advocate for or insist upon it in child care or preschool settings,” said Dr. Tandon. “If we can increase awareness of why it’s so important for children to be outdoors, there can be a cultural shift and our children will benefit in many ways.”