Behavioral Influences

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Behavioral Influences to Young Children's Physical Activity


Physical activity is a pre-requisite for optimal growth and development in children and is associated with a range of health benefits . Therefore physical activity is one of the modifiable behaviour associated with childhood obesity and the development of chronic health problems. Parents and preschool staff shape behaviour habits in young children; therefore they are appropriate actors for assessment of children's behaviours.


The aims of this activity are to explore the attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding of parents and carers of preschool-age children in relation to physical activity and to identify influences upon these behaviours.


An approved study identified the influences of surrounding environments upon young children behaviours. The study (Nov 2006-Dec2007) involved a focus group study with parents and carers of the target population. A purposive sample of 39 participants (22 parents, 17 carers) participated in 9 focus groups. Participants were drawn from three populations of interest: those from lower socioeconomic status, and Middle-Eastern and Chinese communities in the Sydney (Australia) metropolitan region.

The flexible sessions were semi-structured, commencing with a series of open-ended questions which were designed to stimulate discussion about physical activity in young children. The major topic areas included the nature, value, and patterns of physical activity in young children, facilitators and barriers to physical activity.

Are community environment engaging for young children?

According to the socioecological model described by McLeroy (Fig 1) factors which influence adult health behaviours occur within a multi-layered context, starting from within the individual to the broader social, community and organizational environments. At each level there may be facilitators and/or barriers to healthy behaviours that work in a synergistic fashion. Similar levels of influence have been reported in relation to children's physical activity.


The study analyzed that smooth neighboring environment facilitates children physical activities. The facilitators of physical activity included a child's preference for activity, positive parental modelling, sibling and/or peer modelling, access to safe play areas, organised activities and preschool or day care programs and a sense of social connectedness. The participants recognised that children have different personality traits and that some children are more inclined to be active than others. Parents also considered that children in the preschool-age group generally had an inherent tendency to be active compared with older children.

Preschool staff suggested that personality was only one driver of a child's physical activity and that the social and physical environments played a key role which encouraged physical activity independent of the child's personality traits. 'Scaffolding' was used to promote activity which included (a) creating play environments that built upon an individual child's interests to extend their activity behaviour, (b) adult modelling and encouragement and (c) peer behaviour.

"It's your environment ... that you have set up. Materials, joining in with them, helping them ... help them to make social links, scaffolding. We always talk about 'scaffolding' play in childhood now ... the adult becomes the playmate to help a child to become involved and participate ... I think it goes with the set up too, have the things available and ready to go. The yard looks inviting and interesting ... safe. The inspiration for the children to be involved comes from what they see. When they see something that looks really interesting then they just naturally want to do it ... (and) where you position yourself... staff and adults are inviting to children as well. So, positioning the staff also encourages the children to be involved in those particular activities." (Preschool staff member)
Are there factors that inhibit children's play or other activities that are important to development?

Several factors can inhibit young children's development and well being. However the study identified barriers to physical activity include parental safety concerns exacerbated by negative media stories, time restraints, financial constraints (in the low SES group), cultural values favouring educational achievement (in the Middle-Eastern group), and among preschool staff, safety regulations about equipment design and use within the preschool environment.

In the study majority of parents were concerned about their child's safety (81%) at both a personal and community level. Many parents acknowledged a fear of allowing their children to engage in activities that tested the child's physical limits (e.g., when using playground equipment) for fear of the child sustaining injury.

Preschool staff also noted a negative impact of overprotective behaviour in parents, as exemplified in the comment below:

Sometimes parents of young children might be very protective and they might not let them venture and try out those things out ... and they (the children) are like 'I don't want to do it; I don't want to hurt myself.' (Preschool staff member)

Parents of Chinese ethnicity expressed the belief that being overprotective was a cultural trait. These participants explained that they had made conscious effort to counteract this attitude because of (a) the recognition of the importance of physical activity and (b) the value of setting positive habits early in a child's life (Parent, SE Asian Group)

Adult perceptions of environment enhances or restricts children's opportunity

Adult perceptions enhance opportunities: In the study the parents emphasised on the importance of parental modelling and/or encouragement of physical activity being a key influence of physical activity.

"I think that it all comes back down to the parents because if they let them sit there and do nothing, well of course they're just going to sit there and do nothing. ... I am an outside person and so is my husband ... we're not telly people. So I guess that that sort of has rubbed off on my kids." (Parent, low SES group)

Additionally parents also believe that active siblings, a sense of social connectedness (i.e., extended family networks, neighbourhood communities), access to safe play areas and involvement in preschool or day care programs, were other positive influences on physical activity behaviour.

Another factor identified by preschool staff catering for Middle-Eastern communities was the potential for both cultural and language barriers to exacerbate a perceived lack of appreciation of the importance of physical activity, which was seen as indifference towards the need for physical activity.

" ... we have a lot of mothers that drop off their kids early in the morning ... and they pick them up late ... they go on to coffee with their friends, do shopping, clean their house, cook for their husbands ... the minority of parents want to be involved or want to know what is happening with their children but the majority don't care ... there is a language barrier for some ... so I think (the) language barrier plays a big role ... for parents being withdrawn out of their children's lives." (Preschool staff member)

Adult perceptions restrict opportunities: Similarly adult perceptions also restrict children's opportunities, which include excessive road traffic near residential areas or public parks was a significant neighbourhood safety concern of most participants. As a consequence many parents restricted outdoor play for their children to backyard areas. When or whether to allow their children (when older) to walk around their local neighbourhood or to allow them to walk to school was a future concern expressed by several parents. Parents and staff acknowledged that walking was a healthy activity but the perceived threat of injury was a barrier to active transport.

Lesson Learnt

I learnt from this activity firstly, parental attitudes and behaviours frequently reflect broader cultural issues and beliefs which may give rise to competing agendas, for example a focus upon education at the expense of participation in physical activity. Therefore, there is a need of educating families and carers about the importance of creative, free play to reinforce the child's inherent nature to be active.

Secondly to take initiatives to develop social connectedness in order to create safe play environments for children.