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New rules promote exercise, nutrition at child care centers

AVONDALE – After the YMCA's morning class wraps up an outdoor dance workout with a guest instructor, director Sandra Salcedo tells the bouncy group of 3- and 4-year-olds it's time to go inside.

"Aw man, I thought we were gonna get to play some more!" says Logan, a blond-haired, blue-eyed four-year-old. His plaid button-down, neatly tucked in just a half hour before, is now hanging near his knees after dancing to "YMCA," "Cha Cha Slide" and "Kung Fu Fighting."

Provisions encouraging at least an hour of physical activity per day are part of a revamped set of state rules for child care centers that went into effect Sept. 30. The rules, designed by the Arizona Department of Health Services with help from child care providers, aim to promote health and fitness and include provisions regarding family-style meals, limits on computer and television time and specifications for serving milk, juice and water.

Centers can get a big break on state licensing fees, which shot up early this year, by following state recommendations on nutrition and physical activity.

Most rules were easy to implement and welcome, said Chasidy Gray, regional executive director of child care for the Valley of the Sun YMCA.

"These preschoolers have so much energy, we can have several half-hour increments of physical activity disguised as playtime and they don't even know they're exercising," she said. "Fun activities help incorporate [the exercise rule] smoothly."

Parents have also embraced the emphasis on health and exercise, Gray said, with some volunteering to come in and talk to kids about healthy eating and the food groups.

The one rule instructors have struggled to implement is the family-style meal, which typically entails passing around serving plates and allowing children to determine their own portions.

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Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the old practice of a worker dishing out the same amount of food for everyone while kids are on the playground was faster and easier, but the children didn't get anything out of lunchtime.

Now children "are learning portion control, motor skills … even conversation because something is actually happening at the lunch table other than, 'Here, sit down,'" he said.

Humble acknowledged that the new rules created scheduling difficulties for some caregivers, a transition the department tried to ease by offering training sessions and videos.

"They've had to look at their schedule and say, 'I'm required to do this type of meal, this amount of physical activity … I need to cut movie time and use that time somewhere else,'" he said. "It's about juggling the day so they can accomplish what we're asking them to do."

Many of the rules were developed using the Empower Pack, a group of 10 wellness initiatives, as a guide. The Empower Pack was created by state health officials to help child care centers after the state dramatically raised center-licensing fees following agency-wide budget cuts. The fees, which for decades had been $150 per center every three years, shot up to from $1,000 to $7,800 a year as of Jan. 1.

Centers that adopted all 10 of the pack's initiatives qualified for a 50 percent discount on licensing fees, covered by federal Title V funds as well as a tax on tobacco, according to Laura Oxley, communications director for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Since five of the Empower Pack initiatives are now mandatory, the department plans to create an "Empower Pack 2.0″ with provisions focusing on goals such as sun safety.

In the meantime, the department will continue to survey child care centers to evaluate the effectiveness of the new rules.

"Sometimes when there's change, people get nervous or think, 'Oh, no,' when change is good," Gray said. "This was a blessing in disguise for all centers."

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Maria Polletta/Cronkite News Service

Eric plays on a slide at a child care program offered by the Avondale YMCA.

Child fitness recommendations

  • Limit TV or computer screen time to less than one hour a day.
  • Serve 1 percent low-fat or fat-free milk for all children over 2.
  • Serve only 100 percent fruit juice and limit kids to 4 to 6 ounces a day.
  • Serve meals family-style.
  • Offer water at least four times a day.
  • Encourage at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.