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According to the Welsh National Curriculum (Department for Children, 2008), children throughout compulsory education should be engaging in a wide range of physical activities, the recommendation of which is for at least an hour a day (NHS, 2017). These activities should not only promote exercise, but also build understanding of the effects these actions have on the individuals’ bodies and minds. In the build up to the 2012 Olympics, held in the United Kingdom, an even heavier importance was laid upon the shoulders of British children to be active (TNS BMRB, 2012), and to “Inspire a Generation” (Coe, 2012).

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The purpose of this two-part paper is to review and analyse the study of Tony Macfadyen, a senior Lecturer at Reading University, and his co-author, Dr Suzanne Everley, a Senior Lecturer in the Physical Education Department of Chichester University (2017).  “‘I Like Playing on my Trampoline; it Makes Me Feel Alive.’ Valuing Physical Activity: Perceptions and Meanings for Children and Implications for Primary Schools” was prompted by the statistics published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE, 2014), which stated 30% of primary school children were over the recommended weight for their age groups.

It is worth mentioning, however, that despite the findings and recommendations made in the NICE documents, the National Health Service reported 1 in 5 Reception children alone were in the higher weight percentiles in 2016 (NHS, 2017).

The Study

Macfadyen and Eversley’s’ study looked at reasons children might want to get involved in physical activity, and what they defined as such. They theorised that, in accordance with a previous study carried out by Bristol University Professor Russ Jago, (2009) children and young people participate less and less in Physical Activity as they get older. Macfadyen and Everley thought this was because those in power had little idea of what motivated children to be active, and what they enjoyed doing. The researchers went out into two schools in the South of England, which were measured as being very involved in the health and wellbeing of their students (Ofsted, 2013). Within these schools, children across years two, four and five were selected to take part in the interview process. The children were asked to draw pictures of themselves taking part in a physical activity and told in advance that they would be explaining their pictures at a later date. Forewarning the participants that they would be given time to talk about their drawings was suggested by a previous study by Rose, Richard and Burkitt (2006), who found that younger children put more effort and attention into pictures they knew would be seen by, and discussed with, an adult.

The use of drawing is regarded as successful when attempting to communicate with children, such as within this study. In the world of Art Therapy, a child’s drawing is their way of expressing what they might not be able to find the words for, or what they may be unwilling to talk about (Malchiodi, 2016). In the case of this study, the children’s drawings could be analysed to gather a basic understanding of their attitudes towards Physical Activity. The face to face interviews carried out with the children a couple of days later ensure that a bias from the researcher is minimised, ensuring a more accurate collection of data. This style of interview also means that the interaction of the child can be taken into account, which was used by the researchers as a form of consent.

Results and Findings

Everley and Macfadyen’s findings were separated into two categories. Breaking the data down into location and type of activity helped to pinpoint the most popular activities and where the child was most likely to partake in it. As the researchers suspected, the majority of children, 35%, drew themselves in school, with home being the second most popular at 31%. However, further breakdown of activities within the school setting revealed results described as ‘disappointing’. Not a single child interviewed described themselves as being physically active during a Physical Education (PE) lesson. Macfadyen states that, considering the resources funnelled into PE lessons and extracurricular clubs, this is an area that needs addressing. He cites Harris (2005) as saying that children need to enjoy the experience of PA to fully benefit from it. The findings of this study certainly support that theory, as the children drew pictures that showed themselves taking part in activities that made them feel confident, or as the title suggests, ‘alive’. Over half of the boys drew themselves playing games that needed a team, with the majority clearly being football. This led to discussions of cultural and social standing, which will be addressed later in this essay.

Though these results certainly answer the researchers’ questions of motivations and perceptions, these results cannot be generalised. The sample size is very limited, only eighty-three children took part across the two schools, with a 66% male majority. In regard to the schools themselves, the groups were lacking in diversity. Both settings were in mostly Caucasian, town based areas, implying that there were commodities within reach that may not be to children in a more rural setting. This is evidenced by some of the children’s activities, one boy drew himself at his local boxing club, and several girls were part of gymnastic squads. The affluence of the school districts is not referred to, so no assumptions have been made on that count. 

The presentation of the findings could be considered misleading, as the initial tables and percentages draw away from the overall Qualitative methodology of the study. Copies of the children’s drawings are included, along with quotes from the accompanying interviews, which are used to support the theories and findings of the researchers.

Bourdieu and Social Capital

An overwhelming theme throughout the findings of this study is that of Physical Activity being used as a way to nurture and distribute Social Capital. One understanding of the concept of Capital is its use in the procurement and maintenance of social relationships with people “just like us” (Bourdieu, 2002). Heavily influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx, Bourdieu believed that without the common habits within social structure, society would cease to function. In regard to the topic at hand, social capital is gathered by showing willingness and competence to take part in a ‘culturally desirable activity’, such as ‘Lisa’, whose aptitude at gymnastics won her the position of demonstrating the routines being taught in PE lessons (pg. 168). Outside of class, children such as ‘Damon’ and ‘Craig’ were granted positions of power within the playground hierarchies because they were considered the best football players. Similarly, a lack of ability can result in exclusion and ridicule, as in the cases of ‘Simon’ and ‘Douglas’. ‘Simon’ explains in his interview that the fast pace of football overwhelms him, which means he often ‘gets it wrong’ (pg. 169).

Analysis

This paper is very abnormal in that its concluding findings appear to be on a different subject to its initial aim. There is not a defined hypothesis, as one would expect from a research paper, or even a null hypothesis to be disproved. The authors begin by wanting to explore children’s perceptions and definitions of Physical Activity, but once they pick up the theme of activity as a societal concept, the aim shifts to a deeper exploration of Bourdieu’s Social Capital Model. Whereas this is a very interesting train of thought to follow, it seems to have little relevance to enjoyment of being physical and childhood obesity, as the research originally centred around. 

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