Big is not necessarily better when it comes to backyards keeping kids active

How to get preschoolers moving: it's not about backyard size
How to get preschoolers moving: it's not about backyard size Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Sandpits, cubby houses and trampolines could be the key to getting preschoolers moving more, rather than having a big backyard. That's the conclusion of a new Australian study which found that each additional type of fixed play equipment in a yard was associated with five extra minutes of play time.

And while that might not sound like much, with only a third of preschoolers meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines, every minute counts.

"This is the first time we've been able to comprehensively measure outdoor playtime in the home environment," says senior author Associate Professor Hayley Christian. "The home yard space is crucial for providing opportunity for preschool kids to be active, as they are so dependent on their parents and don't have the independent mobility to get out and about on their own."

As part of the study, published in Public Health Research & Practice, a team from The University of Western Sydney tracked almost 1600 preschool kids on days they weren't in childcare. As well as looking at the time kids spent playing outdoors, they also measured other factors including: backyard size, outdoor features (grassed or paved areas, trees, gardens), fixed play equipment (climbing structures, playhouses, sand boxes, swings,  trampolines) and portable play items (balls, frisbees, scooters, etc.).

Results showed that children spent 69 minutes a day playing in their backyard. Interestingly, however, of all the factors listed above, the only one that mattered was the number of fixed play structures in the yard.

"Backyard play is a much better option than screen time, considering all of the health and developmental benefits children get by playing outdoors and being physically active" Dr Christian says. "As parents we may not have time to take our kids to the park each day, but they don't need to be in the house on a device. Why not allow them out in the yard and let them go!" 

And yet, as the authors go on to explain, that's not an option for everyone.

"While the majority of Australian families live in separate houses that include private outdoor space, housing affordability, home building trends towards larger houses and smaller blocks, and the cost of land have reduced the amount of outdoor home-yard space available for play for many young children," they note.

With that in mind, however, the researchers reiterate that it's not the size of the yard that matters - it's how you use it. "Our results indicate that fixed play equipment, irrespective of yard space, is associated with preschoolers' home-based outdoor play," they write. "This may be a strategy that parents can consider to promote preschoolers' outdoor play and physical activity within the home environment, even when yard space is limited." 

The authors say the findings also have implications for policy, adding new information to the debate around "losing the Australian suburban backyard in the face of increasing housing density." Specifically, children of lower income families, who are typically more limited in their housing choice may be further disadvantaged by smaller backyards and limited resources to buy equipment like swings and trampolines. 

As such, they conclude: "Governments should consider the inclusion of accessible preschooler-friendly space and equipment for play as part of higher density and new development planning policy."

Current movement guidelines released by the Federal Government recommend that preschoolers (aged three to five years) engage in at least 180 minutes of physical activity, 60 minutes of which should be "energetic play". Research shows that only 34 per cent of kids aged 205 years achieve this total and one in five Aussie preschoolers are now considered overweight or obese.​