The problem with too much inactivity in preschool — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 4-year-old son used to love school. And his teachers had no complaints about him. But we’ve already had two conferences about his disruptive behavior during “seat work” and story time, and they’re threatening to kick him out! By the way, he’s not happy with the situation either. He tells me they make him sit and sit and sit. It seems there’s hardly any play time. Do I need to find him another school?


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Dear Perplexed,

Your son’s grievance about sitting time, and his teachers’ dissatisfaction with his behavior are a sad sign of the times. Preschool programs should be designed for children not yet old enough for school, hence the name, and provide lots of movement and play time. It’s seems that in this preschool class, daily needs for self-directed play and movement are not being met.

The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to see preschool children being more active than they typically are, however, there is no standard requirement of time nor a well-defined standard of what constitutes “physically active.”

According to the AAP: “Physical activity plays an important role in the development of preschool-aged children (ages 3–5 years). Studies conclude that the majority of preschoolers do not meet these guidelines.”

  • Physical activity brings a host of rewards to the rapidly growing preschooler. Among them:
  • Bone cell strengthening
  • A boost to circulation for clearer thinking
  • Muscle strengthening and flexibility
  • Improved coordination
  • Immune system boosting
  • Calorie burning to work off fat
  • Brain chemical changes to lift depression
  • Brain chemical changes to reduce anxiety
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Better sleep

And these are just the physical benefits. Depending on the activity — and there are infinite ways that young children can move, both teacher-led and in “free play” — a child can also gain self-confidence, social skills, problem solving skills, knowledge about the world and joy.

Somewhere over the last 50 years, 4-year-old classes became “Pre-K” which started to look more like “kindergartens” which had become what we used to think of as “first grade.” Too often 4-year-olds are expected to follow teacher directions to use mental and fine motor skills, such as copying letters of the alphabet, which had formerly been the expectation for 6-year-old first graders.

Certainly schools can do better to assure that 4-year-olds are not strapped to chairs all day. Takaharu Tezuka, a Tokyo-based architect, got it right in a brilliantly different model of what this could look like. Imagine your son at Fuji kindergarten in Japan where he could move as much as he liked the whole day long. Completed in 2007, the building has few walls and lots of trees (growing through parts of the building!). Children are free to roam in and out of classrooms, participating in the lessons that hold their interest. Otherwise they may climb trees and run in circles to their hearts’ content.

Moving to Japan or influencing your school to improve its daily opportunities for preschoolers’ physical activity may not be not viable options. So make sure that your time with your son affords him plenty of movement. Limit screen time. Visit parks and playgrounds. Take walks or use ride-on wheel toys around the block. Dance with him. Include him in chores that require physical effort such as sweeping, raking, setting the table, carrying in groceries, etc.

It seems that over the past couple of generations we’ve gotten away from so many built-in opportunities for young bodies to move. Adults didn’t have to plan for activities because even if a 4-year-old went to school, he may have walked to and from. He had “play clothes” to change into after school time for playing outside with friends. Young children were expected to help with household chores, including hanging up and taking down the laundry from the “line.” Four-year-olds would be sent on errands to the neighbor’s house or neighborhood market. Certainly there were advantages to all that movement, including better ability to hold still when required by certain situations such as listening to a story.

Think of movement like an essential vitamin. If you know that your son’s school day will be lacking in it, be sure he has a good dose of running around before and after he has to endure so many hours without it.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]