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Movement Experiences for Children
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Brendin
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Physical Activity Accessibility in Children

Physical inactivity costs Canada over billions of dollars and consumes a significant percentage of total health care costs annually (AHKC, 2014). Physical inactivity has been strongly implicated in the increasing numbers of childhood obesity (Page, Cooper Griew & Jago, 2010). Barriers to physical activity accessibility in all children provide policy makers and program developers with critical information to make evidence-based changes.

Considering that a large percentage of children living below the poverty line may be unable to access structured extracurricular physical activities outside of school, having a quality physical education program is essential for allowing Canadian youth to meet the physical activity guidelines. 82% of parents agree that the school system should prioritize developing high quality physical education programs (AHKC, 2014). The school’s physical activity program is inadequate in reaching children’s physical activity guidelines. Physical activity is not obtained solely through children’s participation in physical education at school, but also through other contexts such as active transportation, structured organized sports, and free play (AHKC, 2014; Page et al., 2010; Tudor & Locke, Ainsworth & Popkin, 2001; Aarts, Mathijssen, van Oers & Schuit, 2013).

Children and adolescents that participate structured physical activity are more likely to meet the physical activity guidelines than non-participants (Holt et al., 2011). In addition to physical health benefits, sport participation is also associated with positive development such as increased self-esteem, goal attainment, emotional regulation, problem solving, social skills and increased academic performance (Holt et al., 2011). Recently arrived immigrant youth have also reported that greater acculturation, self-esteem and recreation participation from sport participation (Taylor & Doherty, 2005). The benefits of participation in structured physical activity are still not available to all children in developed countries.

Play is a childhood activity that contributes to cognitive, emotional, biological and social development making play one of the most important ‘works’ of childhood (Holt et al., 2015). Participation in active play has continuously been decreasing in developed countries, reflecting the low levels of physical activity of children today (Holt et al., 2015). Despite the parental concerns on the ‘erosion’ of childhood through decreased active play, parents themselves continue to serve as a barrier in restricting children’s active play involvement (Holt et al., 2015). Social and physical neighborhood environments that influence parental perceptions on safety and subsequently influence children’s active play activities.

Similarly to active play, parental restrictions and social neighborhood environments influence active transportation of children to and from school. Active transportation has been associated with increased cardiovascular fitness and healthier body composition (Page et al., 2010; Johnston & Moreno, 2012). Active transport has declined dramatically over the past 40 years and environmental and social factors may be contributing to this drop (Johnston & Moreno, 2012; Aarts et al., 2013).

Opportunities for Physical Activity

Despite Canada’s well developed policies, places and programs intended for Children and Youth to be physically active, physical activity in Canadian youth is still considerably low (AHKC, 2014).

Extracurricular Activities (Organized Sport)

Sport participation and structured physical recreation has been shown to be correlated with a variety of positive developmental factors such as improved self-esteem, problem solving, goal attainment, social skills and academic performance while also increasing physical activity levels (Holt, Kingsley, Tink & Scherer, 2011). 75% of 5- to 19-year-olds in Canada participate in organized physical activities and sport (AHKC, 2014). Extracurricular activities include organized team sports (defined as any activity that has rules and competition among players including soccer, hockey, football etc.) and structured physical recreation (defined as activities where there is not usually competition such as swimming, skating, dance etc.) (Taylor & Doherty, 2002). Canadian societal values of efficiency may be influencing parents to look for and investing in structured activities more than promoting active play with their children in order to meet the recommended physical activity requirements (AHKC, 2014). Girls have been shown to participate less than boys in structured physical activity and active play (Page et al., 2010). Ease of accessibility to facilities is a factor that influences girls’ participation (Page et al., 2010). Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviors vary widely among communities as immigrant children generally had higher physical inactivity and lower sports participation levels than nonimmigrant children (Singh, Yu, Siahpush & Kogan, 2008). A significant and ever-growing proportion of the population includes immigrant families from the People’s Republic of China, Eastern Asia, Southern Asian and South East Asia (Taylor & Doherty, 2002). Taylor & Doherty’s study identified language, familiarity and cost as constraints in recent immigrant youth’s participation in organized sport (2002).

