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A refreshing approach to thinking about children’s participation in physical activity

Posted: Mon, 02 Feb 2015 13:07

A refreshing approach to thinking about children’s participation in physical activity

A review of the paper: "'Is it Worth it?' A Qualitative Study of the Beliefs of Overweight and Obese Physically Active Children" by Kiara Lewis, Claire Fraser, and Martin Manby, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 2014, 11, 1219-1224, @2014 Human Kinetics, Inc.

This paper gently challenges much of the highly politicised contemporary rhetoric that has been spawned in the lead up to the London 2012 Games about how we motivate our children to be more active. The research illustrates how by taking a refreshing new approach to studying the problem of inactivity in our young children, practitioners and policy makers might be inspired to discover new solutions. Without seeking to politicise their position, as so much of the research in this publicly funded arena does, Lewis and her co-authors support their fresh approach by critically reviewing current National/Governmental thinking that underpins approaches to increasing children's activity levels. On the one hand the UK Government Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) in "Beyond 2012", the legacy document for the London 2012 Games, speaks of the potential for sport to develop the whole person. Sport is seen as a means of developing "leadership, self-esteem, health and well-being and achievement in general" of our young people. On the other hand Lewis cites compelling evidence from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in Northern Ireland in a report setting out a completely contrary picture in which a "sizeable minority" of school children do not enjoy sport and find it a negative experience. Similarly she cites a survey on behalf of the charity "Chance to Shine" in which children have reported bullying and teasing during sports activities.

This research firstly embraces the whole range of benefits that physical activity can confer on children avoiding the narrow view of much research which measures the effectiveness of specific interventions particularly on biological measures of health whilst ignoring the educational, sociological and psychological benefits that can accrue. Secondly, through their qualitative child-centred approach they pursue an in-depth understanding of factors that affect participation related to intrinsic motivation to be active. Finally and most powerfully, the research is extremely effective in placing children at its centre "provid(ing) an opportunity for children to talk freely and openly about their experiences" (pp.1220).

The research uses a grounded theory approach and template analysis of transcribed recordings of semi-structured interviews with 290 overweight or obese children aged 4 to 11 years who participate in a physical activity programme tailored to their specific needs. Themes emerge from the children's own words and are related where appropriate to a framework of themes around Self-Determination Theory (SDT). From this approach we are rewarded with findings which go beyond the analysis of the effectiveness of specific adult-led activity offers. Most interestingly a number of their recommendations are relatively easily operationalised but reach the heart of the challenge to provide an environment in which children are self-motivated to be active. The potential for providing 'autonomous motivation' is highlighted for instance by including the children in the choice of activity and choice of outcome of activity. This often means the setting of personal goals and removing the element of external competition. Meanwhile 'competence motivation' is highlighted as a powerful form of motivation with children reporting their growth in physical self-confidence as well as the simple enjoyment of being active. Finally 'relatedness motivation' encompassing parental support, the encouragement of activity leaders and of their activity group was found to provide further intrinsic motivation to be active.

It is true to say that this research specifically focuses upon obese and overweight children. In addition, the research participants are clearly already motivated enough to try physical activity to the extent that they voluntarily signed-up to the activity programme. It would be too easy, however, to dismiss the potential of these findings to shine a new light on ways of motivating all our children to be more active. It would at least appear counter-intuitive to believe that what motivates a child dealing with the challenge of weight difficulties would have no effect whatsoever on children generally.

At the very least this paper provides all physical activity professionals with a springboard for new thinking about how we effectively engage children in more active lifestyles. At the best it provides a growing forum to focus upon what children themselves say and to connect more effectively with what intrinsically motivates children to be active has great merit. This month the Youth Sport Trust, the Government's agency for promoting School Sport, has effectively announced the failure of the London 2012 Games to deliver a promised more active new generation. The time has never been better to engage in a fundamental re-think of our approach to getting our children more active.

Linda Plowright is a Centre for Research Education and Education Technology (CREET) research student at the Open University researching children's participation in physical activity and also former Chief Executive of Sports Leaders UK

Tags: PE, Sport, community sport, school sport

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