Children don't understand physical activity and health messages

Parents who want their children to be fit and active should be encouraging them to go out and play rather than telling them to exercise, a study of more than 200 children aged 4-12 years shows.

The researchers found that advertising campaigns using words such as ‘physical activity’ and ‘exercise’ to encourage young people to be active would have little meaning for them. Children do not have an interest in or understanding of the health benefits of physical activity, according to researcher Professor Wendy Schiller from the University of South Australia.

The South Australia Department of Human Services commissioned the research following concerns about the increasing levels of obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity in children.

“Our aim was to gain a deeper understanding of children’s ideas about physical activity, exercise, fitness, sport and play by determining the words and images that children associate with these activities,” Professor Schiller said.

“What came through very strongly in the study was that physical activity was an adult concept and most children only identified with play. It was the one activity that they thought they had ownership of, and had freedom in.”

The director of UniSA’s de Lissa Institute of Early Childhood and Family Studies, Professor Schiller is one of three key researchers in a multidisciplinary team that includes Dr Colin MacDougall from the School of Medicine at Flinders University and Professor Philip Darbyshire from the Department of Nursing and Midwifery at the Women and Children’s Hospital.

“What is different about this study is that, rather than have adults make decisions on behalf of children, we arranged to have the children’s voices heard by involving them in the research process,” Professor Schiller said.

Children from city and country schools were interviewed in groups, drew activity maps, and took photographs of activities - giving verbal, visual and expressive responses.

“What we discovered during our research was not to mix play and sport. Play is kids led, where children make, change and modify the rules and do what they want to do. Sport is adult led with rules that don’t change,” Dr MacDougall said.

“Sport was seen as being only for extremely talented children who had parental backing to drive them to sporting venues, and attend coaching clinics and auditions. That was a real surprise!” Dr MacDougall said.

“Other negatives for sport included very bad press about bullying, put downs and gender issues, with girls indicating that boys ganged up on them. The fear of injury was also a concern, with about eight per cent of children saying that injury was a barrier to playing sport. This fear may stem from images of players being injured during sport. Having to rely on transportation was another barrier highlighted in the drawings, which showed sporting venues situated at the end of long roads.

“When children play sports such as basketball under their own rules, it is classed as play. They modify rules so that younger children and those who are less fit can join in and feel OK about playing.

“Children spend a lot time discussing what they are going to do. They learn decision making, to question, and how to work in groups at school. Our view is that this translates directly over to what they do when playing, with some spending all of their time making the rules.

“This is where we see the gender differences because girls are more likely to go for consensus while the boys talk about rules. One boy will decide on an activity and the other boys either follow or splinter off to do something else. Girls, in most instances, will vote and the majority rules, but if there is a split vote of, say, 6/4, they will try a third alternative so that the four children who lost out won’t be disappointed,” Dr MacDougall said.

“We were amazed at their democratic approach and the complex processes involved. When we stop to think about it, none of these things happen in sport so there are clear differences between play and sport,” Professor Schiller said.

While adults often blamed television and computers for childhood obesity and inactivity, Professor Schiller said one of the strong messages that children wanted to send to adults was that it’s not a question of TV and computers or sport and active play, but that they can do both.

Children said they often get ideas from television that they then go out and try and can videotape programs to watch later if they decide to play. They also said that they wanted adults to spend a lot more time with them and to be physically active with them.

The ‘be active’ children’s media campaign to promote physical activity reflects the input of the children in the study. Its centre piece, a television commercial, starts with computer game that changes to show real children playing and making up rules while leaving out any mention of sport.

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