Wellbeing improves when kids get moving with iPLAY

Young children’s wellbeing and mental health may be boosted by changing school culture to increase the amount of physical activity at school, new research has found.

The study, published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, showed the positive effects of iPLAY – an online physical activity intervention training program that schedules movement breaks to boost energy levels and help children combat potentially life-threatening diseases.

Researchers found iPLAY could be successfully scaled up using a combination of face-to-face and online learning to reach more than 1300 teachers and 30,000 NSW state primary school students in 115 schools.

Developed by the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education and the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, iPLAY encourages teachers to engage students in 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

This includes high-quality physical education and school sport, and two-three classroom energiser breaks daily.

iPLAY co-creator ACU’s Professor Chris Lonsdale said equipping teachers with the right tools to promote physical activity that could have long-lasting benefits was key to its success.

“This isn’t just about getting active in PE class, it’s about building movement into all lessons, from maths to science and time between these lessons. It’s about helping teachers learn new practices so that our kids see the benefits now and into the future,” Professor Lonsdale said.

“This means we see health benefits for all kids, not just those who excel at and enjoy sport.

“And when it does come to PE class, the rules of the activities can be changed so that the time spent where everyone is active is increased. For example, in a game of softball, there wouldn’t be any kids sitting down waiting their turn to bat, they’d all be out in the field moving around.”

Study co-lead Professor David Lubans from the University of Newcastle said whole of school interventions are the ‘gold standard’ for physical activity promotion.

“We know that embedding physical activity across the whole day has clear physical benefits for children, our study has demonstrated that changing school culture can also benefit students’ wellbeing,” Professor Lubans said. 

“In the initial evaluation of our program we observed significant improvements in students’ cardiorespiratory fitness.”

Findings from interviews with participants suggest being involved in the program led to sustained changes in teacher practices and school culture.

These changes meant schools, leaders, and teachers placed a greater emphasis on whole school physical activity promotion, including quality PE and sport.

The follow-on impacts of improved wellbeing shouldn’t be understated, with participating schools representing a variety of socioeconomic areas, and almost 10 per cent of students being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

Among the positive effects reported across the 24-month period included improvements in students’ enjoyment during PE/sport and their physical activity participation. The most notable finding, however, was an increase in students’ subjective wellbeing, or happiness and life-satisfaction.

Research shows Australian children are among the least active in the world – only one in five Australian children meets the recommended national daily physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every day

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 41 per cent of children reported the COVID19 pandemic had a negative impact on their wellbeing, with one in five reporting they were feeling more down, scared, or worried than they used to.

The research on the implementation and effectiveness of iPLAY was funded through a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Partnership Project Grant and a grant from the NSW Department of Education’s School Sport Unit.

James Boyer from the NSW Department of Education School Sport Unit said the study shows that physical activity was crucial for physical and mental health.

“Our latest findings prove that physical activity is essential for children’s physical and mental wellbeing and iPLAY is a program that is scalable program that gets results,” he said.

“We also know it worked twice as well in children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

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