Simple Options Get Kids Playing
> 12/12/2007 10:31:12 AM

The issue of childhood obesity has many layers, a fact that makes pinning down any one solution that everyone can agree on nearly impossible. While some groups have found success with various strategies and advocates point fingers to other ideas, few suggestions have taken into account two important questions: is it scalable and who will pick up the tab? These are important questions when addressing any public health issue, but especially so with childhood obesity, which now permeates all areas of the U.S.

A new report set to be published in the forthcoming edition of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine offers evidence for an obesity plan that answers both of those questions. Researchers from the University of North Carolina started with the idea that the childcare environment has a role to play in determining children's levels of physical activity, which in turn helps determine their overweight status. In this new study, researchers peered into the childcare environment, specifically at day care and preschool centers, to find what aspects of those care centers led to more active play. By collecting and compiling data on both the environments of the centers and the patterns of behavior that each fostered, the researchers were able to identify elements that influenced active play and therefore, healthier weight.

The amount of time dedicated to active play was found to be one of the best predictors of activity level, which shouldn't surprise, but the group also found that the availability of simple play toys was a strong predictor of activeness. USA Today, reporting on the story, explained the main findings:

Though "the easiest and least expensive means of increasing physical activity may be as simple as providing more active play time," the authors write, they identified two other factors that appeared to increase physical activity. One was providing hula hoops and other portable play equipment. The other was training staff in how to encourage more physical activity.

[lead researcher Dianne] Ward and her co-authors found that preschools with computers, videos and televisions actually had higher physical activity. "It seems unlikely that TVs and computers promote active behavior," they write. Instead, they speculate, centers that can afford televisions and computers also might spend more money on training staff and on equipment or activities that promote physical activity.

It's perhaps most interesting that high-priced, complex play environments were found to be no better, and possibly even worse, then portable and more simple play things. A playground ball, it would seem, may be better at promoting active play than any playground structure. As an added bonus, many portable play things require social interaction, which itself is an important aspect of child care centers. On top of this, the researchers found that providing basic training to care workers helped promote more active play. Best of all though, these basic principles are easily scalable. Training and simpler, portable play options are also cost effective. Instead of installing unwieldy and expensive jungle-gyms, child care centers may be better served to install some sod or even blacktop, and offer some training to their workers.

Dr. Ward and company's research provides more evidence for the importance of unstructured play, particularly in the early years. Many children will spend large chunks of their day in child care, so making sure that those centers are making the healthiest use of children's time is important. Part of that time should go toward allowing and encouraging active play that will set a course for a lifetime of activity and keep kids away from the sedentary lifestyles that have been linked to obesity and other issues.

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