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February 10, 2016

Daycare kids have less outdoor free play at home, new study finds

TORONTO – With more than half of young Canadian children enrolled in some form of daycare, at the end of the day, there’s little time for outdoor activity when kids are at home, a new study led by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) suggests. The study, published in the February 10 online edition of the Journal of Public Health, found that kids in daycare are getting less outdoor free play at home, compared to their peers who do not attend daycare.

This is the first study to examine the relationship between daycare attendance and how much outdoor free play they get at home.  The research team found children enrolled in a licensed daycare have nine to 15 minutes less parent-reported daily outdoor free play at home than their peers who do not attend daycare, depending on the child’s age. Children receiving care in unlicensed or home daycares were not included in the study.

“While most of us recognize the importance of daily physical activity, we hope this research brings more attention to the crucial role of outdoor free play wherever young kids are spending time,” says lead author Sarah Carsley, a research manager at SickKids and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation. She notes that parents, daycares and policymakers all play roles in creating opportunities for young children to engage in outdoor free play. “Building great habits in this young age group can help set the trajectory for a child’s health throughout their life.”

Low levels of physical activity can increase the risk of overweight and obesity and have been associated with a variety of health and developmental issues in children. Previous studies of physical activity in daycares revealed that time spent in daycare is largely sedentary. Outdoor free play in early childhood is known to be an important factor in growth and development and, experts say, is preferable to indoor physical activity. The 2012 Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommend that children aged one to five receive at least 180 minutes of physical activity a day. In young children, this activity is typically achieved through active and unstructured free play.

The research is an initiative of TARGet Kids! (The Applied Research Group for Kids!), a primary care research network in Toronto co-led by SickKids and St. Michael’s Hospital. In the cross-sectional study, the researchers studied more than 2,800 children aged one to five between 2008 and 2011. They asked parents to report their minutes per day of outdoor, unstructured free play, as well as daycare information (whether the child is enrolled in a licensed daycare or preschool, and whether this was on a full-time (30+ hours per week) or part-time (under 30 hours per week) basis. Height and weight measurements of both parent and child were obtained. Age, sex, season when questionnaire was completed, maternal education level, maternal ethnicity and household income were also taken into account.

“In this study, what was surprising was the strength of the association between daycare attendance and reduced outdoor free play at home,” says Carsley.

“We want to understand more about opportunities for outdoor free play in young children. Other research shows that incorporating active play into regular daily activities like walking can help children develop healthy habits from a young age,” says the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Catherine Birken, Staff Paediatrician with the SickKids Team Obesity Management Program (STOMP) and Scientist at SickKids, co-lead of TARGet Kids! and Associate Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. “When dressed appropriately for the weather, children benefit most from playing outside and exploring their environment.”

The findings included:

  • Overall, 44 per cent of the study participants attended daycare and 67 per cent of daycare attendees were in the three- to five-year-old age group;
  • One- to two-year-olds who attended either full-time or part-time daycare had 15 minutes less outdoor free play at home than their peers who did not;
  • Three- to five-year-olds who attended either full-time or part-time daycare had 9 minutes less outdoor free play at home than their peers who did not;
  • Maternal education level and the child’s sex did not affect the amount of outdoor free play at home;
  • As expected, seasonal factors had a larger effect than daycare attendance on outdoor free play.

This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and SickKids Foundation.

This paper is an example of how SickKids is contributing to making Ontario Healthier, Wealthier and Smarter. www.healthierwealthiersmarter.ca.

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. SickKids is proud of its vision for Healthier Children. A Better World. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca.

Media contacts:

Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-7654 ext 202059

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children