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Research finds child’s play reduces chronic disease

Alexander Engel
Alexander Engel has been investigating ways to develop fundamental motor skills and increase physical activity in pre-school aged children.

The better children can run, jump, kick, catch, throw and roll, the more active they will be in later life, according to research.

Charles Darwin University Associate Lecturer in Sport Science, Alexander Engel has been investigating ways to develop fundamental motor skills and increase physical activity in pre-school children with a long-term goal of reducing chronic disease.

Research has shown the more active a person was as a child, the more active they were as an adult – and active adults were less likely to suffer chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer.

As part of the research project, two programs were developed that aimed at teaching basic motor skills to three-to-five-year-old children. The first, PLAYFun, targeted children within their pre-schools, while the second, FUNMOVES, was a video intervention aimed at educating parents to teach their own children.

Mr Engel said a trial of PLAYFun in four pre-schools in the eastern suburbs of Sydney showed an increase in fundamental motor skills of all children, and a positive effect on girls’ sedentary behaviour.

“PLAYFun is a trainer-to-child teaching program, which covers motor skills across all three categories: locomotive (body movement), object control and balance,” he said.

“Children who participated in the PLAYFun program saw a 12% improvement in their motor skill competency compared to age-matched controls. Girls who completed the program decreased their sedentary time by 6.4% whereas girls not in the program increased sedentary time by 9.5%.”

Further analysis showed that two sessions a week for 12 weeks were enough to increase fundamental motor skills. However, improvements were not maintained 12 weeks after the completion of the program, indicating the need for continued practise.

Mr Engel said for children who began to withdraw from sport at an early age – it all came down to doing what they were good at.

“There’s a reason why kids who are good at sport take part in a wide variety, and those who aren’t shy away from participation,” he said. “Unfortunately, this can have an impact on health later in life.”

To address scalability issues related to the cost of qualified trainers and equipment required to deliver PLAYFun, Mr Engel developed a second program, FUNMOVES – a video intervention that trains parents to train children.

“I’m keen to see PLAYFun used in pre-schools and we are looking at an implementation model along the same lines as the Munch and Move run by the NSW Government, or Humpty Sports run by Love n’ Deuce with links to the Humpty Foundation,” he said.

“We are also looking for parents to continue trialling the FUNMOVES video program with pre-schoolers at home,” he said.