Research looks to get kids up and running

Paul Mayne // Western NewsOccupational Therapy professor Trish Tucker, Director of the Child Health and Physical Activity Lab at Western, has identified some barriers to kids getting moving in day cares across the country.

Rethinking how kids go about their day care days, as well as empowering those charged with caring and educating them, may go a long way toward getting kids much-needed physical activity, according to a Western researcher.

While early childhood educators (ECEs) deliver wonderful opportunities for children to exercise their minds, study after study have shown many tots are falling short on excising their bodies – putting their physical, psychological and social development in jeopardy.

Additionally, parents juggling busy schedules are putting too much responsibility on the shoulders of ECEs when it comes to ensuring their children get that daily physical activity.

This imperfect storm is not working – for anyone, according to a Western researcher.

“I don’t place blame on either side of this,” Occupational Therapy professor Trish Tucker explained. “It’s a responsibility we all hold and both should be responsible for fulfilling.”

In her research, Tucker, Director of the Child Health and Physical Activity Lab at Western, has identified some barriers to kids getting moving.

Overseen provincially, day cares in Ontario are required to provide two 60-minute outdoor playtime sessions each day. That time, however, can involve a lot of possibilities.

“For most kids, being outside means they’re going to be active. But for other kids, it means they go outside and sit in the sandbox for 60 minutes. It’s driven by the child’s interest and driven by the ECE’s prompts to get the kids moving,” Tucker said.

Previously, she explored more frequent outdoor or breaking the allotted time up differently.

Most kids are active during the first 10 minutes outside, before they settle into an activity. What would happen if the two 60-minute intervals were instead converted into four 30-minute ones?

“We saw an increase in their activity,” Tucker said of the idea. “We’re trying to use that information to generate some policy that can be applied across organizations to try and have a broader effect than what we’re currently seeing.”

Tucker said as knowledge around this issue grows, it’s apparent ECEs may be lacking some physical activity training. In one study of Ontario-based childcare providers, ECEs identified that they lack confidence to develop opportunities and to engage young children in physical activity during childcare hours.

“If they don’t know it’s important, then why would they think to build it into their typically sedentary curriculum?” said Tucker, adding teacher education and professional development opportunities that teach ‘how much’ and ‘how to’ lead physical activity opportunities are essential training.

As part of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, Tucker is in the process of creating online physical activity training sessions for ECEs across the country.

“Training ECEs while they are in the pre-service education, before they go out and become child care providers, could be helpful,” she said. “Let’s try and give them all the same training and same education so when they get out there they feel confident and knowledgeable on how to get kids active and what the appropriate activity levels are.”

Tucker doesn’t downplay the importance of reading, math and other basic learnings, but would encourage marrying them with physical activity when possible.

“Thinking about the ways we talk about, for example, space and planets. Maybe we move from planet to planet in the centre rather than sitting on the carpet and just listening,” she said. “Perhaps we have a walking story time by putting different pages of the story throughout the centre and the class walking to the next area to hear the next page.”

Supporting ECEs with appropriate equipment and resources, such as portable play equipment and dedicated gross motor space (outdoors and indoors), is essential for getting kids moving.

Role modelling from both parents and educators can go a long way in encouraging children, as well.

“It’s a change we can make – but it will take some time,” Tucker said. “This changes from person to person and location to location. Perhaps we need a more over-arching organizational policy stating how we value physical activity. It doesn’t have to be really specific, but it can create a culture of ECEs wanting to nurture that within their own centres. The more outside time we can give our kids the better.”