Students Staff

12 October 2009

Playtime initiatives could reduce childhood obesity

Colchester Campus

Children from Willow Brook Primary School taking part in the project

Offering an exciting variety of outdoor break time activities can have a significant impact on childhood activity and self esteem, a new study has shown.

Researchers from the University of Essex Centre for Sports and Exercise Science found that where basic sports equipment was introduced at two Colchester primary schools during break times, activity levels increased significantly, while orienteering sessions boosted self-esteem as well as raising activity. Their findings suggest that by making playtime more interesting, rising childhood inactivity and obesity levels could be reversed.

The project involved more than 50 Year 4 pupils from one urban school and one in a rural environment: Willow Brook Primary in Colchester and Langenhoe Community Primary School. The research team introduced three intervention programmes for one-week each: the provision of outdoor clothing to maximise outdoor play during the winter months; the introduction of sports equipment (such as Frisbees, hula hoops and skipping ropes) to improve cardio-respiratory fitness and motor skill; and orienteering to increase the use of green space.

Dr Caroline Angus, who led the Heart Research UK-funded study, explained: ‘Our findings suggest that playtime provides a significant and important opportunity to increase physical activity levels in young children and the type of activity offered can influence both the amount of time spent doing exercise and self-esteem.

‘One of the most interesting findings was that although the introduction of sports equipment increased activity, it did so most significantly in those children who already had higher fitness levels, suggesting less fit children were choosing to engage less with the equipment, perhaps because of less well developed motor skills. It is therefore crucial that a wide range of activities be offered in order to increase the engagement of all children.

‘The greatest change in self esteem occurred following the orienteering intervention in the urban school. Previous studies have shown that green exercise improves psychological well being in adults but this is the first demonstration that green exercise may also provide psychological benefits to young children.’

Dr Angus explained the importance of the study: ‘In the UK, over 14 per cent of children are already overweight or obese when they leave primary school and this figure is expected to rise. Childhood obesity has a significant impact on the prevalence of adult obesity and associated ill health.

‘Our study has shown that there are simple, easily introduced playtime activities that can increase the amount and intensity of physical activity undertaken by children which can positively influence psychological well-being. It is essential that more effective strategies, and a multi-faceted approach be utilised in order to address the linked problems of obesity and sedentary behaviour.’


Notes to editors
For further information, and/or to arrange an interview with Dr Caroline Angus, please contact the Communications Office, telephone: 01206 873529 or e-mail:

Pictures of some of the schoolchildren taking part in the study, and a portrait of Dr Caroline Angus, are also available from the Communications Office.

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