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Why Our Preschoolers Are Couch Potatoes -- And Why We Need to Do Something About It

Jan 04, 2012 | Updated Mar 05, 2012

Our preschoolers are couch potatoes.

I'm serious. They really are -- at least the ones in childcare or some sort of school program, which is three-quarters of the US kids ages 3-5. They spend 70-83% of their time being sedentary -- and that's not including meals or naps. In fact, they spend only about 2-3% of their time in active play.

To find out why our little kids are mostly sitting, researchers at Cincinnati Children's put together focus groups of different childcare and preschool programs in the area and asked them why the kids weren't more active. The study, released this week, is in the February issue of Pediatrics.

For some providers the issue was financial: they couldn't afford much outdoor (or indoor) play space or equipment. But even when they could afford it, the researchers found that the equipment they had, chosen for safety reasons, wasn't all that interesting to kids (face it, those little slides are boring). To make matters worse, the staff often discouraged kids from being active for fear of injury (sometimes at the request of the parents). And the centers felt pressure to get as much academics into the day as possible.

Why do we care, if they are safe and learning? Isn't that what we want for them when they go to preschool?

Hmm ... not necessarily.

Kids need active play. They need it for the exercise; a third of US kids are either overweight or obese. And what's particularly worrisome about that statistic (besides the fact that it's likely to rise given our TV and Super-Size culture) is that more and more studies are showing that fat kids grow into fat adults. If we don't act now, we could literally be dooming our children to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and everything else obesity brings.

Kids need play for more than that, though. They need it to learn what we call "executive function" -- the organizing principles of behavior. Through play they learn to share, negotiate and solve problems. They learn to be creative and use their imagination. They learn to focus and finish tasks -- and they learn empathy. Play isn't just goofing around. It truly is the work of childhood.

It's easy when your kids are small to get sucked into the paradigm of keeping them totally safe and trying to turn them into Einsteins. It's our culture, after all -- the culture of keeping kids in bubbles (God forbid they get stitches!), and of achievement. We don't want them to just enjoy books, we want them to start reading them really early so that they will go to an Ivy League college. As for play, we think of it as a waste of time. If they are going to be active, we want them to join teams so they can get really good at a sport and get an athletic scholarship. Starting early on this stuff is key, we are told.

(It was really different when I was young, which is why I spent my childhood in trees).

Okay: reality check here, folks. About 1% of high school athletes get athletic scholarships to college. And less than 1% of kids who go to college graduate from an Ivy League school. Starting early doesn't guarantee anything -- in fact, often it hurts more than it helps. And despite what the Occupy people might say, I really don't think that 99% of us are miserable.

Stop for a moment. What do you really want for your child when he or she grows up? I am hoping that the answer is that you want them to be healthy, happy, kind and self-sufficient adults.

To make this happen, we need to get over ourselves and let our kids be kids.

So when you are looking for a program for your preschooler, look for places where the kids really play -- inside and out. Look for places with the fun stuff to play on and open spaces where kids can run. Look for dress-up clothes and blocks and finger paint. Sure, you want somewhere that encourages learning -- but they should encourage singing and dancing and making pretend dinner just as much.

And don't be afraid to let your kid climb trees. I had a wonderful time up there -- and still made it to med school.