Preschool’s Role in Fighting Childhood Obesity

While new data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that the childhood obesity epidemic may have hit a plateau, the fact remains that in 2008, 14.6 percent of low-income children from ages 2 to 4 were obese. Obesity at such young ages has been linked to less physical activity, thus perpetuating unhealthy weight and inactivity status into adulthood. While obesity levels have been rising, the number of children enrolled in preschool programs has also been steadily increasing. Researchers and advocates have proposed that preschools might be an appropriate place for preventive health measures, particularly activities that increase young children’s physical activity. Enter the Children’s Activity and Movement in Preschools Study (CHAMPS).

CHAMPS studied preschool children enrolled in 24 preschools in an urban area of South Carolina, with the aim of learning how much and in what context preschoolers were engaging in physical activity. Preschools in the study were child care centers, faith-based preschools, and Head Start programs, and children were all between 3 and 5 years old. Of the more than 450 children participating in the study, roughly half were males and half were African Americans.

Children were observed during the preschool hours, both indoor and outdoors, and their levels of physical activity were recorded by trained observers. Physical activity levels were: motionless, stationary with limb or trunk movement, light activity, moderate activity, and vigorous activity.

The researchers found that children engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) during only 3.4 percent of the preschool day. They also found that 4- and 5-year-olds were less physically active than 3-year-olds, and males were more active than females. In addition, the study found that children in higher quality preschools were more likely to engage in physical activity than children in programs of lower quality.

While spending more time indoors, children were more likely to engage in physical activity when outdoors. The five most common outdoor activities involved open space, fixed equipment, ball and object use, socio-dramatic props, and wheel toys. The first three conditions are associated with high levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA). The other two are also associated with MVPA at lower levels.

While indoors, the five most common scenarios were nap time, large group, indoor transition, snack, and manipulative. All of these conditions are largely sedentary in nature and resulted in very little physical activity. However, teacher-arranged physical activity and music exercises, while observed rarely, were related to very high levels of physical activity. Therefore, the researchers call for more teacher involvement in promoting preschoolers’ physical activity.

While conventional wisdom holds that preschoolers expend lots of energy, this study found this is not always so. In view of the high levels of sedentary activity observed, the researchers call for careful attention in designing outdoor spaces for preschoolers. Designs should include sufficient open spaces and specific outdoor play materials associated with increased levels of physical activity.

The CHAMPS report is in Child Development, 80(1), pp. 45-58.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER