The demographic characteristics of the 49 focus groups participants and 13 interviewees were reflective of an inner-city American child-care work force [32
] (Table ). All but one of the participants were female; most had at least some college education. Roughly half of participants identified themselves as black/African-American. Level of experience in the field varied from less than one year to 37 years. While most participants currently worked with preschool-aged children, 26% reported primarily working with infants and toddlers under the age of 3, and the remainder primarily worked with school-aged children (8%), floated between different age-groups (6%), or currently served in a supervisory role (6%). Three focus group participants and four interviewees were center directors.
Focus group participants came from 34 centers that were well-distributed geographically throughout the county including 12 centers located outside the city limits and 13 centers located in low-income U.S. Census tracts (median income is less than 50% of median income for Cincinnati's metropolitan statistical area (CMSA)). The types of child-care centers were also diverse, including five Montessori, six Head Start, two church-affiliated, two YMCA, four worksite- or University-affiliated, and three corporate/for-profit centers. The four interview participants who had not been able to participate in the focus groups came from three additional centers.
Themes related to inappropriate clothing
When asked to describe what barriers existed in child-care centers to prevent children's physical activity, virtually all participants cited barriers related to children's clothing (Table ). Other barriers were also mentioned and will be presented in a separate paper. Inappropriate clothing and conflict resulting from this clothing were determined to be major themes for two reasons. First, discussions about inappropriate clothing and conflict related to clothing resulted spontaneously from general questions about barriers (e.g., "What keeps children from being active?") and non-specific probes (e.g. "Tell me more about that"). Second, these discussions about clothing issues were mentioned by virtually all participants. These major themes will be presented in four sections: 1) a listing of categories of inappropriate clothing items, 2) suggested reasons for inappropriate clothing, 3) teacher-parent conflict related to clothing, and lastly 4) possible solutions to conflict and clothing barriers. Inappropriate clothing items are presented in order of most commonly to least commonly mentioned during the focus groups: weather-related, flip-flops and other footwear, dress clothes, jewelry, and ill-fitting clothes.
Clothing Barriers and Possible Solutions
Categories of inappropriate clothing
Clothes ill-suited for the weather comprised the most frequently encountered clothing issue. In the winter, teachers reported often having children arrive without coats, hats, gloves and/or boots.
¶1 "If they don't have a hat and gloves, then it would impede them from going outside."
¶2 "You have the times where it's cold and they might come in sandals or all the other kids have on hats and gloves and big coats, and they have on a windbreaker."
In the wintertime a single child's inappropriate clothing could cause problems for the entire class. Participants noted they could leave the child inside with another teacher or director while taking the rest of the class outside but only if they had adequate staff. Otherwise only a few children dressed improperly can prevent the entire class from going outside.
¶3 "Since I don't have anybody to watch the children who aren't dressed properly, I can't take the class out and leave one child" [that's dressed improperly]
¶4 "If you have some that can't go out, then none can go out."
But moderate temperatures also presented problems at some centers as participants stated many centers have policies that the child must wear every layer of clothing the parent sent with them. Others stated that they would interpret a parent bringing a coat as implicit orders for their child to wear the coat. Thus children could be over-dressed for the temperature, which could impede their ability to participate in physical activities.
¶5 "I have one child ... He came to school with an undershirt a thermal shirt and a sweat shirt all winter and a coat zipped up and maybe some type of sweater. You know, I think she had him over dressed. And he would come in [he says] 'I I I I take off my shirt?' I can't let you take off your shirt. 'I so hot.' I say I understand."
¶6 "We have Parents that, it's 65 degrees outside and they have hats and mittens. And we're like 'Why?' They still have their winter coats on. And we're like,. 'I hate putting this on you'."
¶7 "'You have to.' I always say, 'What your mom sent you in, that's what you are going to wear.' I sit there and sweat with them."
Flip flops & inappropriate footwear
The next most commonly mentioned problem clothing item was inappropriate footwear, including flip flops and sandals and shoes with slippery soles. Teachers explained that these shoes did not provide adequate support for running and climbing activities. Additionally, teachers found that flip flops could come off easily when running or walking briskly.
¶8 "We like them to wear gym shoes because of the activity level, you know, playing and stuff. Even in the summer, we ask them, 'Don't wear sandals and flip flops and stuff cuz they come off their feet and they're just not very safe'."
9¶"When they're running, the flip flop either comes off or that foot ends up going over the top and scraping the ground."
