A total of four overarching themes related to physical activity and outdoor play in childcare were identified by group consensus, including: (i) benefits, (ii) disadvantages, (iii) facilitators and (iv) barriers. These overarching themes were subdivided into those that related to children, parents, teachers, structural, policy and societal factors. Results related to the primary disadvantage of active and outdoor play—children getting injured or dirty—and barriers associated with children and parents, including inappropriate children's clothing, have been reported elsewhere [53
]. Themes related to structural, societal and policy benefits and barriers to physical activity and outdoor play will be presented in a separate paper. This paper will report on the three broad categories of findings related to teachers, namely their (i) perceived benefits of physical activity and outdoor play, (ii) perceived disadvantages/barriers to physical activity and outdoor play and (iii) decisions regarding outdoor play and their roles on the playground.
One-on-one interviews conducted during the member-checking component of this study did not produce any additional or conflicting information related to barriers and benefits of physical activity. Interviewees corroborated the preliminary interpretation of the findings including the inclusion of all preliminary themes, and no disconfirming evidence was found. To eliminate over-reporting of themes or over-representation of comments from the nine participants that participated in both interviews and focus groups, only quotations from the focus group transcripts are used in the reporting of our results.
Teachers’ perceived benefits of physical activity and outdoor time
Participants noted numerous benefits of physical activity, outside time and fresh air (). Benefits fell into two broad categories that were often inter-related physical and socio-emotional. For instance, they noted that the energy expenditure associated with physical activity could help prevent childhood obesity (¶A1,¶A2) (a physical benefit) and could also provide a ‘stress-relief’(¶A4) and improve children’s mood (¶A5) (emotional benefits). They noted that structured activities (¶A6) and regular physical activity help build healthy habits (¶A1, ¶A3) and could help them calm the classroom down (¶A6, ¶A7).
Teacher's perceived benefits of physical activity and outdoor time
Sometimes the socio-emotional benefits were seen as integrated with or consequences of the physical benefits. For instance, most participants felt that physical activity was important in the preschool age group for developing individual gross motor skills, such as climbing, ball skills, coordination, pedaling and hopscotch (¶A8, ¶A9, ¶A10). Several participants noted that children who master gross motor skills at an early age tend to become more self-confident than other children. Mastery of gross motor skills fostered feelings of self-efficacy (¶A12, ¶A14) and ultimately improved self-esteem (¶A13, ¶A14). Similarly the converse was true: some participants had encountered a few children who never learned to perform fundamental skills such as skipping, climbing or throwing a ball (¶A15, ¶A18). Children who cannot perform these skills may begin to feel embarrassed and discouraged (¶A15, ¶A16, ¶A18) and have difficulty with their peers. Without the opportunity to practice, failure to learn these skills at an early age could place children on a trajectory in which they never feel comfortable doing physical activities (¶A17). Participants noted that in contrast to exercising indoors in a gross motor room, going outside provided additional physical benefits of more room to run and expend energy (¶A19, ¶A20, ¶A21). This increased freedom to run was also interpreted on a socio-emotional level, as participants noted that children felt freer to raise their voices and express themselves (¶A21, ¶A24, ¶A27) outdoors and that children seemed more creative outdoors compared with indoors (¶A25, ¶A26). Playground schedules that allowed children to interact with children from other classrooms helped to foster children’s new friendships and social development (¶A27, ¶A28, ¶A30). Participants also remarked that the limited quantity of playground equipment such as balls or slides could facilitate the development of children’s problem-solving skills as they must negotiate shared usage of items in limited supply (¶A29, ¶A30). Lastly, participants found that even brief exposures to the outdoors seemed to help children nap better later (¶A22, ¶A23).
An additional important quality of outside time mentioned was ‘fresh air’. Fresh air conveyed both the physical benefit of escaping germs, which were seen as being more prevalent indoors especially during the winter (¶A31, ¶A32, ¶A33, ¶A34, ¶A35) and the emotional benefits of improved mood for both teachers and children (¶A36, ¶A37, ¶A38). In summary, the benefits of being outdoors exceeded those of indoor active play for all the realms discussed gross motor skill development, socialization, health and mood. Further, being outdoors allowed for greater energy release, more vigorous activities, freedom and creativity and social interaction.
Teachers’ perceived disadvantages and barriers to children’s physical activity and outdoor time
While participants listed many benefits of physical activity and outdoor time, they also noted a few disadvantages and several barriers to children getting physical activity (). One disadvantage to outdoor time was the perception that children could get sick (¶B1, ¶B2, ¶B3), especially if improperly dressed for cold or wet weather, although participants said this belief was more common among parents than teachers.
