- Preschool outdoor play environments (OPEs) are unique spaces that, when carefully designed, can encourage child-initiated play resulting in jumping, chasing, and exploration of materials and natural spaces (Moore, 1996). Specifically, elements of the OPE can facilitate movement and increase physical activity (Baek et al., 2015) through engaged, child-initiated play. Children enrolled in child care engage in low-levels of physical activity (Hestenes, Chakravarthi, & Hatfield, 2011; Hinkley, Salmon, Crawford, Okely, & Hesketh, 2016; World Health Organization [WHO], 2018). Children in child care also spend less time in outdoor environments than children not in child care, and thus less time interacting with nature-based affordances that encourage motor development (DeBord, Hestenes, Moore, Cosco, & McGinnis, 2002) and physical activity (Schlechter, Rosenkranz, Fees, & Dzewaltowski, 2017). Emerging work suggests that quality OPEs can promote physical activity through diversity in materials, landscape, nature-based opportunities, and teacher support (Baek et al., 2015; Boldemann et al., 2006; Cardon, Van Cauweberghe, Labarque, Haerens, & De Bourdeaudhuij, 2008; Copeland, Kendeigh, Saelens, Kalkwarf, & Sherman, 2012).
The aim of this study is to understand how four elements (i.e., materials, nature-based opportunities, teacher support, and landscape) of the preschool OPE are associated with children’s physical activity intensity. This secondary analysis uses data across 13 classrooms, including physical activity data from 54 preschoolers measured via accelerometers and observer ratings utilizing the Preschool Outdoor Environment Measurement Scale (POEMS; DeBord, Hestenes, Moore, Cosco, & McGinnis, 2005). The hypotheses state that children will engage in greater physical activity in a preschool environment reflecting higher complexity in an element. Analysis of the four constructed elements demonstrated moderate reliability for nature-based opportunities, materials, and teacher support; the element of landscape did not demonstrate sufficient reliability for inclusion in analytical models. Hierarchical level models predicting physical activity from materials, teacher support and nature-based opportunities did not produce significant associations with physical activity. Low levels of physical activity in child care replicates previous work. Results also indicate mid-low quality of the OPE as defined by the three elements, but this study was not able to differentiate complexity of the environment as it relates to children’s physical activity. This suggests the need for future work to explore the ways in which children interact with the OPE, not just the presence of elements, to better understand how preschoolers are physically active. It is also important to explore child-level characteristics associated with physical activity (e.g., motor abilities) and how these characteristics may influence physical activity in the OPE.