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This report provides the key findings identified from the 16 included articles. Eight core themes were identified. To help frame the findings and their interactions, the themes were conceptualised into a review-specific, socioecological model. This is shown in Figure 4; each level and the associated themes are described individually.

A graphic which shows the socioecological model of factors that influence parental engagement of pre-school children in community based  opportunities for physical activity.   The first circle shows the individual factors including parental beliefs and knowledge.   The second circle shows the Interpersonal factors, this includes social benefits of engaging children in physical activity, the social network and familiy dynamics.  The third circle shows the community factors which include organisational factors and affordability.  The fourth circle shows the built and physical environment factors, which includes infrastructure.

Figure 4. Socioecological model of factors that influence parental engagement of pre-school children in community-based opportunities for physical activity

Individual: Beliefs and Knowledge (and Parental Parameters)

Parental beliefs about the value they place on physical activity, the wider benefits they believe it could bring, and the prior knowledge (or lack of) they have about physical activity, are at the centre of their decision-making processes.

Structured physical activity was perceived to:         

  • Provide exposure to stimulating learning opportunities and environments
  • Foster a broad range of positive and healthy child development traits through being an approach to develop social, emotional, and team-work skills; gain companionship; and build confidence
  • Help children gain an essential personal safety life-skill (ability to swim)
  • Assist children to gain an early childhood education that, in the long-term, will be advantageous

Professional instruction was considered to:

  • Allow parents to demonstrate ‘good parenting’ by complying with social norms
  • Encourage fathers to engage with an active play intervention through simply knowing a professional would be present
  • Maximise a child’s behaviour and subsequent learning/swimming ability through paying for skilled instruction and access to an appropriate role model. Individual tuition versus a group-based-approach was thought to lead to even greater gains
  • Provide parents with a way to mitigate their own concerns regarding fear of drowning and water safety

At a basic level, not having the skills to teach their child to swim themselves encouraged parents to pay for private swimming lessons. However, even when parents recognised and understood that early skill development can open up more leisure opportunities in later life and bring health and fitness benefits in the short-term, this can easily be offset by other factors. 

For example, for fathers, a general lack of awareness about available sessions, including that toddler groups, despite the attendance ratios, are not purely for mothers, can be a barrier to attendance. Although not a major finding (perhaps due to limited studies), it is also important to note that factors relating to parental parameters, namely health and personality traits (shyness, laziness) were highlighted by fathers attending community-based active play sessions as potential barriers to their engagement.

InterpersonalSocial Benefits, Social Networks, and Family Dynamics

Key drivers for parents, particularly mothers, attending community-based activities, such as playgroups and parks, are the social benefits and opportunities they provide.

Social networks provide a platform for peer support and influence, and the family dynamic can drive participation. However, both can also give rise to challenges that can negatively impact pre-schooler’s engagement with community-based physical activity opportunities.

Interpersonal facilitators

  • Playgroups: provide a sense of togetherness, where comradeship can thrive, parenting practices be shared in a safe space, and observations made of other parent-child interactions to inform one’s own future parenting practices
  • Social opportunities: encourage parents to attend parks and playgroups
  • Social networks: facilitate the use of parks and other physical activity opportunities through the sharing of knowledge and resources, for example, attending in groups or sharing transport
  • Peers: positively influence participation on the basis that ‘everyone else is doing it
  • Mothers: even though they regularly delegate the teaching of new sports to fathers or professionals, they are often the ‘gatekeeper’ to engagement. Mothers self-perceive themselves as the driver of initiating new engagements and were perceived by fathers as the ‘organiser’ and reason for their attendance and co-participation at activities

Interpersonal barriers

  • Parenting approaches: contrasting approaches and attitudes, particularly towards choice of leisure time activity (café versus park).
  • Different aged children: parents in general, and fathers specifically, highlighted the difficulties that arose from having children of different ages. Specifically, competing child commitments and having children outside of the age-range of the targeted class makes engagement a challenge.

Community: Organisational Factors and Affordability

The unique requirements of pre-schoolers and their parents may have to be acknowledged at an organisational level when physical activity is being targeted.

Affordability of community-based opportunities presents a major barrier to pre-schooler’s physical activity.

Parents were inspired to attend age-group targeted opportunities that:

  • Were developmentally appropriate
  • Were based on the principles of learning through play
  • Provided a different experience

A lack of professionally supervised activities for this age group and the timing of community-based opportunities were deemed key barriers. Organising more activities on weekends could increase engagement; commitment and schedule clashes were barriers identified by both mothers and fathers. For opportunities targeting fathers, Saturday sessions led to the greatest attendance levels. Engagement of parents could, in part, also be facilitated or limited by advertising strategies (see Figure 5). 

A graphic which shows the impact of advertising strategies on pre-schooler’s physical activity.  Box 1 states ‘advertising’  Box 2 highlights that social media was identified as a tool for sharing physical activity ideas and local events.   Box 3 states that poor advertising is a barrier that led to a lack of awareness about sessions.   Box 4 states that improved advertising of community physical activity opportunities could facilitate greater co-participation of parents with their child(ren).

Figure 5. Impact of advertising strategies on pre-schooler’s physical activity

The high cost of participation in organised sports or structured activities limited engagement. For families in underserved communities, the cost of, for example, general swimming, let alone swimming lessons, prevented them from participating. Despite wanting to enrol their child(ren), for some mothers and fathers, it was simply not an activity they could readily afford. For those with limited finances, a lack of disposable income was a significant barrier to pre-schoolers physical activity, whereas for middle-class parents, being able to afford the additional cost of private swimming lessons was not a factor they were concerned about. 

  • Providing low-cost and free activities was viewed as an approach that would incentivise participation, particularly for those living in underserved communities.
  • Improving access to resources already available in the community(school facilities), and greater support from community councils were pitched as ways to improve physical activity opportunities for young families.
  • Individuals embracing or local providers facilitating opportunities to engage in locality-specific activities could provide a viable solution.

Built and Physical Environment: Infrastructure

Adequate access to parks, open spaces and general facilities, their quality, and how easy it is to travel to them, are important facilitators of play and physical activity for pre-schoolers.

A lack of available well-resourced facilities and parks with age-appropriate equipment, all-weather provisions, and adequate green space were raised as barriers. In addition to a lack of access to outdoor facilities, the availability of indoor facilities, particularly in more rural areas, was also highlighted. Parents would like greater access to indoor centres, programmes and services.

Parents want:

  • Local access to parks, open spaces, and green spaces
  • Well-resourced facilities
  • Age-appropriate equipment, facilities, and events
  • Good quality facilities and equipment
  • All-weather provisions
  • Safe areas
  • Local events

Even when access is not an issue, the quality and safety of available facilities often is. Deteriorating conditions, where broken and removed equipment has not been replaced, safety hazards (broken glass and equipment), the presence of dogs within park areas, and safety issues associated with traffic and locations all deter parents from taking their pre-school-aged children.

Issues surrounding distance and transportation are linked. Whether in rural or urban areas, the distance parents have to travel to attend parks, green spaces, and other facilities and opportunities that encourage play and physical activity, significantly affected how often they took their child. In more rural farmland areas, outer suburbs, and underserved communities, attendance was often determined by access to transport. This could be public or private and comes with the associated cost of fuel or fares, and sometimes excessive and unmanageable travel times.

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