Expanding preschool = expanding waistlines?

President Obama wants more 4-year-olds to go to “preschool” (a.k.a. “day care”) rather than being home with a parent or relative. People are debating the merits of having a child learn from a day care worker rather than from a parent or relative. What I haven’t seen is a discussion of what the effect is likely to be on childhood obesity.

As the parent of a three-year-old and the owner of lenses from 8mm to 600mm, I spend a lot of time at an upscale preschool/day care center as one of the “yearbook photographers.” Oftentimes I see the same kids outside of their school. One thing that I have observed is that the children are much less physically active than the same children at home, in a museum, or at a friend’s house. First of all, the preschool needs to do crowd control. There are footprints painted on the floor in front of the sink, for example. Before snack or lunchtime the kids will line up on these footprints and wait until it is their turn to wash. A child at home who wanted to go out would throw on a coat, hat, and gloves and run out the door. A child in day care must wait for the 15th child to finish this process while standing patiently on a painted footprint. Instead of running out the door the child must hold onto a rope so that the teachers can verify that nobody is unaccounted for. Out of a 7-hour day care day the children get about 45 minutes of outdoor unrestricted running around time.

Once indoors it is often the case that there is one teacher in charge of 15 children. There are, by law, additional workers in the room, but they are often busy cleaning up from the previous activity and/or setting up the next meal or other activity. The easiest way for an adult to control 15 children is to tell them “sit on your bottom” and then allow only one child at a time to speak, touch a musical instrument, or get up and retrieve something. A lot of stuff is “serialized” as we say in the world of computer nerddom. One child does while 14 children sit and watch.

A friend of mine who is a medical doctor and mother of two said “Even when it is not explicit, day care encourages children to be sedentary. The teachers will subtly reinforce that a child sitting quietly is a good child and a child running around is a bad child. Even if they aren’t aware of it themselves and aren’t saying anything directly, the teachers reward the children who don’t move.”

I have a bunch of friends who are stay-at-home parents. Their children behave like members of a different species. They literally run laps around the yard or a tennis court while the day care children are saying “I want to go back in the house.” The non-day care kids are much harder to manage in the home, running, jumping, climbing, etc. The day care child plays with magnetic tiles. The non-day care child puts the magnetic tiles on top of a T and hits them across the room with a baseball bat (I witnessed this just on Tuesday!). His younger sister is apparently getting ready for a career in professional wrestling, to judge by the alacrity with which she jumps on my stomach if I am lying down.

Personally I do think a child benefits from a nursery school/day care/preschool environment for a certain number of hours per week, e.g., on the traditional schedule for nursery school of three hours per day/three days per week. But after a point, I wonder if we aren’t risking raising a generation of kids for whom physical activity is an alien concept.

[There is an exception to the day care = idleness rule that I’m aware of… some friends send their children (ages 4-6) to a Waldorf school, three days per week, where the children take a two-hour walk outdoors every day, rain, shine, or snow.]

10 thoughts on “Expanding preschool = expanding waistlines?

  1. Maybe there is a more important question here… What you are describing sounds like day prison for four year olds. Making them stand on painted footsteps is just perverse. Children that age are meant to jump up and down, run circles around people, have fun, push the envelope, see how much they can get away with. Annoying to adults perhaps, but it’s called being a child.

    If we extinguish all spontaneity and creativity, will those children ever create anything meaningful without being told to what fading yellow line to follow? We already know they won’t know much about science after 12 years of school and if we stamp out the last edge they have over other societies, then what’s left? A generation of fearful little rabbits waiting to be told what to do. Depressing. Yikes! I am so glad I made it past that age sans nanny state.

  2. There is no doubt that group care reduces exercise. In the less posh preschools and daycares, the caregivers themselves tend to be even less willing to spend time outdoors when it’s cold or drizzling, for instance. I observe this phenomenon every day with my 10 yo, who plays football after school with a combination of the kids in the formal “aftercare” program, as well as kids whose nannies or parents are a presence near the field (sometimes in their cars reading or doing work). Due to several children wandering off from another day care site managed by this aftercare program, they now limit the no of kids outside at any given time, which means for any given child it’s about 25-30 minutes outdoors out of the 3 hours from 3-6 pm the program runs. My son is there from 3 until 4:30 (and sometimes later), and the athletic kids in the aftercare whom he knows are really upset when they have to go inside (following an entire day with mostly seat work, physical education once/week for 45 minutes, and recess for 30 minutes in an overcrowded school in which half the play space has been subsumed by portable classrooms). My son gets the vast majority of his exercise after school, cuz recess is so anemic. Kids in affluent Bethesda, Maryland, receive a woefully inadequate dose of exercise during school hours.

