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No ball games! And other things that might be making kids less active

by Guest Author on 30 Mar 2016

As part of the Neighbourhoods and Communities programme at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit led by Professor Anne Ellaway, Dr Paul McCrorie and PhD student Felicity Hayball are looking at how the local environment may determine levels of physical activity in children. They spoke to Sylvie Kruiniger about their research.

running boy crosses the finish line

Copyright: MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow

In the UK, increasingly sedentary lifestyles are being shown to impact upon more than just weight. Creating good habits around physical activity from a young age could help people to stay healthy throughout life. So what gets children outside and moving? What do they like to see? What puts them off? Dr Paul McCrorie and Felicity Hayball are using different methods to find out more about how children respond to their built, natural and social environments.

Paul leads on a project called ‘Studying Physical Activity in Children’s Environments across Scotland’ (SPACES).  As part of this, he works with data from the longitudinal study ‘Growing up in Scotland’ (GUS) to gather quantitative information on the amount and context of physical activity undertaken by children.

He said: “Working with GUS means that I can access data from over 2000 children who are representative of the whole of Scotland, from Dumfries in the south, right up to the Shetland Islands in the north. In our recent data collection we contacted approximately 2,000 10-year-old children and asked them to wear an accelerometer and GPS device for eight consecutive days. The devices measured how active they were and, importantly for us, used GPS to map where they were active. A common misconception is that GPS provides live information about the whereabouts of its user: worry not – the data from the GPS devices can only be downloaded by the research team at least a week after the activity has taken place.

Three girls draw pictures and chat about what they like to see in their local environment.

Copyright: MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow

“When we finish collecting the data in May we will have an internationally-recognised dataset required to conduct complex and innovative analyses regarding the impact of the built and social environment on physical activity levels and behaviours in Scottish children.  For instance, do children use parks and green spaces, and how active are they if they do?  Does this relationship somehow change depending on where children stay, for example urban cities or rural towns/villages, and affluent or more deprived areas?

“Earlier this month we took the devices to Glasgow Science Centre as part of a ‘Meet the Experts’ activity in British Science Week. It was a fantastic chance to tell children about the research and get them involved. The centre’s permanent Bodyworks exhibition was the perfect place to do this as there are lots of interactive activities in place where children use physical activity to learn about health and anatomy, including competing on a racetrack against Usain Bolt’s times and running in a giant human hamster wheel. Children wore the devices while taking part and we provided customised results to show them how active they were and how this activity contributed to their overall health – a very important message we wanted to get across.”

childs drawing of a no ball games sign

In some parts of Scotland the ‘no ball games’ signs have been taken down. But one participant showed they still tower over their only accessible green space. Copyright: Felicity Hayball, MRC/CSO

Felicity’s research also sits within the SPACES project and looks at more qualitative elements of how the local environment can affect children’s physical activity behaviours. She ran an activity alongside Paul’s where she asked 5-11 year olds to draw their favourite thing to do outside. The activity was based on her PhD research where she gave 25 children aged between 10-11 years a sketchbook and a camera and asked them to go out and document their local environment over seven days.

“It was really interesting to get the children’s perspectives on different features within their neighbourhood such as roads and playgrounds and how these features influence their physical activity behaviours.

“The children showed photos and drawings of ‘traditional’ playgrounds which they described as ‘boring’ and ‘too safe’.  The children preferred playgrounds where they could climb and jump and feel there was an element of risk. Without the combined photos and descriptions we, as adults, may completely misrepresent what children want; in fact, when I asked the participants if they felt like adults listened to what they wanted to do, they said no!”

traffic makes it hard to cycle - childs drawing

Copyright: Felicity Hayball, MRC/CSO

Outside of the green spaces, several children wanted to see more cycle lanes so they could use their bikes safely. Others highlighted social problems, like one who drew a road they said they avoided because it was often ‘lined with people drinking and smoking’ which made them feel unsafe.

Paul and Felicity hope that their work will stimulate interest from other academics and, importantly, planners and policy makers who can ensure that local environments support physical activity in children.

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