Research has shown that physical activity is very important during one’s childhood years for good health as well as for other developmental reasons.
Inasmuch as Scandinavian children spend many hours a day in preschool, it is important to know how active they are there. However, little research has been done on this topic. The only research on how physically active children are in early childhood facilities indicates that there are huge differences between preschools.
WHAT CAN PRESCHOOLS DO?
Danish researchers have made a comprehensive analysis of opportunities for 5- and 6-year-olds to be physically active. The study was carried out at 43 preschools in Denmark. The researchers tried to find an explanation for differences in activity levels from one facility to the next. And most importantly: What can preschools do to encourage children to be more physically active?
Researcher Line Grønholt Olesen of the University of Southern Denmark studied a total of 426 children, ages 5 and 6, along with their parents and staff members from 43 randomly selected preschools. To measure their activity levels, the children were equipped with fitness monitors. They wore the monitors constantly during every waking hour for one week.
Hanne Værum Sørensen, another researcher, studied three of the 43 preschools in greater depth. She examined educational practices in these preschools. What does the curriculum say? What attitude do preschool staff have to health, movement and bodies? One of the preschools she studied was a so-called sports preschool, while the other two were conventional facilities.
HUGE DIFFERENCES IN ACTIVITY LEVELS
Both researchers discovered huge differences in activity levels between boys and girls. They also found that factors in the preschool environment and organisation have a strong bearing on this difference.
‘The level of physical activity varies greatly from one child to the next, even within the individual preschool. Data indicates, however, that the activity levels of preschoolers are influenced by factors in their preschools. ‘The girls’ level of activity, in particular, appears to be affected by the preschool environment. This is true of boys to a lesser extent. Overall, the boys are more physically active than the girls during the day, especially while in preschool’, Olesen states.
‘In organising activities, preschool staff must be cognisant of these gender differences, assuming that the goal is to foster increased physical activity for the girls’, she adds.
Værum Sørensen found that all three of the Danish preschools she studied offered plenty of physical activity. ‘However, the sports preschool stood out from the others. It provided more opportunities and better conditions for children’s activities than the traditional preschools did. The sports preschool was also clearly better at getting all the children to join into play, both boys and girls and regardless of age’, Værum Sørensen recounts.
‘In the traditional preschools, I could see that the girls were more cautious than the boys. Staff members also fussed over the girls more than the boys. In the sports preschool, the girls are more daring. They challenge themselves more. When they fall, they pick themselves up and continue playing.’
Værum Sørensen sees clearly that early childhood educators transfer their attitudes to the children. In the sports preschool, staff attached considerable importance to ensuring that the children would feel the joy of movement. In the conventional preschools, more priority was given to encouraging children’s independence and making them ready to start school.
ADULTS’ ATTITUDES ARE CONTAGIOUS
With this study, Værum Sørensen has confirmed that it means a great deal for children’s activity level whether or not the preschool staff are active themselves.
‘Adults’ attitudes to physical activity have an impact on the children’, she maintains. ‘In the sports preschool, staff is more playful. When the children wanted to play a game, the adults were good role models. They explained how to play the game, so the children knew exactly what they were going to do.
‘When they were going to play stick ball, for example, the rules were explained so that the oldest children understood them. The toddlers spent a lot of time scampering back and forth without understanding what they were supposed to do. But they were active and joined in the game. Eventually, the little ones also understood the rules.
‘It is possible to plan active physical activities in a way that makes it fun to be physically active and use their bodies. However, it is important that early childhood educators are clear and prepare the children for exactly what is going to happen’, Værum Sørensen cautions.
LITTLE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRESCHOOLS
Værum Sørensen believes that even though all three preschools gave the children plenty of opportunity to be physically active, the sports preschool was best in terms of quality.
‘This was a question of how the activities were organised.
‘The adults knew what they wanted, and they had a wider variety of activities in their repertoire. In the traditional preschools, the activities were far more random’, she adds.
The researchers were surprised when they found no major differences between the sports preschools and the traditional preschools when the children wore the fitness monitors.
‘On rainy days, the children were active for an average of 10 minutes less than when the weather was nice.’
MOST ACTIVE OUTDOORS
‘The size of the outdoor area at the preschool, and how it is designed, have an impact on children’s activity levels. All the same, it was surprising how little the outdoor environment in the Odense preschool project explains the differences between the preschools’, continues Olesen.
The factor that has the strongest correlation with the children’s level of activity was the exact location of the preschool building. Being able to walk or run around the whole preschool building has an especially positive effect on their level of activity.
Having a spacious play area inside, where the children can run around, is also significant.
Yet some elements that are outside the control of the staff and those who build preschools may also be relevant.
‘For example, the weather actually had an impact on physical activity. On rainy days, the children were active for an average of 10 minutes less than when the weather was nice.
‘This is indeed crucial to be aware of here in Scandinavia, where it rains often’, concludes Olesen.