Teacher’s perceived barriers to going outside/active play
Teachers’ perceptions of their roles in guiding children’s outdoor play
Adverse weather conditions—which could include precipitation, cold, extreme heat or smog warnings—were cited by virtually all participants as a common and important barrier to children’s outside time (¶B4). Yet most participants went on to say that teachers’ perceptions of the weather conditions were more important than actual conditions in determining whether children were permitted outdoors and how long they spent outdoors (¶B5, ¶B6, ¶B7, ¶B13). In fact, many participants acknowledged that it was usually the adults (teachers or parents) and not the children that were bothered by most adverse weather conditions (¶B11, ¶B12, ¶B13). Individual teachers’ preferences or beliefs about weather conditions (e.g. not being a cold weather person (¶B8), not liking the rain (¶B9), or associating dampness with getting sick (¶B1, ¶B10)) could keep children indoors.
Other less frequently mentioned reasons for teachers avoiding the outdoors included not liking the outdoors, (¶B14), getting dirty or sweaty (¶B15), insects (¶B16) and the chaos and noise on the playground (¶B17, ¶B18). Several commented on how much work it was to take children outdoors, including helping children put on coats and mittens (¶B19), administering sunscreen (¶B20), setting up and properly stowing portable equipment on the playground (¶B21, ¶B22) or supervising a challenging playground structure.
Lastly participants mentioned their own ailments, such as allergies and asthma (¶B23, ¶B24, ¶B25) or being overweight (¶B22, ¶B26), as possible impediments to taking the children outdoors and encouraging their physical activity. Many had worked with colleagues they perceived as ‘lazy’ (¶B27, ¶B28). Participants suggested that some teachers may feel self-conscious about their bodies or their physical activity skills and/or lack the self-efficacy to effectively encourage children’s physical activity and their confidence to participate in children’s games (¶B29). A few suggested that perhaps this was due to a negative experience the teacher had had on the playground as a child (¶B30).
Balancing benefits and barriers and decisions whether to go outdoors
Participants weighed both the benefits and barriers to outdoor play in making the decision whether to take children outdoors (Table IV). Most said it was up to the individual teacher whether or not children went outside (¶C1, ¶C2, ¶C3).
Teacher as gatekeeper
Because teachers were empowered to make this decision based on individual preferences, teachers perceived that they could and did serve as gatekeepers to outdoor play. Below a participant describes the ‘pull’ (¶C4) a teacher can have in deciding not to go outside for personal reasons. Another two participants describe how a teacher can override the center’s schedule for personal reasons (¶C5, ¶C6). Assistant or junior teachers often deferred to senior teachers (¶C7). In extreme cases, participants described keeping children indoors for an entire winter season (¶B8 , ¶C8 below) or school year (¶C9) due to personal preferences and concerns about the weather.
Restricting access to equipment and parts of playground
Teachers could also act as gatekeepers by blocking off specific parts of the playground, for safety or personal reasons (¶C10, ¶C11, ¶C12). Participants suggested that these restrictions teachers place on children's activities may have been motivated out of fear (¶C11) or a previous bad experience (¶C12).
Spectrum of teacher roles on playground
Participants described a spectrum of roles (¶C13) that teachers could play on the playground, ranging from actively participating in play with children (teacher as facilitator), to supervisory only (chaperone), to being distracted or disengaged.
Teacher as facilitator
The following quotes exemplify teachers who see their role on the playground as a facilitator (¶C14, ¶C15, ¶C16) to children’s activity. Participants discussed their role in promoting children’s gross motor skill development and encouraging all children to engage in physical activities (¶C14).
Teachers as chaperones
Many participants felt their primary responsibility on the playground was to keep children safe and saw their primary role as a chaperone (¶C17, ¶C18). Several cautioned against too many teacher-led activities (¶C19, ¶C20).
Teachers distracted or disengaged
Lastly, participants suggested that sometimes teachers may inhibit children’s physical activity by not engaging with the children while on the playground (¶C21, ¶C22), as many had worked with colleagues who disengaged when going on the playground—either to socialize with other teachers or take a break (¶C22, ¶C23, ¶C24) or because they didn't see facilitation of active play as part of their responsibility. A few participants stated that they had seen colleagues talk or text on their cell phones (¶C24) while they were supposed to be supervising the children outside.