How physical activity can improve parental engagement: an Active Families approach.

By Helen Beswick, Parental Engagement Network 

Here at PEN, we have found success with several intervention-based projects that improve parental engagement. But when it comes to targeting physical activity, none fit the bill quite like our Active Families Project. This whole-school initiative helps Primary schools and settings to support their families to be active together. With recent research from Sport England showing that under half of children and young people are meeting their daily recommended activity levels, it is more important than ever to promote health and well-being to children and their families.

The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends moderate to vigorous activity levels of at least 60 minutes a day for children and at least 75 minutes a week for adults. As parental involvement is an essential part of Active Families, it is an excellent way for families to rack up those minutes together whilst reaping wider benefits.

At PEN, we firmly believe that when a parent models a behaviour to their child, the child is a lot more likely to repeat that behaviour. Bandura's social learning theory backs up this belief. It confirms that we are directly influenced by the behaviour we see around us. Seeing other family members be active and enjoying themselves alongside us can be highly motivating. Families who share positive experiences of activities become more confident and are more likely to repeat the experience. This positive behaviour modelling is a core principle of what makes Active Families unique.

Our understanding of mental health and its implications has advanced significantly in recent years, and it is widely documented that physical activity has numerous positive benefits for our mental health. The NHS website directly advises that regular exercise can boost self-esteem, mood, and quality of sleep and reduce the risk of clinical depression and overall stress levels. The Mental Health Foundation recommends being active in the outdoors wherever possible, as surrounding yourself in nature has been proven to boost happiness, alongside reducing levels of depression and anxiety.

However, it is important to address that simply 'being more active' is difficult for some. The Active Families training acknowledges the apprehension that some of us feel about physical exercise and the barriers families can face when trying to increase their activity levels or access sport. The project shows its trainees how to accommodate various needs and abilities to get families started on the road to regular activity.

A common misconception of regular activity is that it must involve the gym, jogging outdoors or participating in sports, but this doesn't have to be the case. Active Families introduces families to playful, any-time activities such as chalk and balloon games or outdoor walks. Through the project, schools help families understand how small chunks of fun activities throughout the day without needing special clothes or kit can help them become fitter and healthier. The most important message is that as long as they choose something they all enjoy, their confidence and happiness levels are bound to increase!

Beyond its benefits to physical and mental health for both children and adults, Active Families gives schools the tools they need to improve parental engagement and community cohesion. The project also focuses on creating a community of activity, encouraging both schools and parents to engage with their wider communities and find new places to be active. Finding new nature trails or local green spaces to explore and discovering clubs for new types of sport are great examples of a community of activity in action.

With the pandemic seriously impacting physical activity levels and mental health, there has never been a better time to get involved with this project. However it is initiated, parental engagement will have a positive effect on learning. Educational outcomes are better for children whose parents are engaged in their educational journey.

Active Families has proven effective at helping families forge closer relationships. It encourages them to spend more time with each other, simultaneously bringing them closer to the school's culture and establishing better communication between home and school. The project provides an opportunity to build a long-term sustainable model of parental engagement in physical literacy and play, reduces feelings of isolation and encourages activity both in and outside the family home.