A realist evaluation of a physical activity participation intervention for children and youth with disabilities: what works, for whom, in what circumstances, and how?

BMC Pediatr. 2018 Mar 15;18(1):113. doi: 10.1186/s12887-018-1089-8.


Background: The need to identify strategies that facilitate involvement in physical activity for children and youth with disabilities is recognised as an urgent priority. This study aimed to describe the association between context, mechanisms and outcome(s) of a participation-focused physical activity intervention to understand what works, in what conditions, and how.

Methods: This study was designed as a realist evaluation. Participant recruitment occurred through purposive and theoretical sampling of children and parents participating in the Local Environment Model intervention at Beitostolen Healthsports Centre in Norway. Ethnographic methods comprising participant observation, interviews, and focus groups were employed over 15 weeks in the field. Data analysis was completed using the context-mechanism-outcome framework of realist evaluation. Context-mechanism-outcome connections were generated empirically from the data to create a model to indicate how the program activated mechanisms within the program context, to enable participation in physical activity.

Results: Thirty one children with a range of disabilities (mean age 12y 6 m (SD 2y 2 m); 18 males) and their parents (n = 44; 26 mothers and 18 fathers) participated in the study. Following data synthesis, a refined program theory comprising four context themes, five mechanisms, and six outcomes, were identified. The mechanisms (choice, fun, friends, specialised health professionals, and time) were activated in a context that was safe, social, learning-based and family-centred, to elicit outcomes across all levels of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health.

Conclusions: The interaction of mechanisms and context as a whole facilitated meaningful outcomes for children and youth with disabilities, and their parents. Whilst optimising participation in physical activity is a primary outcome of the Local Environment Model, the refined program theory suggests the participation-focused approach may act as a catalyst to promote a range of outcomes. Findings from this study may inform future interventions attempting to enable participation in physical activity for children and youth with disabilities.

Keywords: Adolescent; Child; Context; Intellectual disability; Mechanism; Outcome; Parent; Participation; Physical activity; Physical disability.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Attitude to Health
  • Child
  • Disabled Children / psychology
  • Disabled Children / rehabilitation*
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Exercise Therapy / organization & administration
  • Exercise Therapy / psychology
  • Exercise* / psychology
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Program Evaluation
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Participation* / psychology