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.]