¶10 "Field trips, you know ... They don't say nothing for a while and you look back and they're crying, (we ask) 'Why are you crying?' [The child says] 'My shoe (is) way back there'."
Participants also explained that flip flops did not provide adequate protection against common playground surfaces such as mulch and gravel.
¶11 "They wear them in the rocks and every 2 seconds you're taking the shoes off... It hurts. It really is detrimental to the children because they can't play like they should be playing."
¶12 " [Parents will] bring them in flip-flops and we have a mulch playground too and they're--the children are constantly, 'I have mulch in my shoes.' So, they're always taking their shoes off and dumping the mulch out. Five minutes later it is back in their shoes."
Despite the commonly-understood problems that flip flops presented to children's physical activity, only a few teachers reported center policies restricting the use of flip flops, and usually these policies only applied to days with field trips. Many wished their centers prohibited flip flops at all times.
Another type of clothing that participants saw as a barrier to children's physical activity was a "nice" or special outfit in which the parent instructed the child or the teacher not to get dirty.
¶13 "I've had problems with parents telling the kids, 'Don't get dirty!' because of what they have on. So that's I guess a pet peeve of mine... They're going outside. They are going to play. They are going to be on the floor. They are going to be, you know, children."
¶14 "One of the parents ... she sent her child first time wearing shoes and from the scooter, she had two holes in her brand new shoes. I tried to explain to her that we can't pay for them. What do you want us to tell her, 'You can't get on the bike?' She said, 'Yes, let her cry."'
¶15 "We sometimes have children who when they go outside they will sit on the bench and when you ask them why they're sitting there, they say, 'My mommy said I couldn't get dirty."'
Several participants characterized jewelry as a potential barrier to children's physical activity, because it could get caught in equipment, or if lost it could pose a choking hazard to younger children. Many participants reported having policies that expressly prohibited wearing jewelry, yet several found children would still arrive with prohibited items. A child arriving at school wearing jewelry and the implicit parental request to teachers to keep track of this jewelry was a significant source of conflict between parents and child-care providers.
¶16 "I even have kids come with chains, necklaces, bracelets. I don't like that. The little gum ball rings. Because with the toddlers in the center, if you drop that ring in the muscle room and then the toddlers come in after us, and they're putting that in their mouth....There is no reason for him to have on a gold watch. It's no place for it."
¶17 "Bangles, they got bracelets all the way up to here, getting caught in hair...... One little kid was wearing this long gold chain and the other kids were choking him by the neck--bling, bling--I was like, 'Daddy, could you please, I know you like your son to look nice but this is for the weekend not for school.' Most of them be pretty nice about it but sometimes they still come with the earrings and bracelets and stuff."
¶18 " [We say] 'Please, do not send your child here with $300 chain on his neck he's 3, 4, 5!' You know, I said I am not gonna be responsible for keeping up their jewelry. Most of them [parents] listen and say 'OK, we won't,' but, why would you send your child to preschool with a $500 chain on?! I don't understand that!"
Lastly, participants mentioned that ill-fitting clothing could impair physical activity. For instance, long flowing skirts could get caught in climbing equipment; loose-fitting pants and shoes could hamper a child's ability to run. Excessively tight-fitting clothing could also restrict a child's activity.
¶19 "A skirt and long dresses they wear when they're climbing, they're taking a step and their foot gets caught. It's really dangerous."
¶20 "We really deal with the clothing and stuff. You are starting to see more and more children, like wearing the big pants. They can't run and play, not only outside but inside either. I think it's really stopping them from doing things."
¶21 "We have had children come to school with pants hanging down, too big. Boys' pants hanging down, too big, no belts. Shirts and stuff that look like big brother's shirt or something too big, they're way too big. They are too big to maneuver on the climber."
¶22 "The very tight skirts and very, very short skirts. Those poor little girls sit there and they don't want to play, you know."
Reasons for inappropriate clothing
Teachers speculated several reasons why children in this age group might come to school inappropriately dressed. Explanations included: a rushed morning routine, a "car culture," the child's clothing preferences, practical difficulties finding clothes that fit in rapidly growing preschoolers, first-time parents concerned with their child's appearance, insufficient income to afford proper clothes, or deliberate parent clothing choices.
Teachers acknowledged that parents may simply forget to bring appropriate winter clothes in the rush to get out the door.
¶23 "Sometimes parents are in a rush in the morning and in the cold weather they don't send mittens or a hat. You know, and that's discouraging."
¶24 Participant: "At my center the parents forget the jackets."
