Responsibility for children's physical activity

Cox, Keri-Michele
Schofield, Grant
Dickson, Geoff
Kolt, Gregory
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

As a consequence of the potential individual and social benefit associated with children being physically active, many large scale physical activity campaigns have been developed and implemented with the purpose of increasing children’s physical activity. By nature of the wording of the key messages in many of these campaigns, an underlying notion of personal responsibility is implied in changing physical activity behaviour. However, despite responsibility being the predominent message also in wider health campaigns, there is little research on what constitutes responsible behaviour in relation to children’s physical activity. Furthermore, research suggests that a lack of clarity exists as to who exactly is responsible for children’s physical activity, in both in- and out-of-school environments. The overall aim of this thesis was therefore to explore the perception and attributions of responsibility for children’s physical activity in key influencers over children’s physical activity behaviour. Three studies were conducted to achieve this aim: a prelimary quantitative study investigating in- and out-of-school pedometer steps in primary school-aged-children, followed by a descriptive qualitative study investigating children’s, parents’, and teachers’ perceptions and attributions of responsibility for children’s physical activity, and lastly a further descriptive qualitative study with leaders of National Football Associations (NFAs) exploring the position of their organisations in relation to responsibility for children’s physical activity.

The preliminary study provided the first pedometer-based measures of primary school-aged children in New Zealand. Yamax Digiwalker SW-200 pedometers were worn over a three-day period by a sample of 91 Auckland-based children aged between 5-11 years to record school-based and out-of-school steps. Mean daily steps for the overall sample were 14,333. Mean daily steps for boys (15,606) and girls (13,031) were similar to other studies in New Zealand (Duncan, Schofield, & Duncan, 2006), with the former group’s steps being signficantly higher than the latter. With the exception of Year 5 boys, mean steps were higher with increasing school year for both boys and girls. Most notably however, steps taken out-of-school made up the highest proportion of daily steps (52.4%), with the most active third of the sample completing significantly more steps out-of-school (57.1%) than their least active counterparts (46.8%). There was no significant difference between the most and least active groups in their steps taken during school hours, suggesting that physical activity undertaken in after-school hours is a key contributor to children’s overall physical activity levels.

With the finding in the first study highlighting the importance of key influences over children’s physical activity behaviour in the out-of-school environment, parents along with teachers and children were included in the first main study of the thesis examining their perspectives on the meaning of responsibility in children’s physical activity. Eight focus groups, comprising children aged 11-12 years (four groups; n=32), their parents (two groups; n=13), and teachers (two groups; n=15) from two upper primary (intermediate) schools in Auckland, New Zealand were conducted, with ensuing transcripts being analysed thereafter using thematic induction methodology. The first reported analysis of this data revealed a number of commonly identified behaviours indicative of personal, parental, and third party responsibility for children’s physical activity. These behaviours formed natural groups with common themes that were mostly not affected by socio-economic status or gender, and often linked to established correlates of children’s physical activity such as healthy diet, access to facilities/programmes/equipment, fewer perceived barriers, intention to be active, support from others including parents, and use of active transport. One key area where there was disagreement between the socio-economic groups was in the importance placed on parents being good role models – an area where research is also indeterminate. Low decile children were less likely to refer to importance of their parents being physically active, which combined with low decile parents frequently mentioning the sacrifices they must make to ensure their children are physically active and their reluctance to encourage children into activities they could not provide logistic and financial support for, it may mean that children recognise this parental dilemma and instead place more importance on parents prioritising their children’s physical activity needs.

After determining that responsibility is indeed a concept that can be related to children’s physical activity, the second interpretation of the first main study of the thesis explored the attribution of responsibility by the parental, child, and teacher groups. The results highlighted that children and their parents attribute primary responsibility internally for the physical activity behaviour of children, while teachers see this more as a shared responsibility with parents. All groups readily accepted that they play a part in ensuring children are physically active, with the Government being seen as a key determinant in whether their respective responsibilities could be fulfilled. Given their potential to help impact on children’s physical activity levels in the after-school period, National Sports Organisations (NSOs) were surprisingly rarely attributed responsibility for children’s physical activity. This finding in particular was significant in light of the New Zealand Government’s recent policy leaning towards more direct support of schools and organisations within the community (such as NSOs) which provide children with access to opportunities for physical activity and sport.

Given the proposal of the Government to work more closely with NSOs in order to get children more physically active, the second major study of the thesis was also timely in that it explored the position of National Football Associations (NFAs), as organisations which could significantly impact on the after-school activity levels of children due to their reach and low barriers to accessibility, in taking responsibility for children’s physical activity. Using the framework provided by institutional theory, this study aimed to develop greater insight into the current norms, beliefs, values and underlying sources of resistance that impact on football organisations increasing their involvement in the physical activity agenda. Thematic induction methodology was used to analyse transcripts from semi-structured interviews with key decision makers in eight NFAs from around the world. The findings suggested that while the awareness of the importance of engaging in initiatives related to children’s physical activity is growing, there are significant institutional barriers preventing strong NFA involvement in this area – the main one being the focus on elite versus grassroots football as a result of the perception of a legitimate NFA being one that is highly successful through the internationally credible performance of its national teams. Such findings will be helpful in the design of strategies for ensuring maximal uptake and benefit of support provided to NSOs by government entities for increasing children’s physical activity levels.

Taking into account the main limitation of this study relating to the sample size and representation in each of the three constituent studies, the results presented in this thesis highlighted the important concept of shared responsibility, that is, all agents who have a role in ensuring children are physically active accepting and meeting their respective responsibilities, particularly in the out-of-school environment which was identified in this study as critical for the overall physical activity levels of children. This study identified the individuals and organisations deemed responsible for ensuring children are physically active and the types of behaviour that are considered responsible for each of the key stakeholders accordingly. The findings also highlighted that while all of these groups are willing to accept responsibility for the physical activity behaviour of children under their care, the Government was seen as having a critical enabling role for schools and parents, in turn reinforcing the importance of providing more direct support to schools, sporting and community organisations that offer opportunities for children to engage in physical activity behaviour.

This thesis also offered an explanation of the potential barriers that may exist for sporting organisations (NFAs in this case) potentially working alongside government agencies and community organisations to raise the physical activity levels of children. For football organisations, a strong institutional norm that equates legitimacy with successful national teams helps to preserve the focus on elite football and hinders a wider and increased uptake of programmes and intiatives that could potentially assist in the achievement of organisational goals and also in substantially increasing the physical activity levels of children.

In closing, the scope of this thesis was therefore vast, utilising both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, different conceptual frameworks, and participant groups ranging from New Zealand children aged 5-13 years to key decision makers in the biggest NFAs in the world. As well as its practical application to the new sport and physical activity policy environment in New Zealand, this research offers a new contribution to the body of literature in both physical activity and sport. The application of institutional theory to physical activity and general health behaviours is new, and based on the clear findings in this study, very appropriate for use in the future. Additionally, although corporate social responsibility has been a widely investigated topic in football and sport in general, the specific exploration of NFA responsibility for children’s physical activity is also a new application and provides more understanding for both NFA and those agencies such as government entities looking to partner with them to increase children’s physical activity levels on potential issues that they may face in doing so.

Physical activity , Children , Responsibility , Football , Pedometers
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