Examining children’s physical activity engagement
Curriculum, Expert Contributors, Physical Education

Examining children’s physical activity engagement in early primary education

Dr Cameron Van Der Smee discusses a school's role in addressing declining physical activity levels in primary school children.

Dr Cameron Van Der Smee, Lecturer in Health and Physical Education at Federation University, discusses a school’s role in addressing declining physical activity levels in primary school children.

There has been an increasing focus on the under-achievement of children engaging in sufficient physical activity (PA). According to health guidelines, children need to reach approximately 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day to be deemed sufficiently active.

Much of this daily activity is meant to occur within the school, with the playground and PE space operating as key sites in achieving this goal. Unfortunately, current data from the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing shows that by the age of 10 (year five/six) only 15% of Australian children meet the MVPA achievement standard. This finding resonates with the recurring concerns voiced by educators, health practitioners and parents about a decrease in PA levels.

So, what role does the school really play in this process? A range of research has shown that students bring a wide range of physical activity experiences to the school, however, there is little doubt that something happens between the ages of 5 and 13 that corresponds to a drop in the average amount of PA at school. Unfortunately, in recent studies we have found that rather than positively influencing physical activity levels the school plays a role in narrowing children’s physical activity engagement over time. Accordingly, as children progress through primary school, many start to feel disconnected from PE and many choose not to engage in PA on the playground, during recess and lunch. This trend is not irreversible but will take some examination of what is happening in these spaces in the early years.

The PE class is a weekly space where children engage in structured physical activity lessons. Primary PE is typically delivered by a PE specialist (four-year HPE qualified) or a generalist teacher, who teaches all the subjects, depending on the resources and budgetary freedoms of the school. Either way, there is often an overwhelming focus on sport. Early PE is often perceived as a period of ‘pre-sport’, where children are expected to learn the skills for sporting participation in the latter years. This emphasis on sport is often translated to a focus on several sporting focused object- control skills, such as throwing, catching, bouncing, kicking, and striking. These skills are typically taught through small-sided games and individual practice. Ultimately, the focus on sport, particularly competitive team sport, in early primary PE privileges those students who bring sporting experience into the school, while not acknowledging the previous experiences of other students and making it harder for them to succeed within class. This creates an environment where children with sporting experience continue to develop, while students with differing PA experience often struggle to learn and master these skills. This process continues onto the playground.

The school playground is a space where children are provided a good deal of freedom to engage in a wide range of physical activities. Within Australia, most of the space on primary school playgrounds is designated to large, open spaces for sports and organised games. These spaces typically provide the opportunity to engage in a variety of competitive team sports, such as footy (Aussie rules), soccer, basketball, and cricket. Typically, other spaces on the playground are much smaller but provide the opportunity to engage in a range of other activities. Again, this emphasis on sport privileges the experiences and interests of those students with previous sport experience. Accordingly, these students tend to dominate these sporting spaces, choosing who can play and in what capacity. For the other students, they have multiple spaces in which to engage in their chosen physical activities, but these areas are much smaller and overpopulated by students trying to engage in a range of different activities. So, the emphasis on sport on the playground gives the sporty kids access to larger spaces, which they dominate, providing the opportunity to further excel at their chosen sport, which provides further chances to excel and succeed in PE classes. As a result, the gap between ability levels in PE continues to increase.

How do we address this problem? Firstly, if we want to address the declining levels of PA as children age, then we must address children’s engagement with physical activity in the early years. To achieve this, we must introduce a more democratic approach to early primary PE that provides the opportunity to enhance the interests and meet the needs of all students. This approach should explicitly acknowledge the diversity of experiences that children bring to early primary and take this diversity into account when planning the curriculum. This must be accompanied by changes to primary playgrounds to recognise and support a wider range of PA and play opportunities. This will allow all children to build stronger relationships with PA and develop their interests along a wider range of trajectories.

Dr Cameron Van der Smee is a lecturer of Health and Physical Education in the Institute of Education, Arts and Community at Federation University. Cameron has worked in education for the last 10+ years. Cameron completed his undergraduate degree in Physical Education in 2009 and then worked for five years as a classroom/PE teacher in the United States. He recently finished his PhD and continues to use his research to inform his teaching practice, and vice- versa. His areas of interest include early primary HPE, the playground and physical activity engagement. Cameron has been teaching at the tertiary level since 2016.

This article was first published in Education Matters Primary Magazine, September 2022. To read the issue download it here. 


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