How Playing in the Outdoors Enhances Children's Development
In the United States, 14% of children 2 to 5 years old are overweight (weight for height is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile) and 19% of children 6 to 11 are overweight (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey [NHANES], 2003–2004). The percentage of overweight children is continuing to rise. For example, the prevalence of overweight children who were 2-to-5-years-old was only 5% in 1976–1980 compared with 14% in 2003–2004 (NHANES, 2003–2004). This increase is found in all ethnic and racial groups in the United States (Lynn-Garbe & Hoot, 2005). Other countries are also struggling with this epidemic. For example, in England nearly 30% of children ages 2 to 10 are overweight (Jotangia, Moody, Stamatakis, & Wardle, 2005).
Children who are overweight have a much greater risk of becoming overweight adults (Lynn-Garbe & Hoot, 2005). Approximately one-third of children who are obese as preschoolers will be obese as adults. Half of all children who are obese in their school years will be obese adults (Serdula et al., 1993). Children who are overweight face both immediate and lifelong health problems, including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, orthopedic problems, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, stroke, and premature death (Lynn-Garbe & Hoot, 2005, p. 74; USDHHS, 2001). Children and adults who are overweight also face social discrimination including being stigmatized and labeled as lazy, stupid, and slow (Deitz, 1998). Peers consider children who are overweight to be less likable (Latner & Stundard, 2003). This discrimination often results in the child who is overweight having a lower self-concept (Davison & Birch, 2001; Smith, 1999). It is important to intervene early both to prevent and combat obesity in children. Intervening early provides immediate health and social benefits and enhances long-term health (Baranowski et al., 2000).
Excluding genetic factors, the strongest predictor for being overweight is lack of exercise (Nelson, Carpenter, & Chiasson, 2006). Early childhood programs can intervene by promoting higher activity levels and improving physical skills. In addition to the immediate advantages of exercise, physical skills and dispositions gained in early childhood can form a foundation for exercise throughout life.
Children engage in higher activity levels and burn more calories when they play outdoors rather than indoors (Sutterby & Frost, 2002). Children who spend more time outdoors are also more physically fit than their peers (Baranowski et al., 2000; Sallis et al., 1993). Ideally, the outdoor time is spent in child-chosen play, since this is the best way for children to accumulate physical activity (Pate, Baranowski, Dowda, & Trost, 1996). “For most children, outdoor play offers the only opportunity to engage in aerobic activities that enhance fitness, strength, flexibility, and endurance and helps compensate for faulty diets” (Sutterby & Frost, 2002, p. 38).
There is a special concern about early elementary children engaging in enough exercise. A study conducted in 2000 found that only 8% of elementary schools provided daily physical education (SHPPS, 2001). In addition, recess is only required in 4% of states (SHPPS, 2001). Most commonly, children have recess for less than 30 minutes per day. Even this amount is currently being decreased due to pressures from “No Child Left Behind” (Castle & Ethridge, 2003; Hardman & Marshall; 2006). Recess can significantly contribute to needed exercise requirements if children participate in moderate intensity play for 40% of the playtime (Ridgers, Stratton, & Fairclough, 2005). In addition, some children, especially those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have an increased need for physical activity. Increased opportunities for rough and tumble play may decrease these children’s ADHD symptoms (Panksepp, Burgdorf, Turner, & Gordon, 2003).
Researchers have studied several interventions designed to increase playground activity. Successful interventions have included development of obstacle courses (Scruggs, Beveridge, & Watson, 2003); marking playgrounds with mazes, hop scotch, and snakes and ladders (Stratton, 2000); and game intervention (Connolly & McKenzie, 1995). When the ratio of equipment (balls, bats, and jump ropes) to children is improved, children also exercise more (Zask, van Beurden, & Barnett, 2001). Whatever intervention is planned, enjoyment is crucial if children are to continue the activity (Weis & Ferrer-Caja, 2002).
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