Another participant in response: "We have had that. They forget the gloves."
¶25 "It's just up to the teachers kind of to send notes home and just ask them not to wear them [flip flops]. But, the kids get it in their head that that's what they want to wear too and I'm sure the parents are dealing with whatever they need to deal with in the morning to get them going."
A few hypothesized that the American "car-culture," in which children spend most of their day indoors or being transported from place to place inside a vehicle, may contribute to this.
¶26 "There is another thing about children in the 'car culture' that sometimes they are not dressed appropriately for outside. They go from their heated house to their heated garage in their heated car (laughter) and get carried into school, sometimes they even...it's like, [the parents say upon arrival] "Oh! I didn't know he didn't even have his shoes on!!"
¶27 "Sometimes they don't have one [a coat] and sometimes they are in a car so they don't think that you are supposed to have a jacket. They're just coming in the building and when they pick them up, they're just going back in the car. So that's how they'll do."
¶28 "A lot of parents feel it's too cold outside anyway [to go outdoors to play]. They're just getting out the car and going in the building. They don't have to be too clothed and then there goes the argument."
In some cases, participants speculated the flip-flops or the ill-fitting clothing item could be what is in fashion or one of the child's favorites (e.g., a big-brother's shirt), or an item they can put on themselves.
¶29 "Maybe it's the child who dressed themselves that day and they want to wear their fancy shoes."
¶30 "I had one little boy who wore his cousin's shoes, like loafers, but they were like three sizes too big and his mom said, 'Well, you know he loves them, da da da...' I said, 'Well, you know he can't walk in them. And he can't go out without shoes. I am just telling you, he's in the muscle room and he's falling down.' So make a choice. Either tell your child that he has shoes for school and he can't wear those, you know, or something."
A few participants also noted some developmental or age-specific reasons why preschoolers' clothes may be over-sized. It may be difficult to find clothes that fit properly for very thin preschool-aged children with "no hips." They added that belts may be impractical for children at this age who are still mastering self-toileting skills.
¶31 "I totally hear you with the belts--But if there is no belt and they're running and their pants are heading south! (laughter, agreement). That's so frustrating for these poor little girls and boys who have absolutely no hips. It's just, their pants are just falling down. In the preschool age, you want exactly what you said, you want easy access for the bathroom. Cuz if they're newly potty trained, they don't have any time, but...if they are dressed appropriately for the potty training, sometimes that's inappropriate for the outside."
As for children who come to school in dress clothes instead of play clothes, one teacher found this to be more of an issue among first-time parents, who were more likely to be concerned with preserving a new outfit.
¶32 "Usually it's first time, anxious parents who think their kids need to look a certain way all the time."
Several participants added that lower-income parents may not own enough clothes to leave extra clothes at the center. These parents may not be able to afford coats--much less snow pants or boots that may only be used a few days out of the year.
¶33 "We ask them to have extra clothes but there are many families that are just struggling to put the clothes on the children's back in the first place that can't have the extra clothes. So if they were to go out when it was raining, we wouldn't have anything to change them into for the rest of the day."
¶34 "The dressing the children, because we're from a low income [neighborhood], we work very hard to find every child a coat, hat and gloves. If they don't have a hat and gloves, then it would impede them from going outside. But when I was little, we used to have snow pants so even when it snowed, you could go outside. Children just don't seem to have snow pants anymore so if there is snow outside, then they can't go cuz no matter what the temperature, cuz they would be getting wet."
While teachers acknowledged several irreproachable and pragmatic reasons why children may arrive at the center in inappropriate clothing, some suspected that parents' ostensible forgetfulness may indicate an underlying failure to recognize the value of physical activity and outdoor time.
¶35 "The parents who don't see physical play as appropriate send them in inappropriate shoes, and flip flops, the stiletto 4 year old sandals."
¶36 "The parents don't really say anything until their child comes home. He didn't have that extra pair of clothes for whatever reason and they're all muddy. I am a teacher that likes to get down in the mud and work with some of the kids. I have had those parents who were kind of like, 'Oh, you're all muddy!' (said with sarcastic and fake enthusiasm). And it stinks because it's a good learning experience. There is so much you can talk about: living creatures, worms. It's hard when the kids can't get muddy because they don't have an extra pair of clothes or the parents don't want to deal with washing clothes."
Some participants had witnessed and others suspected that parents intentionally took their child's coat with them to prevent outdoor play.