Financial resources that are required for participation in structured extracurricular physical activity creates when engaging with children from low-income families. 79% of parents in Canada have reported to contribute financially to their children’s physical activities through purchasing equipment, and paying sports fees (AHKC, 2014). This means that 21% of Canadian families are not contributing financially to their children’s participation in structured extracurricular physical activity. According to the 2014 Child Poverty Report Card, 20.6% of British Columbia’s children aged 0-17 are living below the poverty line (FirstCall BC, 2014). A living wage of $20.15 is calculated to provide families with basic living expenses such as food, rent, transportation and childcare while leaving little financial support for children’s extracurricular physical activities (FirstCall BC, 2014). Considering that the minimum wage in British Columbia is $10.25, it is understandable why 21% of Canadian families are unable afford the structured extracurricular physical activities that are available within their communities. Financial barriers were found to be a significant factor that restricted children from low-income families for which sport participation would be most beneficial (Holt et al., 2011). The knowledge that sport for children from low-income families could dramatically reduce the health-risks faced by these children suports the importance of providing affordable sport opportunities for all families (Holt et al., 2011).

Active Play

Active play can be defined as “unstructured physical activity above the resting metabolic rate, which takes place outdoors in a child’s free time” (Brockman, Fox & Jago, 2011, p.2). It involves bursts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and is child-initiated spontaneous and voluntary activity (Holt, Lee, Millar & Spence, 2015). A variety of cognitive, physical, social and emotional benefits can be developed when children participate in unstructured play (Brockman et al., 2011; Holt et al., 2015). Cognitive, emotional, biological and social interaction skills can be developed through active play (AHKC, 2014; Brockman et al., 2011; Holt et al., 2015). Traditionally, active play was a major contributor in children’s overall physical activity whereas now only 73% of 5- to 17-year-olds participate in unorganized activities and only 67% participate in active play outdoors (AHKC, 2014; Carver et al., 2008). Boys also report a greater rate of participation in active play than girls (Brockman et al., 2011; AHKC, 2014; Page, Cooper, Griew & Jago, 2010). This sex difference may be attributed to greater independent mobility that is reported in boys and the safety issues that often result in the restriction of girls’ play (Brockman et al., 2011). Fears of molestation and assault also contribute to parents’ restrictions toward adolescent girls on venturing out alone (Carver et al., 2008). Road safety and ‘stranger danger’ are major parental concerns that might influence children’s physical activity in the neighbourhood (Carver et al., 2008; Page et al., 2010). It has been shown that parents are more likely to put their children into structured physical activities than encourage active free play outdoors as these programs are adult-supervised and perceived to be “safer” (Holt et al., 2015).

While neighborhoods with park and recreation areas were associated with greater physical activity in 9- to 12-year-olds Holt et al., have reported that solely providing available play areas is insufficient for increasing physical activity rates because local parks and outdoor spaces illicit mostly shorter visits (2015; Roemmich, Epstein, Raja, Yim, Robinson & Winiewicz, 2006). Due to the increased accessibility of electronic entertainment in homes, many children are now considered ‘indoor children’ who spend a significant amount of free play at home (Carver et al., 2008; AHKC, 2014). Parents may have a large influence on screen time and physical activity behaviors in their children since it has been shown that “children of active parents are more likely to spend their time playing outdoors or participation in unorganized activities after school compared to children of inactive parents” (p.33, AHKC, 2014; Holt et al., 2011). Family members and family friends have also served as important co-participants for immigrant youth and girls, often introducing new immigrants to sport and recreation (Taylor & Doherty, 2002). In a study examining factors that influenced childhood active free play, Holt et al. found that parental restrictions and safety concerns limited children’s involvement in active play (2015). The concept of placing eyes on where children play is used by Holt et al. to describe the sense of social and community environments that facilitate play (2015). The eroding sense of community and feeling of safety in numbers were also identified as factors that restricted active play in modern society (Holt et al., 2015).