  3. I think it’s worth starting by mentioning that the President didn’t make up the benefits of pre-school. These were well-established before Obama latched onto this as an initiative. (http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2011/06/09/preschools-benefits-linger-into-adulthood-study-finds)

    Phil, it may be that at your pre-school there isn’t much physical activity, but my experience is the exact opposite. At my kids’ pre-school, more than half the day is spent on the playground because it’s an enclosed area where you don’t have to try and coop up kid behavior — you can let them run, jump, laugh, and be loud, and it’s all perfectly acceptable behavior.

    Both of us with our respective pre-schools just have anecdotes, and we should be very cautious about reasoning about potential policy impacts from anecdotes. It’s fair to stipulate though that not all pre-schools are created equal, and there’s probably a way to design the program such that all potential benefits are completely nullified.

    That being so, it’s not usually the case. I think the research has solidly established the benefit of pre-schools. Perhaps there should be a separate and more detailed debate about the who and how of paying for pre-school, but the jury is IN on whether or not it’s worthwhile, and whether or not it produces economic returns.

  4. I also want to point out that there are a lot of different styles of pre-school. Traditional, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, etc. etc. etc. Relatively few of them focus on getting a child to sit down and shut up. The thing about pre-school is that it’s about learning interpersonal relationship skills, it has nothing to do with academics. It’s great if they learn the alphabet while they’re there, but the real learning is things like turn-taking, checking in with someone (displaying empathy if they are hurt), not stealing, not hitting, asking other’s opinions, waiting in a line, and so on. That can happen (and does happen) as well in vigorous play as it can happen in a classroom.

  5. DA: I think that the article you referenced relates to children who would otherwise have qualified for Head Start, a program specifically for children from poor families and/or children who are not part of traditional families. Note that it says “All of the children… received social services.” That’s an important subgroup within American society, of course, but it is not all of American society.

  6. Your child is in the wrong preschool, a high quality preschool. They have lots of computers for the kids to sit in front of, plenty of toys, and the place is scrubbed every night. The teachers all have certificates, are overweight and in their forties. Instead of the teachers following the kids outside, each teacher has a room, each teacher’s kids can only go outside on schedule and not when other teachers children are outside.

    Look for a lower quality preschool which will expose your child to more dirt, strengthening her immune system, with younger caregivers who are in good physical shape.

    Re, the Chicago study, how about some replication of the results before we change the country’s whole childcare system, especially since there are studies which have found preschool has no effect on outcomes.


  7. First question would be: what causes obesity? If you think that question is answered with “eat less, exercise more”, think again.

    Gary Taubes wrote some convincing material about what really causes obesity and why “eat less, exercise more” does not explain obesity:

    Peter Attia couln’t loose weight (working out 2-3 hours a day) and switched to a low carb diet.

    It is more likely that obesity has a physiological origin. The alternative hypothesis begins with the fundamental observation that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation and then asks the obvious question, what regulates fat accumulation. This was elucidated by 1965 and has never been controversial. ‘Insulin is the principal regulator of fat metabolism.


    The vicious cycle of carbohydrates is that they are are stored as fat by insulin. High blood sugar levels (als regulated by insulin) prevent this fat to be released as energy source in the body. So the body is craving for food and as a result you start eating (carbohydrates).

    Individual variety makes persons less or more sensitive to this process. He/she with the lucky genes will not get fat (but might get ill).

    So the kids are not obese because they eat too much, but eat too much because they are obese.

    Do the kids of the stay-at-home parents eat differently than the ones in preschool?

  8. Guido: The day care kids get some high-carb snacks provided by the center, e.g., crackers, but these are in pretty limited quantities. Mostly what they eat at day care is whatever is packed by the parents. So I don’t think that there is a significant difference in diet between day care v. running around with a parent.

  9. OK. Well you mention the difference in behavior between the 2 groups, but not the difference in weight. Are the preschool kids (far) more obese?
    Of course this would be anecdotal evidence and sample too small to draw any firm conclusions. But just curious.

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