This is the first study to describe and compare levels of objectively-measured sedentary behavior between children attending Montessori and traditional preschools. We found that the average time spent in sedentary behavior was significantly lower among children attending Montessori preschools. Not only did these children spend less time in sedentary behavior while in school, they also spent less time in sedentary behavior while out of school. Our findings are of particular importance because they suggest that the Montessori education system needs to be studied carefully to determine the specific factors that facilitate lower time spent in sedentary behavior. In addition to the finding that school type was a significant predictor of sedentary behavior, we also observed that socio-demographic factors (age, gender, and parent education level), and preschool funding type predicted time spent in sedentary behavior in multivariate analysis. These findings suggest that socio-demographic characteristics and school-level characteristics (e.g., policies and environments) have a significant influence on preschoolers’ sedentary behavior. Both characteristics should be considered when developing interventions that aim to reduce the time preschoolers’ spend in sedentary behavior.
There is evidence that preschool policies and practices can influence preschoolers’ sedentary behavior. Previous studies found that children attending preschools with policies regarding sedentary opportunities (e.g., limiting time for prolonged sitting and TV/DVD viewing) spent significantly less time in sedentary behavior compared to those attending preschools without such policies [14, 27]. The Montessori education system is based on a fundamental approach that encourages children to teach themselves, with teachers serving as assistants in the classroom . Unlike traditional preschools, children in Montessori classrooms are not required to sit and listen to teacher-directed instructions, but are encouraged to choose and participate in individual or group activities . This approach likely explains a proportion of variance in preschoolers’ sedentary behavior. Traditional preschools could consider if it is feasible to include aspects of this policy to reduce time spent in sedentary behavior.
Research also suggests that preschoolers’ sedentary behavior levels are affected by the physical and social environment of the preschool. Children attending preschools with environments that discourage sedentary behavior (e.g., fewer TVs and computers or greater classroom size) have been shown to spend less time in sedentary behavior while in school [15, 27]. The Montessori preschool environments are based on the theory that “the best learning is active” and that children learn within “prepared environments” in which they can freely perform self-directed activities . In general, the Montessori school classrooms are large and open-spaced to facilitate children’s movement . As an example, Montessori preschool classrooms typically are equipped with sets of materials for light intensity physical activities (e.g., materials for sweeping, dusting, cleaning, and gardening), and children are regularly engaged in physical activities using those materials in school [28, 29]. This could explain our observed difference in sedentary behavior during the in-school period.
An interesting observation in this study was that children attending Montessori preschools also spent less time in sedentary behavior out of school, compared to children attending traditional preschools. This out-of-school sedentary behavior difference persisted even after adjusting for child’s socioeconomic status and participation in after-school sports program. This finding is of particular interest because it has been hypothesized that children who are more sedentary (or active) during one part of the day would compensate at other times of the day, resulting in daily total activity levels that are constant . Under the compensation hypothesis, environmental influences on children’s sedentary behavior is limited, and biological control of sedentary behavior is predominant . However, our data do not support this hypothesis, but rather suggest that school-based interventions should be developed and implemented to reduce daily sedentary behavior in preschool children.
It is also possible that the difference in after-school school sedentary behavior could be due to a carry-over effect, whereby the Montessori school policies and environments also influence children’s sedentary behavior out of school. In general, Montessori preschoolers are encouraged to perform various types of light physical activity during their attendance at school . Such activities include serving snacks, washing the floor, dusting tables, watering plants, and going outside to collect leaves [29, 32]. Therefore, it is possible that children continue to perform these types of light physical activities outside of school. In addition, parents who send their children to Montessori schools are encouraged to limit the use of strollers and other carriers, and the children of parents who follow this encouragement may spend less time in sedentary behavior .
Alternatively, although we adjusted for numerous potential correlates of sedentary behavior in preschool children (e.g., child’s socio-demographic factors, BMI, and sports participation), [22, 33, 34] the observed difference in sedentary behavior out of school could be due to factors such as neighborhood environments (e.g., hills in neighborhood and crime/safety), [35, 36] home environments and policy (e.g., number of TVs/computers, TV/computer in child’s bedroom, and parent rules on screen time), [37–40] and parental behaviors (e.g., parent screen time) [33, 41]. Future research is required to explore whether Montessori preschool policies continue to reduce sedentary behavior after the child has left the school environment.
To our knowledge, only one previous intervention study has been designed to reduce sedentary behavior in preschool children . However, that intervention was designed to reduce TV viewing at home, and did not intervene to reduce overall sedentary behavior in preschool children. In general, opportunities to move freely in the traditional preschool classroom are limited. This is likely due to early childhood educators being encouraged to employ formal curricula, which focus primarily on cognitive and language-oriented academic achievement [43, 44]. However, this approach may not be optimal for raising academic achievement [45–47]. Research suggests that children attending Montessori schools have higher test scores in math and science compared to children attending traditional preschools [48, 49]. Considering these data and our observations, it appears that the Montessori education system can be a strategy to reduce sedentary behavior, while also allowing for high academic achievement.
The current study had strengths and limitations that should be acknowledged. A major strength of this study was the use of an objective measure of sedentary behavior. Due to the poor recall ability and sporadic activity patterns of young children, assessing the time spent in sedentary behavior in preschoolers is difficult. We quantified, using accelerometers, the levels of sedentary behavior in preschool children across the in-school, after-school, and total-day period. In addition, our samples of preschool children were drawn from both private and public preschools. However, the generalizability of our findings may be limited because participants of this study were volunteers from preschools, and all participants were recruited from one geographic location in the southeast U.S.