The Edmond Sun

August 5, 2013

How healthy is your day care?

Patty Miller
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Day care centers are a great place to start in the prevention of childhood obesity.

Research out of the University of Oklahoma College of Allied Health provides insights into Oklahoma Child Care Centers and the part they play in the health of pre-school children.

“We wanted to understand practices and poiicies, academic readiness and behaviorial outcomes,” said Susan Sisson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the college’s Department of Nutritional Sciences at the OU Health Sciences Center. “We need to know what is ongong before we recommend a change.”  

A research survey of 57 questions was sent to 703 child care directors and 314 directors completed and returned the surveys. The survey questions were directed toward the nutrition and physical activity provided by the day cares during the course of a child’s day.

Although all state-licensed child care centers are required to meet regulations related to the safety of the child including the food they are served and the equipment they play on, few regulations exist relating to the health of the child and the prevention of obesity, Sisson said.

“Understanding what regulations do exist and where those can be improved can likely help reduce and prevent the high levels of overweight and obesity in preschool children in our state,” Sisson said.

She added 31 percent of low-income preschoolers in Oklahoma are overweight or obese, and many of these children spend at least a part of their days in child care.

It is estimated that about six in ten children in this country spend time in child care facilities from infancy to six years of age. In Oklahoma more than 1,300 day-care facilities provide care for 3- to 5-year olds.

In an effort to learn more about existing nutritional and physical activity policies and practices at state-licensed child care centers in Oklahoma, Sisson surveyed hundreds of child care directors seeking insights and information. Of the 57 questions on the survey, about two-thirds of the questions focused on nutrition and the other third focused on physical activity.

“We wanted to find out what was occurring in their facility,” Sisson said. “How often were the kids going outside? What kinds of foods were they served?”

Overall, researchers found the centers reported some good practices when it came to nutrition. Fruit was served daily by 76 percent of the centers responding; 71 percent served non-fried vegetables daily; and virtually all (92 percent) rarely or never served sugary drinks to the children for whom they cared.

While those statistics are encouraging, Sisson said there is still room for improvement.

“I think centers can certainly improve in decreasing the amount of fruit juice that’s served, and increasing the amount and variety of vegetables, other than potatoes and corn, that are served,” she said. Sisson said she would like to see more nutrient-rich vegetables like asparagus, peppers, broccoli and cauliflower added to the centers’ menus, and she would like to see the fiber content increased in foods consumed.

Sisson said the overall amount of time spent outdoors and in active play was inadequate. With 95 percent of the centers responding to the survey reporting outdoor play opportunities were provided at least once a day, Sisson felt the time outside needed to be increased.

It is important to send children with appropriate clothes, shoes and coats so they can go outside to play when the time is made available, Sisson said.

In addition to providing more outside time playing, Sisson said she would like see care centers provide structured curriculum showing how being active can help build strong bones and healthy bodies.

Sisson said the survey reveals that it is vital for childcare centers and their teachers to create an environment that supports healthy weight in children.

“There is very little training for teaching about healthy activity and nutrition,” Sisson said.

Sisson and her team of graduate students have already visited about 20 Oklahoma centers to make on-site assessments.

Sisson said the next step is teachers and parents discussing policy.

Parents should ask questions concerning how much time is devoted to exercise during the day as well as what types of food and drink are being offered to their child, Sisson said.

The survey results were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.