April 17, 2007

Researcher studies kids' activity levels at recess

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Don't count on a structured exercise program at recess to combat childhood obesity. To paraphrase an old folk saying, "You can take the kids to playgrounds, but you can't make them play."

Far better, believes Julie A. Partridge, to figure out what they like to do during recess and then help them do it.

"If we want to structure activities that encourage kids to be active, we should probably be paying attention to what kids choose to do when left to their own devices," says Partridge, an assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology who teaches in the kinesiology department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

People are right in feeling concerned about schoolchildren's lack of physical activity, Partridge thinks.

"Childhood obesity rates have almost quadrupled in the last 30 years, and the incidence of Type 2 (or adult onset) diabetes in adolescents has increased by a factor of 10 in the last 20 years," she notes.

But a required exercise program would be just one more activity in lives that may already contain too many.

"Kids' lives are highly structured," Partridge says.

"They have to have lessons for everything and be in organized sports. The days of just going out to play aren't what they used to be."

That said, Partridge doesn't think teachers should merely turn kids loose and turn their backs. Research she did on recess play in northern Colorado showed that, for example, left to themselves on the playground, older girls had a tendency to sit down and gab.

To get kids up and moving, Partridge thinks it would help to set up activities that look like fun and then let kids choose whether to play and how much time to spend at it. She's testing that theory now.

With the cooperation of two local schools last fall, Partridge and several of her students measured the body mass index of first- through fourth-graders, then issued them pedometers, or step-counters, to wear at recess as a way of getting a handle on their activity levels. Partridge also asked them all to keep logs recording what they did when recess came.

At one school, the students did nothing more. But at the other, Partridge and her student research assistants devised three activities, each one offered daily for a week. Children could play or not, as they chose.

They could toss Frisbees at targets (the most popular target turned out to be the school's roof), work their way through circuit and obstacle courses, or play with jump ropes, hopscotch squares and hula hoops.

"The kids liked all of the stuff we brought, but the jump ropes were a really big hit," Partridge said.

"In fact, I felt really bad about having to take them back."

She returned to both schools a week after the recess activities ended to record pedometer readings, took them again three weeks later and a final time 12 weeks after that. She's now crunching her numbers and working with the logs.

"I'm a little overwhelmed by all of it — I have stacks and stacks of paper!" she said. She hopes to complete the study by mid-May, using the results to leverage grant money for a more detailed project.

"There's a lot of research looking at kids' behavior in sports and in PE classes, but there's not a lot out there looking at what they do when they have free choice and can do whatever they want to do," Partridge said.

"At some point in their lives, moving will be free choice, and many will choose not to. If we can find something that's appealing, that's the ultimate goal."

She may already be on her way.

"Last fall, several of the kids told me they were getting pedometers for Christmas," Partridge said.