Stronger policies needed to get children active at daycare

16 May 2016

Guidelines are needed about screen time for children at daycare, according to new research from the University of Auckland.

The study findings suggest that Early Childhood Education (ECE) services could do more to monitor screen use and encourage children to be active while attending daycare.

“Stronger physical activity policies for ECE could be the key to this,” says PhD student Sarah Gerritsen who conducted the survey with the support of Gravida and a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship.

“In contrast to the perception of many adults, pre-schoolers are not naturally active and energetic,” she says. “Instead they need lots of opportunities and encouragement to engage in active movement.”

Sarah’s online survey, titled ‘Kai time in ECE’ is the first survey in New Zealand to examine the content of written physical activity policies and discover how often children use ‘screens’ (computers, tablets, DVDs and television etc.) in childcare.

Her research findings were published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

“Nearly all New Zealand children attend early childhood education before starting school - the majority for more than six hours each day, three or four days a week from their third birthday until they start school, so this is an important environment for children’s development,” says Sarah.  “Day care centres and kindergartens can provide many opportunities for physical activity and teach children that movement is fun and makes you feel great.”

“How active pre-schoolers are has immediate and long-term consequences for their physical and mental health,” she says.  “Young children who are sedentary for long periods of time are less likely to be active in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood, increasing their risk of obesity and shortening their life expectancy.”

The research showed that only one in three ECE services (35 percent) had a written physical activity policy to guide staff in planning and implementing activities for children.

Most of the policies were worded as suggestions rather than requirements and not one addressed or limited the time children spent using computers or watching TV or DVDs while attending the service.

“Our research found many areas for improvement such as comprehensive ECE physical activity policies with measurable actions and rules.

“Recommendations also included national guidelines on the optimum - not just minimum - levels of activity and space for child development; clear recommendations on screen use and ideas for reducing screen-time in under-fives; more training for ECE teachers in physical activity; and increased participation in health promotion programmes to encourage ‘physical activity champions’ within every daycare centre and kindergarten.”

“The current review of the Ministry of Health’s physical activity guidelines could be an opportunity to include specific information for the childcare sector that assist ECE providers in improving their own policies; an approach used successfully in the United Kingdom,” she says.

The survey found it was not uncommon for children to have screen time while attending ECE. Children were reported to watch television or DVDs at least once a week in 13 percent of services (every day in 2 percent) and use computers or tablets at least once a week in a third of services (every day in 11 percent of services). . All types of screen use were higher in public kindergartens than other ECE services.

Fifty percent of services had a person that they considered to be a ‘physical activity champion’ - someone who shares knowledge and skills about physical activity, raises awareness and promotes change regarding physical activity for children.

Yet only 44 percent of ECE services participated in health promotion programmes with a physical activity component.

ECE services that participated in a health promotion programme, such as the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Heart Awards or Sport Waikato’s Under 5 Energize, were more likely to have a physical activity champion and a written physical activity policy.

The ‘Kai Time in ECE’ survey targeted all licensed ECE services for children aged three and four years in the Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato regions, which together contain one-third of New Zealand’s pre-schoolers.

A total of 237 services (28 percent of all licensed services in the areas) completed the questions about physical activity and screen time.

“Children were reported by ECE managers and teachers to be engaged in active teacher-led play for 80 minutes per day and child-led activity for five hours per day while at the service,” says Sarah.

This is in stark contrast to a previous New Zealand study that found children were sedentary for 76 percent of the time they spent at childcare.

“The perception of teachers and ECE managers that children are active all the time might be the reason why they don’t see the need to promote physical activity or have a physical activity policy. More direction from the Ministries of Health and Education could be useful in this instance,” says Sarah.

A pregnant woman leaning on a fence during autumn.

Download the article

Gerritsen, S., Morton, S. M.B. and Wall, C. R. (2016), Physical activity and screen use policy and practices in childcare: results from a survey of early childhood education services in New Zealand. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12529

For more information and interviews with our researchers please contact:

Suzi Phillips
Centre for Longitudinal Research – He Ara Ki Mua, The University of Auckland
Phone: 09 923 7383
Mobile: 021 416 396

The results in brief

  • Only one in three (35%) of child-care services had a written physical activity policy, and most of these policies were not comprehensive and contained weak statements that could be difficult to action. No policies addressed screen use or the use of discipline techniques that restrict physical activity (e.g. “time out” or being sent inside).
  • Children were reported to be engaged in active teacher-led play for 80 minutes per day, and child-led activity for 5 hours per day while at the service (indoor and outdoor), which is contrary to previously measured activity levels of pre-schoolers.
  • Children watched television daily in 2% and weekly in 11% of services, and used computers daily in 11% and weekly in 22% of services. A higher proportion of kindergartens reporting that children use computers and/or tablets daily or monthly compared to other service types.
  • Less than half of services (44%) participated in health promotion programmes with a physical activity component.
  • Half of services had a person that they considered to be a ‘physical activity champion’, someone who shares knowledge and skills about physical activity, raises awareness and promotes positive change regarding physical activity for children.
  • The most common barriers to promoting physical activity to children were having limited opportunity/space for physical education (10%), lack of storage (10%) and insufficient funds (9%).