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A practice theory approach to primary school physical activity: Opportunities and challenges for intervention

Spotswood, Fiona; Wiltshire, Gareth; Spear, Sara; Morey, Yvette; Harris, Jennifer

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Fiona Spotswood

Gareth Wiltshire

Sara Spear

Yvette Morey
Associate Director - Student Academic Journey

Jennifer Harris


A significant body of critical scholarship exists problematizing the dominant behavioural-individualist approaches to public health policy and intervention, and practice theories have been noted for their potential in providing an alternative. Children’s physical activity in primary school settings continues to be a major area of attention in public health, yet no critical examination of a practice theory approach exists in this context. This paper addresses this gap by applying the prevalent three-elements model of practices to the case of children’s school-based physical activity. Drawing on focus group, interview and observation data from pupils, staff and parents at one primary school setting in England, our analysis highlights; first, how the configurations of (a) physical resources (e.g. playground space and equipment), (b) practical know-how (e.g. a skilled understanding of performing the activity), and (c) the socio-cultural significance of practices (e.g. the values and meanings of the activity) impact how, and whether children’s physical activity happens, and is sustained or interrupted; and second, by showing how physically active practices are contingent on being simultaneously in harmony or conflict with other routinized practices of the school day. We conclude that the three-elements model offers a helpful framework for understanding school physical activity which de-centres the individual, but that there are challenges in using this analysis to support primary schools as they attempt to enable physically active practices more effectively. Further research is required to develop and evaluate a practice theory approach to promoting children’s physical activity.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 18, 2019
Online Publication Date Dec 13, 2019
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Nov 19, 2019
Publicly Available Date Dec 14, 2020
Journal Critical Public Health
Print ISSN 0958-1596
Electronic ISSN 1469-3682
Publisher Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 31
Issue 4
Pages 392-403
Public URL
Publisher URL


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