¶37 "I had an experience with parents when they bring the child in with a coat but take the coat with them when they go to work!"
Moderator: Do you ask them why they do that?
" [The parents say] 'Oh it was just in my hand and I forgot I had it.' [I say] 'Well, why didn't you bring it back when you realized you still had it in your hand?' ... They come up with some excuses."
¶38 "Our parents will take their child's coat with them if they don't want their child to go outside! I had two parents that took their child's coat because they didn't want them to be outside. I had a surprise for them because I keep extra coats! (laughter) So they will be outside."
In discussions about inappropriate clothing and jewelry, there was a recurring theme of tension between parents and teachers. Inappropriate clothing items seemed to act as a lightning rod for drawing out sparks of conflict between parent and teachers.
¶39 "It's like, How did you not notice? It's winter out here! There's snow, it's cold! How did you not notice he didn't have on his coat? Oh, he left it in the car or "oh, he left it at the house. How? You have your coat on. Why can't he have his coat on?! So it's like, you know, some parents are kind of like... I don't know!"
¶40 "We had a problem with jewelry. We have little girls and they would bring in necklaces. And I'm like, 'We are gonna go on the climber so why would you put [that on your child]? We are gonna get on the bike, why would you put?' I will be working in the toddler room most of the time so therefore there are a lot of little toddlers and they just want to touch. When her necklace gets broke, they're like 'Well I paid this much' And I'm like 'Well, then you should not have put it on her to come here.' That's all I can say about it! We had an incident where a little boy took off his earring and dropped it down in the heater! (laughter) So the mother is mad at the teacher and she wants to fight the teacher because she thinks the teacher dropped the earring. (laughter) Why would she drop the earring down in there?!"
Participants occasionally questioned parents' wardrobe decisions and resented parents' requests to be responsible for changing the child into play clothes so that the nice clothes could be preserved unharmed.
¶41 "We had a little girl two weeks ago in corduroy. It's 93 degrees outside. Corduroy and a tank top! What are you thinking? And Sandals? Anytime you can wear sandals, that means you don't need corduroy! (laughter) One might think."
¶42 "I've had a parent--and it was crazy--but I had a parent who brought play shoes! For when we went outside--we're gonna have to switch shoes!! (much laughter). You know, he came in the good shoes and she brought the play shoes so the good shoes wouldn't get messed up. So that was like, Really? You might as well just send him in the play shoes! (agreement) It's just weird, I guess it's just like parent's preferences. When it comes to people's kids, it's like you can't really tell them too much. It's like 'This is my child'!"
Seemingly unreasonable parent requests led another teacher to describe why she appreciates state licensing guidelines for child care:
¶43 "Mostly, it [the guidelines] allows us to be able to let the parents know we have limits. Bottom line. Because they ask us to do the strangest things. Yeah, That's the biggest thing for me, letting them know that we have limits to what we are allowed to do, just like you do on your job. They look at us like we are babysitters. To them, a lot of them. But I have to tell them, No, I'm an educator."
The discussions about children's clothing brought out some of the most heated sentiments among participants about parents. The following comments were elicited by a discussion about children arriving in flip flops, without coats, and a parent's request to preserve a new outfit.
¶44 "That's the biggest issue, for real. The parents are the biggest issue! They are worse than the kids!"
¶45 "You can tell which parents are gonna be like that because they come to the door. They put that vibe out to you. And you're like, OK, that's going to be a tough one! You can pick up on them."
Possible solutions to clothing barriers and building a rapport
In light of the amount of conflict that clothing issues could incite between teachers and parents, participants offered several pragmatic solutions that involved minimal to no contact with parents. (Table ). Many teachers kept extra coats and/or gloves at the center that children could borrow as needed. In centers with muscle rooms or gross motor rooms (about half of focus group participants reported having these), teachers could do physical activities indoors on days that children were dressed inappropriately for the weather.
¶46 "If it snows, sometimes I will take a bucket outside and get a bunch of snow and put the snow on the water table. Just like the sand, they will bury things in the snow. You can kind of bring the outside in."
Yet most solutions required some form of interaction with the parents, since participants acknowledged that it was the parents who were ultimately responsible for assuring that their child was appropriately dressed each day. Participants discussed putting up signs or sending home written reminders to dress children appropriately, a tactic that would require minimal interface with the parents about potentially contentious issues. Yet if teachers did not explain why appropriate clothes were necessary, these requests were often met with equally minimal success.
