Children aged three to five in Canada and the U.S. aren't moving enough for their healthy development, but a scientist in Ottawa is working with daycares to foster more hops, skips and jumps.

In the latest study published in Monday's issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers in Seattle looked at 98 children with an average age of 4½ for at least four full days. The preschoolers wore accelerometers to track activity patterns that were matched with what researchers observed happening in the classroom.

All of the daycare centres scheduled at least 60 minutes per day of outdoor play time, plus indoor time for free play with climbing equipment and balls and teacher-led activities such as yoga.

But the study found just spurts of activity, with children spending an average of about 33 minutes playing outdoors.

For 88 per cent of the time children were in the daycare, they weren't given opportunities for active play such as running, jumping, throwing and catching, Dr. Pooja Tandon of Seattle Children's Research Institute and her co-authors found.

In its 2014 report, Active Healthy Kids Canada said that 84 per cent of three- and four-year-olds get enough light physical activity, but only 11 per cent get 60 minutes of moderate to energetic play, based on data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey.

Scientist Kristi Adamo at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario has been providing daycares with a physical activity curriculum and resources. She's running a randomized trial to compare how training early childhood educators alone, or both the instructors and the parents, could increase kids' physical activity compared with the standard curriculum. The goal is to get at least 180 minutes a day of activity.

"Children enjoy being active. The issue is getting daycare providers to change their behaviour," Adamo said. Traditionally, the preschool curriculum focuses on reading, writing and arithmetic.

"What we have been trying to do is to show them how to use a small space and to be creative with that space and to engage the kids in physical activity," Adamo said.

Culture change for movement

The suggested activities range from hopscotch to bean bag toss to painting, all designed to promote gross motor skills as well as more fine motor skills, both indoors and out.

"It should be quite easy, because we know that kids should play on a regular basis and they do play and they enjoy being active," Adamo said. "The problem is, we are asking daycare providers or early childhood educators to change their behaviour."

So far, parents in the study have told her they feel the daycares should be providing kids with their needed physical activity

Sportball is an organization that offers non-competitive sports instruction to children aged 16 months to 12 years in Canada and the U.S., at daycares and other locations like church basements. The program aims to create healthy, positive associations between sports and play to develop a passion for healthy, active living.

Dayle Linton brought her four-year-old son, Colin, to add more active playtime to his day. "I'm not looking to raise athletes," Linton said. "We're just trying to have healthy kids who are involved in things."

Adamo hopes newly trained childhood educators will recognize the importance of physical activity and the data will be compelling enough to shape changes at daycares.