'All wet and no play': schoolchildren less active outside

Sandpit 23 November 2011

By Fran Abrams

Children who are allowed to play outside in wet weather actually get less exercise than those who are kept indoors, according to a study carried out on primary school pupils.

The surprising finding emerged from research at the University of East Anglia by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research, which monitored the activities of 1800 children aged nine and ten for up to six days. The results could have significant implications for schools' policies about what children should do at break-time when the weather is bad.

All the children were given monitors to check their activity levels throughout their waking hours. Analysis of the results showed that those who were able to engage in active indoor play got the most exercise on wet days, followed by those who were kept indoors but who didn’t have access to a sports hall or gym in which to play. Children who were allowed to play outside even when the weather was bad got the least exercise of all.

The most likely explanation, the researchers said, was that when children went outside in the rain they focused on keeping dry rather than on playing, leading to even lower activity levels than those of children who stayed indoors.

Given that most primary schools did not have access to a gym or sports hall where their pupils could play at lunch time, the best way forward might be for them to look at ways of encouraging pupils to be more active outdoors, the researchers said.

"We were surprised by these findings given that children are typically more active when they are outdoors," said Dr Flo Harrison, the corresponding author of the study. "It seems that in bad weather they may need more support to be active outdoors – better clothing, all-weather play spaces or even increased supervision."

The study looked at the activities of pupils in 90 schools in Norfolk during the Summer months. Seven of the schools provided facilities for indoor physical activity during lunch times when it rained, 72 kept pupils inside but did not offer a space for active play, and 11 allowed children to go outdoors. Children who were able to play games indoors had an average of 20 minutes’ moderate-to-vigorous activity during the lunchtime period on the wettest days, while children who were allowed outdoors managed just 10 minutes. Children who stayed indoors but were not offered active play still managed an average of 13 minutes’ physical activity.

The findings might encourage schools to keep pupils indoors in bad weather, rather than allowing them to go out. However, the researchers warned that this could have negative effects.

Studies of adults have found that those who are most reluctant to venture out in bad weather are also less likely to walk for exercise, so in the longer term a policy of keeping children indoors in wet weather might make them more averse to going out in the rain. If these attitudes persisted into adulthood, they might do less exercise in the longer term.

The work was funded by an ESRC/MRC interdisciplinary research studentship and supported by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research. The data used was from the SPEEDY study (Sport, Physical activity and Eating behaviour: Environmental Determinants in Young people), funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative.