Kids in daycare get less outdoor activity than kids who stay home: Canadian study

Watch staff and children interact before choosing a preschool, experts advise. Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

New Canadian research suggests that kids who go to daycare aren’t getting as much outdoor play time as their peers who are cared for at home.

The study, by scientists at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, found that children who go to daycare – full- or part-time – get about 15 minutes less time of outdoor free play at home.

While 15 minutes doesn’t seem like much, they’re warning that the disparity could put kids at risk of childhood obesity or even bad long-term habits as they grow up.

“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,” lead author, Sarah Carsley, said. She’s a research manager at SickKids and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

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“It’s a reminder to parents that any little bit of time outdoors helps and will set their kids on health trajectories for the rest of their lives,” she told Global News.

The study is the latest out of TARGet Kids!, a project led by St. Michael’s Hospital, SickKids and the University of Toronto.

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Launched about six years ago, the project brings together families, doctors, pediatricians, researchers and educators. So far, about 6,000 kids are enrolled in the long-term study that hopes to follow babies into adulthood, offering a life-long glimpse into the health of Canadians.

Research about kids’ eating and exercise habits have poured out in the past few years. This time around, Carsley and her team wanted to look at outdoor activity in kids who went to daycare compared to kids who didn’t.

The study tracked 2,800 kids between one to five years old between 2008 and 2011. Parents were asked to report their minutes per day of outdoor time at home as well as daycare information, such as if the kids were enrolled in a licensed daycare or preschool or if they were cared for full-time at home.

Turns out, kids who were raised in a daycare setting weren’t playing outside as much at those who stayed home. They’d spend about 45 minutes playing outside next to their peers who spent an hour outdoors daily.

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READ MORE: Preschoolers’ eating habits linked to future heart health risks, Canadian study suggests

The researchers guess that a few factors could be at play: parents may have busy schedules, they could be shuttling their kids to and from home and daycare and they could assume that their kids were getting enough outdoor time during preschool hours.

The findings are worrisome because previous research already suggests that time spent in daycares is largely sedentary.

Right now, physical activity guidelines call for 180 minutes per day for kids who are between one and four years old. That includes tummy time and recreational play for babies, for example. By the time they’re five, they should have at least 60 minutes of outdoor play, which could include biking to school or heading to soccer practice.

Carsley said her team plans on looking at the long-term effects of decreased levels of outdoor play at home and how this will shape the kids’ health trajectories as they grow up.

They also hope to look at how outdoor playtime levels change depending on if kids are in licensed daycares or private daycare facilities.

For now, Carsley is calling on parents to create safe outdoor spaces for their kids to explore and to work in exercise and activities into their plans on the weekend and as a family.

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READ MORE: Why Canada got a D- on youth exercise report

The full findings were published Wednesday morning in the Journal of Public Health.

Read the full findings here.

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