Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Health Sciences


Background: The number of overweight and obese children in Australia is a major public health concern (Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Preventative Health National Research Flagship and the University of South Australia 2007). Despite efforts to address childhood obesity issues at an individual level, children’s obesity levels are high and physical activity levels are decreasing (Salmon and Timperio 2007). In 2002, a ministerial round table of the World Health Organisation emphasised a need to create ‘enabling environments’ for children’s physical activity in institutions such as schools. However, pressure to meet academic targets in the school curriculum often results in constrained timetabling of physical education classes, thereby limiting the amount of daily physical activity undertaken by children during the school day. Access to school playgrounds at recess and lunchtime provides an alternative environment to increase children’s physical activity levels. Currently, such opportunities appear to be underutilised (Ernst 2003).

This research aimed to establish whether there were differences between playground physical activity levels of primary aged children in a convenience sample of 13 public primary schools (7 lower socioeconomic status (SES) and 6 average SES), with the purpose of comparing low and highly active schools to identify environmental, policy and psychosocial correlates that influence children’s playground physical activity levels.

Method: The Children’s Activity Scanning Tool (CAST2) observational instrument was used to collect physical activity and environmental data (Zask, van Beurden et al. 2001). Each school was audited for additional physical environmental variables such as: fixed and nonfixed equipment, area of shade and playground size and surface type. Questionnaires were distributed to consenting students, teachers and principals; the items addressed school policy and psychosocial variables. A picture questionnaire instrument was developed to assess the playground physical activity preferences of young children. In addition, consenting students, teachers and principals were interviewed at the three least and the three most active schools in terms of student activity levels. Data from this study was analysed using multiple logistic regression, odds ratios, Spearman’s correlations, t-tests, non-parametric tests and qualitative data analysis.

Results: A significant difference was found between the proportions of active children at 13 schools involved in the study, supporting the need to examine school environment variables to ascertain reasons for variability in children’s playground physical activity levels. There was an association between activity and length of break time, indicating that restricted break times may limit one of the few outdoor opportunities available for children to be active. Children were significantly more active in unshaded areas, when non-fixed equipment and ground targets were present and on soft playground surfaces; their activity was affected by the weather. Males were more active than females. No significant differences were found between low and average socioeconomic groups. Children’s activity preferences were significantly affected by psychosocial variables, such as fear of ‘being bullied’. The results indicated that bullying had a considerable impact on children’s playground physical activity levels, and may also affect children with poor fundamental movement skills. Teachers believed the presence of non-fixed equipment during break times created a more cohesive playground environment by preventing boredom and bullying. In addition, children’s playground physical activity level was influenced by school policies; small changes to policy could potentially have marked effects on children’s playground activity levels.

Conclusion: There were several physical environmental variables which affected children’s playground physical activity levels. The findings indicate that there were discrepancies between the activity levels of male and female children, which warrant further investigation. Notably, this study found no significant difference between the effects of lower or average SES school status on children’s playground activity levels. Importantly the mixed methods used in this study provided a unique insight into policy and psychosocial determinants affecting children’s school playground physical activity which had not been investigated previously. For example policies which influenced children’s playground physical activity included: policies governing the length of active break time, ‘no hat no play’ and access to non-fixed equipment. Psychosocial factors which influenced children’s playground physical activity included a ‘fear of being bullied’ and ‘being too shy to play’. These findings raise the notion that changes to the physical playground environment may be ineffective, if psychosocial and policy variables are not considered. Future research should investigate physical, policy and psychosocial barriers affecting children’s school playground physical activity levels.