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Study on kids' playtime with parents: Does it miss the point?

April 03, 2012|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Experts say preschool-age children should get at least an hour of "moderate to vigorous" exercise each day. Does it matter if their parents are with them?
Experts say preschool-age children should get at least an hour of "moderate… (Jose Leiva / The Lewiston…)

Confession: I am the parent of a preschool-age child, and I do not play outside with him each day.

I am hardly alone. According to a study released online Monday by the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 49% of 3- to 5-year-olds do not go outdoors with their mom or dad on a daily basis. Among families (like mine) in which kids had a regular child care provider outside the home, 58% do not have a daily excursion with Mom or Dad beyond the home. (Car trips don’t count – the researchers focused on time spent walking or playing.) The figures are based on data on 10,700 kids from across the country born in 2001 who were tracked from birth through kindergarten by theU.S. Department of Education.

Surely it would be nicer all around if parents like me were more willing and able to take our preschoolers to the park every day. But we don’t live in this perfect world. How damaging is this to our kids? The authors of this study imply that the consequences are quite serious.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “children play outside as much as possible” so that they get the exercise they need to develop strong hearts, muscles, bones and brains. Studies have linked physical activity with academic achievement. And, of course, preschoolers who exercise are less likely to start down the path toward childhood, teen and adult obesity.

This is all true. But if kids aren’t going outside every day with their parents because they spend a lot of time in child care, wouldn’t it make sense to figure out how often they play outdoors there? The study doesn’t attempt this. All they note is that “preschoolers rarely achieve 60 minutes of recommended moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during the child care day.” This is according to a review article published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., not the authors’ own measurements.

I’m pretty sure my son runs around outside for at least an hour over the course of his day at preschool. But even if I’m deluding myself, the conclusions of this study still strike me as off-base and unfair. What’s important is how much a kid gets to run around outside, regardless of whether their parents are there when they do it.

I’m guessing I’m not the only working parent who would feel chastised by the study authors for putting my kid in a situation in which he’s unlikely (statistically at least) to get his recommended hour of daily exercise. But the kids who play outside with their parents every day may not be getting a full hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise either. The study makes no attempt to measure the total minutes of outdoor playtime with parents, only the frequency of these outings. Is 30 minutes of playtime in the sandbox with Dad really worth more (from an exercise standpoint) than 45 minutes of tag with friends at school? I doubt it.

There were some things the study authors were able to measure more precisely that are worth mentioning. Among them:

•    Girls were 15% less likely than boys to be taken outside to play with a parent on a daily basis.

•    Compared with white mothers, Hispanic mothers were 20% less likely to take their preschoolers outside every day, black mothers were 41% less likely, and Asian mothers were 49% less likely.

•    The amount of time kids spent in front of TVs, computers and other screens was not related to their odds of going outside each day with a parent. Neither was household income or parents’ perception of the safety of their neighborhood.

A summary of the study is available here.

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