Background: Physical activity and small screen recreation are two modifiable behaviours associated with childhood obesity and the development of chronic health problems. Parents and preschool staff shape behaviour habits in young children. The aims of this qualitative study were to explore the attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding of parents and carers of preschool-age children in relation to physical activity and small screen recreation and to identify influences upon these behaviours.
Methods: This research involved a focus group study with parents and carers of the target population. A purposive sample of 39 participants (22 parents, 17 carers) participated in 9 focus groups. Participants were drawn from three populations of interest: those from lower socioeconomic status, and Middle-Eastern and Chinese communities in the Sydney (Australia) metropolitan region.
Results: All participants understood the value of physical activity and the impact of excessive small screen recreation but were unfamiliar with national guidelines for these behaviours. Participants described the nature and activity patterns of young children; however, the concept of activity 'intensity' in this age group was not a meaningful term. Factors which influenced young children's physical activity behaviour included the child's personality, the physical activity facilities available, and the perceived safety of their community. Factors facilitating physical activity included a child's preference for being active, positive parent or peer modelling, access to safe play areas, organised activities, preschool programs and a sense of social connectedness. Barriers to physical activity included safety concerns exacerbated by negative media stories, time restraints, financial constraints, cultural values favouring educational achievement, and safety regulations about equipment design and use within the preschool environment. Parents considered that young children are naturally 'programmed' to be active, and that society 'de-programs' this behaviour. Staff expressed concern that free, creative active play was being lost and that alternate activities were increasingly sedentary.
Conclusion: The findings support the relevance of the socioecological model of behavioural influences to young children's physical activity. In this age group, efforts may best be directed at emphasising national guidelines for small screen recreation and educating families and carers about the importance of creative, free play to reinforce the child's inherent nature to be active.