New Research Reveals Alarming Lack of Play for Pre-School Children

About the Author

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) has more than 25 years experience as a writer, editor, social media manager, community builder, and advocate for getting children into nature. She is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which was named a TIME magazine Top 10 Trend of 2012. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and others. Suz serves as the Director of Social Media Promotion and Partnerships for the Children & Nature Network.

A recent study revealed that the three-fourths of U.S. children who currently attend child care centers are largely sedentary, engaging in vigorous activity for a mere 2-3% of their day. The research, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been garnering a lot of attention for its alarming findings. According to the study’s lead author, Kristen A. Copeland, M.D., a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, “We know children learn through play, including vigorous play.” That play, however is increasingly squeezed out of young children’s days for the following reasons:

  • Concerns about injury
  • Financial limitations
  • A focus on “academics” at the expense of gross-motor play

Says Copeland:

    “These kids finish preschool and don’t know how to skip, and that doesn’t upset their parents as long as they know their ABCs and can count to 10.”

By the time children are school-aged, 19% are already obese and have established sedentary habits.

Fortunately, this and other important research has caught the attention of the mainstream press. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have recently covered the importance of movement and play for young children. In the U.K., the non-profit Play England is calling for support to help children play outside — Researchers in England revealed that 21% of British children currently play outdoors every day, compared to 71% of their parents when they were children.

There is much more research about the positive benefits of children’s play in nature.

C&NN recently updated two popular publications, Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings, and Health Benefits to Children from Contact with the Outdoors & Nature. Each includes summaries of research that C&NN has reviewed for quality, from C&NN’s Volumes 1-5 of Annotated Bibliographies of Research. Volume 5 includes 88 new studies, bringing the total in these five volumes to more than 200.

With this issue gaining greater visibility in the press, child care centers, educators, parents, health care professionals, public policy makers, and others are taking note of the mounting research about the importance of children’s physical and outdoor play. A growing network of concerned individuals, organizations and agencies is working hard to ensure that future generations of children will use their bodies playfully and naturally, in natural settings when possible, and experience the supreme joy of skipping.


  1. The Afterschool Place made a commitment to our kids four years ago when we started the majority of our out of school time will be spent out doors. We incorporate this commitment through the use of field trips( weekly), Mr. Brucker’s Outdoor Classroom- wildlife-biology, Zoo Stories- public presentations on endangered species, water conservation in the spring( so easy- we build locks and dams and flood the street), daily football / soccer, kite flying, and hikes in a nearby wooded area with a small stream.

    It is so incredibly easy to incorporate nature and to adopt an out-of-doors after school lifestyle.
    A little planning goes a long way.

    Lori Sager LSW- The Afterschool Place

  2. Here in Brighton, Ontario, Canada a so-called Balanced Day Timetable was introduced 8 years ago. It eliminated 150 minutes per week of outdoor play at school. Having noticed an increase in fidgetiness, impulsivity and lack of ability to listen I have been taking my grade 4 students outdoors for an additional 25 minutes per day for unstructured, supervised play. My students and I call it “Extra Gym” but there is nothing extra about it. They need it and I never take it away for “bad behaviour”; it is something they have grown to expect…and appreciate. I am overwhelmed by the number of little boys who hug me when I say “Extra gym” time!

  3. Though children do need structure…too many of the “knowledgeable people” (aka PhD’s, and government powers that be in education) don’t understand that we take away their creativity and imagination if we feed them EVERYTHING…they need to run, play, explore, imagine and feel free in order to learn to assimilate themselves into this world and make decisions that help them to solve problems…they don’t need all the answers given to them…they need to be able to find some of them for themselves…

  4. Montessori Classrooms emphasize movement and nature! You should look into it and encourage others to do so as well! It is the answer to what our children need. Dr. Montessori’s method should be studied and promoted by all educators of children!

  5. Suz Lipman

    Thank you for all your comments and for the obvious work you’re doing to help more children get outside to play and experience nature. Carol, I love your concept of “extra gym time” and its effect on the kids. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Self directed play is vital! Children need to be allowed to explore. They need to have down time to think and create ideas in their own heads. They need time outside, unstructured and unencumbered.

    We have an explosion of ADHD diagnoses and have even lowered the age limits to preschoolers. How long exactly do we expect a four year old to be able to sit still. How long could we at that age?

    For goodness sake, let the children back outside to PLAY!

  7. I am the director of a small non-profit early learning center. We are a nature based center and our children are outside for hours everyday. Our children from age 2 -5 are out hiking, planting gardens and playing in the woods. Our infant class take buggy rides out in nature. We use nature to teach the children what they need to know for school while they are outside. I cannot tell you how well behaved our children are here at the center, we hardly ever have any problems, and I say it is all because we have a wonderful balance of time spent learning what they need to know for school and having time to play and learn from the world around them. We are installing a certified outdoor classroom this year and I cannot wait to see the look on the children’s faces when they get to explore it for the first time. I really hope that by putting in this classroom more centers will see how much our children enjoy it and will put in one of their own. As I tell all of our families “GET OUTSIDE and enjoy the world around you!”

  8. Suz Lipman

    Hi Matthew and Nickie. It’s very heartening to know that those of us who care deeply about this issue have allies. Nickie, the early learning center sounds terrific – and obviously you are seeing the results of the young children’s outdoor time.

    If any of you want to continue to share what you’re doing to get kids into nature, as a group or an individual, I urge you to come continue the discussion on our online forum, C&NN Connect.

  9. Academic preschools (most preschools now advertise about their “curriculum”) seem to be designed for a larger governmental goal: to create cogs to fit into the machinations of a society with great disparities in income and opportunities. Whether it is No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top or various states’ programs of Universal PreK the emphasis is getting children into schools as soon as possible and sitting them in chairs to better prepare them for the eventual world of work. In a society where nature is valued mainly for the resources it can provide and these resources being extractive rather than renewable, there is feigned tolerance for those who value the preservation of nature; on a daily basis Americans are required to give up their rights to clean air, water and the value of their property to the corporations that are promoting and lobbying for oil drilling, hydrofracking, mountaintop coal removal and tar sand mining. I agree with Matthew…how do you expect a four year old to sit in a chair all day? Of course ADHD diagnosis’ increase profits for big pharma and create an ever bigger population of people who could potentially be drugged for the rest of their lives…the effects on our society could be staggering. I stayed home and I created my children’s “preschool” experience, it was great, especialyy for them. The only downside was the loss of income. Unfortunately with the continued erosion of wages and jobs and high college debts, this option of someone staying home with their child is fast becoming impossible and even loving grandparents who might have been available in the past will also be forced to remain employed. I am glad to read of the recent findings and am glad of this forumn and it’s work. I just hope that the parents, teachers and community members can stem the tide against the juggernaught of politicians, bureaucrats, corporations and self annointed “experts” who seem bent on creating a poisoned, ravaged earth.

  10. Do I detect a new wave coming-that is, with all the feedback comments,
    I see hope here. As more and more of us see all these positive benefits from the out of doors, I really think this thing is catching on internationally. And if we can turn the tide back to at least some time in nature for children, our planet may indeed survive with well adjusted adults making better decisions.

  11. Suz Lipman

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! I agree, Carroll, that they may be evidence of a turning tide, as more research demonstrates, and more people realize, the benefits of free play and outdoor play for preschoolers and all children.

  12. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our
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  1. New Research Reveals Alarming Lack of Play for Pre-School Children- Voices for a Healthy Southcoast - [...] Arecent study revealed that the three-fourths of U.S. children who currently attend child care centers are largely sedentary, engaging…

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