The current study augments the limited body of evidence internationally concerning PA in children <6 yr old. Our results indicate that young children take just under 2000 (or approximately 20%) fewer steps per day in winter than in spring. This reduction is not attributable to the children wearing the pedometer for shorter periods. Therefore, a central finding of this study is that one 4- to 5-d assessment of PA is unlikely to be representative of a child’s activity during an entire year. Our finding of a seasonal effect is in keeping with data from preschool children in Canada (summer and autumn higher than winter ) and 11- to 12-yr-old UK children (summer higher than winter ) and consistent with the trend toward a seasonal effect within 4- to 10-yr-old children from Vermont and Alabama (spring higher than autumn ) and preschool children from Texas (winter higher than the summer, the latter being characterised by extreme high temperatures ).
Fathers’ daily play with children and child access to a safe place to play were related to the observed variation in PA. For every minute that fathers played with their children, there was an increase of 13 steps in winter PA levels. This in turn led to PA being more stable across the seasons in children who had greater play with their father. Parental support and encouragement for PA is positively associated with children’s PA participation (37,40), and children’s overall PA increases if parents are physically active with their child (30). The association between the time that fathers played with their children and child PA found in the present study may be explained by the different ways that mothers and fathers influence their child’s activity (2). For example, whereas mothers provide higher levels of logistic support, fathers are more likely to use their own behavior to encourage activity (9). Further research is needed to examine the distinct influences of father versus mother coparticipation in PA with their children and the subsequent effect on child PA levels. In the present study, access to a safe place to play contributed to children having a higher level of PA in spring and an increased variation in PA between winter and spring. A safe environment is thought to be crucial to increasing opportunities of PA (39). A possible explanation for our finding may be contained in the weather data because average daily temperature and hours of daylight have been shown to be related to PA (5,14). In winter, the days are shorter with a lower average temperature and fewer hours of sunshine than in spring (Table 5). These factors may have influenced time spent outdoors, which has previously been shown to be positively related to PA in preschool children (17). Thus, where safe areas to play were present, the children in the present study may have used them less in the winter and more in the spring. This is of public health concern because children may lose the immediate health benefits of sustained participation in PA if levels fall during the winter period.
Girls and boys reported mean daily step counts of 11,177 and 11,736, respectively, at the age of 4 yr. These PA scores are greater than that reported in Belgian preschoolers, i.e., 9980 steps per day (4). At age 5, step counts for girls in the present study were greater than those recorded for 5-yr-old girls in a Czech study, but similar step counts were found for boys in the present study and their Czech counterparts (32). In contrast with previous studies (3,17,25,34), there was no evidence of gender differences in the present study for PA levels. A longitudinal study found no difference in PA levels between sexes at age 3, although by age 5, PA was higher in boys than in girls (27). Thus, it may be that the gender difference in PA levels of the present cohort may not appear until later, highlighting the need for future research to quantify the onset and magnitude of gender difference in PA levels of young children.
Children took approximately 2300 (20%) more steps per day at the age of 5 yr compared with the age of 4 yr. The magnitude of the increase is similar to the 22% increase in accelerometer-assessed total activity counts during 2 yr reported previously in children who were 3.8-yr-old at the start of the study (19). The direction of the change in PA is also in agreement with results from Scotland in children measured at the ages of 3 and 5 yr (27) and the ages of 3.7 and 4.7 yr (18). Increases in the PA levels of this age group may be due to advancing motor proficiency in young children in the early years. Previous work has demonstrated that the relationship between level of motor skill performance and PA participation was stronger for 4-yr-olds than for 3-yr-olds (41). However, other studies report an age-related decrease in the PA level of young children from the age of 5.7 to 6.7 yr (32) and from the age of 3 to 4 and 5 yr (33) or no change from 5 to 8 yr (24). It is worth noting that Scottish children who were participants in the aforementioned three studies reporting an increase in PA (18,19,27) are subject to a similar climatic and educational milieu as the children reported in this study.
The rank order stability of children’s PA during 1 yr found in the present study was very low with correlations ranging from 0.01 to 0.15. It seems that in the transition from a preschool environment to primary school, the most active children tend to fall in PA ranking compared with their peers. Therefore, the move to the more structured and likely longer formal school day presented a challenge for the more active children to maintain their PA ranking. In keeping with local curricular guidance, children in the current study typically spent 3 h in an informal play-based educational setting at the age of 4, moving to a more structured formal educational setting of 5 h·d−1 at the age of 5. Few studies have examined this specific time frame, and further work is essential if school programs are to promote PA to those at most risk of regression. A dearth of objectively measured data in young children younger than 6 yr makes comparison with other studies limited. Three longitudinal studies using accelerometer data have reported correlations higher than those in the present study of 0.35 to 0.55 (18,19,23). The low tracking in our children is difficult to explain because the aforementioned studies were United Kingdom based and involved children of a similar age. Anecdotally, some parents (14%) reported on the pedometer record sheets that the weather was particularly good or that their children were outdoors more than normal during the PA assessment at 5 yr. Thus, some of the children may have recorded higher than normal PA due in part to the good weather conditions and/or exposure to the outdoors, both of which have previously been linked to PA level (1,29).
Strengths of the current study include the use of an objective measurement of PA level and its longitudinal design, following the same children during a 1-yr period. The narrow age range of the children at baseline reduced the potential effect of age-related influences on PA behavior. The study also followed children during the transition from preschool to a more structured primary school environment, which may be a time when more sedentary classroom behavior is encouraged. Limitations of the study include the small sample size at 1-yr follow-up, the possibility of self-report bias in the parental questionnaire (11), and the self-selection of participants into the study. Finally, failure to observe stronger evidence of tracking or gender difference could relate to a lack of power, a feature common to many tracking studies (19).
In conclusion, our findings suggest that, because of seasonal variation in young children’s PA, a once-off assessment of PA is unlikely to be representative of a child’s activity during a year. Although children’s mean PA for the sample increased from the age of 4 to 5 yr, the rank order stability was low. Thus, some young children may be at risk for adopting poor levels of PA, highlighting the need for earlier identification and intervention.
No funding was received for this study.
The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.
The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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