Is the school playground a suitable environment to enhance fundamental movement skills and promote a higher level of physical activity in primary school children? An ecological investigation to inform the development of a primary school playground intervention

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Higher levels of physical activity participation during childhood are believed to have beneficial effects on; 1) a number of cardio-metabolic risk factors (e.g., insulin resistance, hyperglycaemia, hyperlipidaemia, hypertension), 2) reducing the number of children leaving primary school obese, and; 3) psychological well-being. However, many children of primary school age (5 to 11 years old) do not achieve the current Chief Medical Officers (CMO) physical activity guidelines of an average of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day, across the week.
Children who develop proficiency in Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) are likely to participate in a higher level of MVPA throughout childhood and adolescence. Providing opportunities for children to develop their FMS is one strategy suggested to improve MVPA participation rates. The primary school playground is an environment where FMS and physical activity interventions can target large numbers of children at one time. Therefore, the collective aim of this thesis is to provide a critical exploration of how the primary school playground can be used to enhance FMS and MVPA levels in primary school children.
The first objective for this thesis was to complete a systematic review of previously conducted physical activity interventions aimed at increasing MVPA through development of FMS in primary school children (chapter 3). The Meta-analysis identified that physical activity interventions that included FMS had a pooled intervention effect (mean; 95%CI: 4.3; -0.03 to 8.8 minutes of MVPA per day) when compared to controls. This was above a minimal clinically important difference of 3.6 minutes of MVPA per day. There was substantial heterogeneity between studies (Ƭ = 7.6 minutes) that was largely explained by studies that accurately (R2 = 0.85; Ƭ = 2.9) and fully conceptualised FMS (R2 = 0.89; Ƭ = 2.5).
Following this, a case study assessment of current playground MVPA levels was completed using systematic observation methods (chapter 4). The objective was to measure the number of MVPA episodes on the playground during break-times and to identify the effect of environmental and contextual characteristics on the proportion of break-time MVPA episodes. Overall, there were low levels of MVPA observed during break-times. Areas which promoted the highest levels of MVPA on the playground were areas that promoted climbing, team sports and adventure play. There were beneficial effects of appropriate adult supervision (incidence rate ratio (RR) and 95% CI; 1.34; 1.18 to 1.53) and organisation (2.70; 1.87 to 3.91) on MVPA levels, whilst the provision of free play equipment had a negative effect on MVPA levels (0.85; 0.75 to 0.96).
Chapter 4 was followed by a socio-ecological exploration (survey), examining individual, social and environmental factors of the playground that children (5 to 11 years old) enjoyed during break-times (chapter 5). Chapter 5 highlighted subtle gender and age group differences in individual survey items. Although the chapters 4 and 5 were conducted independently, there were outcomes from chapter 5 which provided insight to children’s playground behaviours observed in chapter 4. For example, female children were observed more frequently in areas promoting social interaction in chapter 4; whilst also reporting highest levels of enjoyment for ‘talking with friends’ in chapter 5. Overall, the highest levels of self-reported enjoyment for all children were recorded at a social level (‘playing with friends’ and ‘talking with friends’). As the findings from chapter 5 are a manifestation of children’s enjoyment of the playground currently available to them, a further socio-ecological, qualitative exploration (focus groups, interviews and questionnaires) was completed in chapter 6 to identify the barriers and facilitators to a physically active break-time from the perspective of school children and school staff.
Barriers and facilitators were identified at all levels of the socio-ecological model (individual, social, environmental and policy) from child and adult (Teachers, sports coaches, playground supervisors) perspectives. Friendship and positive peer relationships (social) were again a key factor in facilitating physical activity, and deciding which play spaces to engage with during break-times. Furthermore, perceptions of physical competence (individual), enjoyment of activities (individual) and space available (environmental) were identified as reasons why children either did or did not engage with certain activities. It was concluded from chapter 6 that there was a collective lack of sustainable investment (time and monetary) in the primary school playground during break-times. Finally, a key findings from the final exploratory chapters (chapter 5 and 6) was the very different perception of the role and importance of break-times between the adults (staff) and the children (pupil) participants. Differences between the child and adult agenda and the child embodiment of adultist views acts to restrict children physical activity levels during school break-times.
The thesis concludes by presenting a proposed playground intervention (design and development) cross referenced to each of the key outcomes from the previous chapters. Practical and research implications are discussed and future directions presented with the joint aim of improving the current under-utilisation of the primary school playground for FMS development and MVPA participation.
Date of Award31 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Teesside University
SupervisorAlison Innerd (Supervisor), Liane Azevedo (Supervisor), Alan Batterham (Supervisor) & Matthew Wright (Supervisor)

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