How ‘active’ is physical activity for children?

Henry Dorling


With physical activity being claimed more frequently as the way to ‘cure’ children of sedentary ‘diseases’ in society, how difficult is to address this at the grass roots, where it really matters?

There is plenty of information out there that relates to the problem we have in this country with inactivity and it is of particular concern in children. Studies have concluded that non communicable diseases can be attributed to inactivity and that the issue is becoming more and more prevalent, particularly in young people. There is a clear need for a more active culture to be encouraged in society which may go some way to address the issues. UKactive have recently published a ‘blueprint’ to make the nation more active, Sport England published ‘Towards an Active Nation’ and the Government have written a new ‘Sporting Future’ strategy but how easy is it to implement this kind of policy at the grassroots, where it really matters and makes a difference? If it is young people who need to be targeted with this policy then school based interventions, helping to increase physical activity and an awareness of the benefits, should be encouraged and supported. Pupils in a school setting are a captive audience and spend the majority of their time in this environment and so it would make sense to use this time to benefit their health and well-being. In addition some studies have shown the benefits of increased activity and movement to their academic attainment and learning, so it would seem to make clear sense to combine physically active and movement based lessons and activities within the school curriculum to benefit them in many different ways. However, my experience of most primary schools is a sedentary learning culture, a ‘table-centric’ approach to learning. Yes there is PE (but less than there used to be) and yes they go outside at break times, however there is much less, indeed in some cases a total lack, of integrated physical activity and learning happening within schools. Why is this the case if schools are arguably the best environment for things like this to work? There are many obvious reasons but there seems to be an issue with the opportunity for children to access more physically active and movement based learning in what is already a convoluted and test-focussed curriculum. Indeed in 2012 the Conservative Government announced more testing of 7 year olds in the curriculum and as recently as this month (February 2018) announced further testing of pupils’ times tables, all of which will hardly allow teachers and pupils the perceived time and resources needed for a more physically active curriculum. Although primary schools are enthused by more physical activity based interventions and programmes and are keen to be part of them, they seem less likely to be able to fully embrace those opportunities to their full potential due to how fixed their cultural ideals are or by how restricted the Government has made things for them.


If we are to really make a difference and change the inactivity culture, we all need to buy in to it and in particular in a school setting, they need to be given the freedom to try things, to understand what works and make it part of everyday school life. They should not focus on core academic subjects and leave no room for anything creative, in fact it should be the opposite; make more room for creativity in the form of movement and innovative physically active lessons which incorporates the academic subject matter, not separately but embedded as one. Many schools reduce the amount of physical activity in their curriculum and replace this with extra core curriculum subjects, however it seems clear that more physical activity in the classroom will reap many clear and tangible benefits. At Solent University a programme called EduMove (Education through Movement) attempts to bridge the gap between policy and practice by using innovative cross curricular methods to embed a physically active teaching and learning culture within primary schools. This programme is reaching out to many schools in order to offer Teachers and Senior Leaders a framework to more easily implement and embed the opportunities and methods they so desperately know work, but are unable to find the time or resources to deliver.

Unused PE equipment ©Sportexamined

Policies and new ways of thinking about the value of physical activity such as the Sport England and Government strategies are a great starting point and set out many clear and relevant policy recommendations around physical activity, but what is does not do like many policy documents, is look at how realistic these are to implement, and how it sits alongside other related policy. For example, along with the call for an increase in a whole school approach to physical activity perhaps it should also recommend less testing in schools, more focus on integrated models of teaching and learning, more training of teachers in physical activity delivery, more funding, less focus on Ofsted, less red tape, and more time for Teachers and practitioners to get children inspired with movement and physical activity and an understanding of the benefits it brings, as opposed to spending half their week on admin, planning and tests. We are one step forward to embedding physical activity within society with these recent policy documents along with other relevant recommendations such as the British Heart Foundation’s document on physical activity for children and young people or the Government’s Change4 Life evidence review however we will be taking a number of steps back if it is all too difficult and unrealistic to implement programmes such as this in schools and communities where it really matters and can make a real difference. If it doesn’t happen then are we simply seeing policy rhetoric that will fall flat due to a lack of understanding about how to implement? Perhaps the Government and others need some physically active learning strategies of their own…..

Henry Dorling


Links to documents and websites

NCD and inactivity study


Childhood inactivity


UKActive blueprint for an active britain


Sport England Towards and Active Nation


Sporting Future strategy


BBC news article on study linking academic performance and physical activity


Link to Nicky Morgan reference


Times tables tests


Link to Government report on what works in schools and colleges

Click to access What_works_in_schools_and_colleges_to_increas_physical_activity.pdf


clear and tangible benefits


Southampton Solent University


BHF Physical activity for children and young people

Change4 Life Evidence review

Click to access Change4Life_Evidence_review_26062015.pdf

Academic References

Stierlin et al. (2015) A systematic review of determinants of sedentary behaviour in youth: a DEDIPAC study International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 12:133


Haapala EA, Poikkeus A-M, Kukkonen-Harjula K, Tompuri T, Lintu N, et al. (2014) Associations of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior with Academic Skills – A Follow-Up Study among Primary School Children. PLoS ONE 9(9): e107031. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107031


Howie, Erin K. and Pate, Russell R. (2012) Physical activity and academic achievement in children: A historical perspective; Journal of Sport and Health Science 1 (2012) 160-169 Elsevier


Catherine N. Rasberry , Sarah M. Lee , Leah Robin , B.A. Laris, Lisa A. Russell, Karin K. Coyle, Allison J. Nihiser (2011) The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: A systematic review of the literature Journal of Preventive Medicine 52 (2011) S10–S20 Elsevier


Jaimie McMullen Pamela Kulinna Donetta Cothran (2014) Physical Activity Opportunities During the School Day: Classroom Teachers’ Perceptions of Using Activity Breaks in the Classroom; Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 2014, 33, 511-527 Human Kinetics


Lee, I.-M., Shiroma, E. J., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blair, S. N., & Katzmarzyk, P. T. (2012). Impact of Physical Inactivity on the World’s Major Non-Communicable Diseases. Lancet, 380(9838), 219–229.

Farooq MA, Parkinson KN, Adamson AJ, et al Timing of the decline in physical activity in childhood and adolescence: Gateshead Millennium Cohort Study Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 13 March 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096933


Bartholomew, John B.; Jowers, Esbelle M.; Roberts, Gregory; Fall, Anna-Mária; Errisuriz, Vanessa L.; Vaughn, Sharon; Active Learning Increases Children’s Physical Activity across Demographic Subgroups; Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine: January 1, 2018 – Volume 3 – Issue 1 – p 1–9


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