Guidelines needed for screentime and physical activity at day care

15 May 2016
Researcher Sarah Gerritsen
Researcher Sarah Gerritsen

Guidelines are needed about screen time for children at daycare along with stronger physical activity policies, 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.


The results in brief:

• Only one in three (35 percent) 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 five hours per day while at the service (indoor and outdoor), which is contrary to previously measured activity levels of pre-schoolers.

• Children watched television/DVDs daily in two percent and weekly in 11 percent of services, and used computers/tablets daily in 11 percent and weekly in 22 percent of services. A higher proportion of kindergartens reported that children use computers and/or tablets daily or monthly compared to other service types.

• Less than half of services (44 percent) 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 percent), lack of storage (10 percent) and insufficient funds (9 percent).

About the Kai Time in ECE survey

Kai time in ECE was a one-off online survey in mid-2014 of managers/ teachers from licensed Early Childhood Education (ECE) services in the Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato District Health Board (DHB) regions.

The survey collected information about food, nutrition and physical activity practices and policies for 3-4 year olds. Responses were received from 257 ECE services (30 percent of licensed ECE providers in the three regions), and were fairly representative of all services, with the exception of Kōhanga Reo who were under-represented.

Kai time in ECE received financial support from Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development and the University of Auckland.

Please see a summary of the GUINZ research on this here.