¶47 "Um, during the cold, we would get outside twice a week. You send notes home. 'Please dress your child properly, they need blah, blah, blah,' but it doesn't happen."
¶48 "You send notes home [that say] 'Please put gym shoes on,' [but] it does no good."
One participant described her success with a more passive-aggressive approach:
¶49 "I have an issue of going out without boots. It's snowy, they are gonna get wet. One day I send them home with wet, cold gym shoes. I got boots the next day!"
Others recounted successes in conveying their messages through the children, and in encouraging parents to talk directly with their children about going outside and the clothing necessary.
¶50 "When I have group I say, 'Would you share this with your parents when you get home because we are definitely going [outside]?' Then you have them excited and they'll come in all ready. 'See I got my gloves and everything'."
¶51 The following quote was what a participant said to a mother who had requested that the teacher not take her child outside: "'Think about your child. How's it gonna make your child feel, all of her friends are outside and she's inside?' [The parent had responded] 'I don't think she wants to go out because I don't take her outside.' [The teacher replied] 'Listen, let's talk to your child'."
Because participants felt that often times the inappropriate clothing items stemmed from a lack of parent awareness and understanding about the importance of outdoor play, several participants discussed the importance of parent education as an effective solution to clothing barriers.
¶52 "The disadvantage is when parents don't understand that kids get dirty. The parents are upset because they come home and their new clothes are dirty or they have leaves in their hair. But I consider that as an opportunity for parent education. I am not gonna quit doing it. We are not gonna quit using paint. I send home flyers and talk about what they're learning. I use it as an opportunity for parent education."
¶53 "You have to come back to the parent. This week our theme is community so we are going to be walking. This week our theme was snow. That was our science activity. You have to be able to give them the language to let them know you do understand why you did this. A lot of them appreciate that too."
In addition to educating parents about the many learning benefits of outdoor and active play, participants also found that if they could connect with the child's parents around a shared concern for the child's safety, they were more likely to be successful in encouraging parents to dress children appropriately.
¶54 "I have quite often asked parents to, not just with flip flops, maybe shoes with really slippery shoes. 'Your child is going to be climbing outside and they need some shoes that they can run and play safely.' Most parents just don't think about it."
¶55 "I once had a little girl in my class that she dressed so cute, adorable everyday, everything matching. She had these cute little flip flops and I hesitated to say something to her mom but I needed to for her safety. I said, 'I am really concerned about your child's safety. I don't want her to fall or get injured because she does a lot of climbing.' And so, she started sending her in gym shoes. So I think that was a positive thing for me to say that I was concerned."
¶56 "Some of my parents let their little girls wear hoops like this. I take upon myself I ask them, 'We do a lot of playing outside. Can you put on tiny studs?' And I haven't had any problem with parents doing that without having the policies."
Most teachers found parents receptive to their suggestions if teachers were able to explain why it was important for their child to be dressed to play and learn. In essence, teachers found that the most successful strategy for overcoming clothing barriers was to develop a positive rapport with parents. Most felt that this rapport and parental trust were essential for dealing with clothing issues.
¶57 "Acknowledge their feelings... 'I understand it is really upsetting. It's a new outfit, and it's upsetting. But If you remember, we talked about-- you might want to send old clothes'. Give out handouts about the benefit of active play, how much they're learning, the brain development and social development and every other kind of development, and that it's worth doing, even though it is a little bit of a hassle."
¶58 "So after a while, once you get a rapport with the parent, that does work and they usually will come around. Usually!!"
They achieved this rapport through handouts, highlighting areas of shared concern for the child's learning and safety, and multiple daily encounters over time. Participants also acknowledged that many parents became more relaxed and less over-protective as the child got older.
¶59 "I find that the younger--we have from 18 months to 36 months in my room--I find that when they come in at 18 months, they are very, very protective. If you go outside--- [parents will say] 'Well, it's only 25 degrees.' [in response] 'Well, yes, we go outside. We only stay out for 15 minutes but they do need to be outside.' They [parents] are not so receptive to that but as they get older, I don't know if it's just that the child is getting older or because they are not winning this battle. They're going outside so we might as well send them with everything they need. I don't know if we just wear them down or if they let go a little bit."
¶60 "I think when they're younger, especially the parents of a first child, they are learning too and they don't know that it's OK. Just that trust thing. A trusting relationship with the parent. When they first come to your center, it's like, [parent asks] 'You are taking them outside when it's only 25°? What are you talking about?' Once they trust you, and by the time they trust you their kid is older and preschool age."