Active Transportation

Commuting to and from school and other destinations is a potential source of moderate to vigorous activity for children and youth (AHKC, 2014; Tudor-Locke et al., 2001; Aarts et al., 2013; Page et al., 2010). Active transportation or active commuting for less than 1 kilometer a day can contribute up to 2,238 of the 60,000 required steps per day in children and youth (AHKC, 2014). Increasing use of inactive modes of transportation to and from school has resulted in only 24% of 5- to 17-year-olds walking or cycling to school (AHKC, 2014). Active transport can also include running, skateboarding and rollerblading – activities that use a nonmotorized transportation method (Johnston & Moreno, 2012). In a society dominated by motor vehicle transportation, passive transport via public transport or being chauffeured in a private vehicle has dramatically reduced the prevalence of children walking or bicycling to school (Tudor-Locke, 2001). Increased motor vehicle usage have also generated a tendency for schools to be built with attention more to vehicle routing efficiency to cater to the adult commuter rather than pedestrian safety (Tudor-Locke. 2001; Johnston & Moreno, 2012). City center neighborhoods are considered more conducive to active transportation compared to city green neighborhoods – this difference is due to proximity of facilities and discouragement of parking for cars in city centers (Aarts et al.,. 2013).

In a study exploring active commuting among Dutch primary school children, Aarts et al. noted that the perception of social safety and social cohesion is positively related to walking and bicycling to school (2013). Both physical and social neighborhood environment contributed to active commuting behaviors (Aarts et al., 2013). Social contacts were shown to be important for predicting primary school childrens’ and adolescents’ active transportation behaviors (Aarts et al., 2013). Parent’s perceptions that there were few other children in the neighborhood for their child to play with were associated with children that were less likely to actively commute to school supporting the impact of social environments on physical activity (Timperio et al., 2006). Findings which highlight the importance of fostering social neighborhood environments support the importance of initiatives such as “walking school buses” as it provides a safe option for active transportation while also providing social (Timperio et al., 2006).

Although there was no gender difference in active transportation for children at a young age, an important source of physical activity for girls currently lies in active transport as they generally participate less in structured extracurricular physical activity and active play compared to boys (Page et al, 2010; Timperio et al., 2006). For older children aged 10-12 years, boys reported cycling to school more compared to girls (Timperio et al., 2006). Independent mobility, or how often children are allowed to travel on their own or with their friends or without an adult, is positively correlated with active transportation but significant only with male children (Page et al., 2010). Urban designs that are not conductive to pedestrian environments such as busy roads, long distances to school, hilly routs, poor lightning and crossings are negatively correlated with active transportation to school as well as low independent mobility (Page et al., 2010; Timperio et al., 2006; Aarts et al., 2013).

Practical Applications (Recommendations)

A primary source of children’s physical activity is believed to come from school physical education programmers (Tudor-Locke et al., 2001). It has been shown that on average, actual participation in moderate to vigorous physical activity occurs 20% of the class which translates to only 8 minutes in a 40 minute class (Tudor-Locke et al., 2001). This evidence supports the importance of promoting and facilitating physical activity in as many contexts and through as many modes as possible. Organized extracurricular activities, active play and active transportation are areas in which children can obtain moderate to vigorous physical activity to meet the daily physical activity guidelines (AHCK, 2014).

Organized extracurricular activities like structured sports teams and recreation are often inaccessible to children of lower-income families (Holt et al., 2011). The Children’s Fitness Tax Credit that allows a non-refundable tax credit of up to $500 was made available for Canadians to encourage families to register their children into organized sports (Holt et al., 2011). The tax credit appears to be beneficial for mostly wealthier families while lower-income parents are less aware of and less likely to claim the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit (Holt et al., 2011). Subsidizing youth sport should be a priority for families, especially parents from low-income families as it could reduce the negative effects that low socioeconomic status may have on health (Holt et al., 2011). Holt et al. suggest that systemic changes should not only include funding to subsidize sport programs, but should also go towards efforts in sustaining sport involvement among children from low-income families through childhood to adulthood as it would be a long-term investment for health (2011). Involvement of sport in childhood is associated with sport involvement later in life, although it is reported to be a shift in team sports to more individual recreational activity with age (Holt et al., 2011).

Children with parents who are involved in sport and are physically active are more likely to also participate in sport and be physically active (Holt et al., 2011; AHKC, 2014). Encouraging children to adopt active lifestyles is imperative for immediate and long-term health (Holt et al., 2011). In pre-school children, play-related support through encouragement, transportation, information, emotional support and engaging in play with the child was associated with active play behaviors (Schary, Cardinal & Loprinzi, 2012). Independent mobility was related to higher frequency of play as parent’s reported increased likelihood of children playing outside if there were others around (Page et al., 2010). Independent mobility and subsequently active play in girls were positively correlated with positive perceptions of traffic safety including pollution, population density and crossing places (Page et al., 2010). Active play in girls is more dependent on the company of friends and familiarity with surroundings which creates feelings of safety and assurance (Carver et al., 2008).

Similarly to active play, social support is an important predictor and stimulant for children to actively commute to and from school (Aarts et al., 2013). Race and gender discrimination have been found to influence on male and female lifestyle options (Taylor & Dohetry, 2005). 59% of children and youth who have recently immigrated almost never participate in organized sport compared with the 42% of Canadian-born youngsters (Taylor & Dohetry, 2005, p. 212). Immigrant children identified ostracism and bullying to be barriers to participation with teachers and staff constituting as part of the problem rather than being providers of solutions (Taylor & Dohetry, 2005). Schools and community systems should incorporate cultural sensitivity training and initiatives to seek out and inform immigrant families of sport and physical activity opportunities. Sport and recreation participation has been positively correlated with acculturation, self-esteem and social support and building supportive communities is a key aspect of sport and recreation (Taylor & Dohetry, 2005).

Social initiatives in local communities should be considered as studies have shown that the relation between several social characteristics at the neighborhood level affect active transport (Aarts et al., 2013). Compared to Health People 2010, interventions such as the ‘Walking School Bus’ engages the community and supports the social neighborhood environment (Tudor et al., 2011). The ‘Walking School Bus’ program has been shown to increase children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity time (Johnston & Moreno, 2012). Active transport has the potential to make small changes in lifestyle habits and perspectives that could promote the development of habits such as “making use of naturally occurring means in the environment” (Johnston & Moreno, 2012). From a behavioral perspective, promoting active commuting, participation in structured extracurricular activities and active play in young children can establish lifelong patterns of physical activity throughout the lifespan (Tudor et al., 2001).


Aarts, M-J., Mathijssen, J.J.P., van Oers, J.A.M. & Schuit, A.J. (2013). Associations Between Environmental Characteristics and Active Commuting to School Among Children: a Cross-sectional Study. International Society of Behavioral Medicine. 20:538-555

Active Healthy Kids Canada (AHKC) (2014). Is Canada in the Running? The 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: Active Healthy Kids Canada.

Brockman, R., Fox, K.R. & Jago, R. (2011). What is the meaning and nature of active play for today’s children in the UK? International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 8(15):1-7

Carver, A., Timperio, A. & Craford, D. (2008). Playing it safe: The influence of neighbourhood safety on children’s physical activity – A review. Health & Place. 14:217-227

Holt, N.L., Kingsley, B.C., Tink, L.N., Scherer, J. (2011). Benefits and challenges associated with sport participation by children and parent from low-income families. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 12:490-499

Johnston, C.A. & Moreno, J.P. (2012). Active Commuting to School. Behavioral Medicine Review. 6(4):303-305

Page, A.S., Cooper, A.R., Griew, P. & Jago, R. (2010). Independent mobility, perceptions of the built environment and children’s participation in play, active travel and structured exercise and sport: the PEACH Project. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 7(17):1-10

Roemmich, J.N., Epstein, L.H., Raja, S., Yin, L., Robinson, J. & Winiewicz, D. (2006). Association of access to parks and recreational facilities with the physical activity of young children. Preventive Medicine. 43:437-441

Schary, D.P., Cardinal, B.J. & Loprinzi, P.D. (2012). Parental support exceeds parenting style for promoting active play in preschool children. Early Child Development and Care. 182(2): 1057-1069

Singh, G.K., Yu, S.M., Siahpush, M., Kogan, M.D. (2008). High Levels of Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviors Among US Immigrant Children and Adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 162(8):756-763

Taylor, T. & Doherty, A. (2002). Adolescent sport, recreation and physical education: experiences of recent arrivals to Canada. Sport, Education and Society. 10(2):211-238

Timperio, A., Ball, K., Salmon, J., Roberts R., Giles-Corti, M., Simmons, D., Baur, L.A. & Crawford, D. (2006). Personal, Family, Social and Envrionmental Correlated of Active Commuting to School. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 30(1):45-51

Tudor-Locke, C., Ainsworth, B.E. & Popkin, B.M. (2001). Active Commuting to School: An Overlooked Source of Childrens’ Physical Activity? Sports Med. 31(5):309-313