Movement is more than its effects

10-year-olds prefer to move about rather than sit still at school … but not at any price, is what a recent doctoral thesis from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences (NIH) is telling us.

Picture of Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann
Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann Photo: private

The key is not to measure the effects of the movement, but rather to explore them. In the social interaction between children, there can be found both challenges and boredom. No movement activity in itself works equally for every child. The children, themselves, are the focal point, and what creates meaning is both unpredictable and subject to change.  The study provides us with an insight into the qualitative aspects of moving about. 

How – the question often omitted

One of the starting points for the dissertation was the widespread concern that children are sitting still too much and the consequences that this has for health and learning. More physical activity, even during normal school hours, based on the idea of ​​introducing physical activity programs has been considered from political and academic perspectives as being one solution,. But why not ask the children themselves how they experience movement during the average school day, and investigate how physical activity takes place in the school as seen with the children's perspective.

Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann, PhD fellow at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, began the study together with a hundred 10-year-olds in Sogn og Fjordane asking the questions: How do the children move around at school; What do they, themselves, experience when they are active at school; and What does this further tell us about the opportunities they have for movement? 

Children themselves contribute to creating the environment in which they move around

“One of the findings was not so remarkable: the children prefer to be mobile than to sit still. Neither do they like gym classes, activities that are integrated with, or used as a break in, theory lessons or pauses for physical activity”, says Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann.

“Some of the most interesting findings, however, were how the children are both active and receptive. They learn to “go along with” and it is not only the instructive and teacher-driven movements that make sense to them”, Ingulfsvann continues.

The children like to vary and choose their own ways of moving around. They may also display ambivalence and express that they are bored and learning little new, and that they feel the way activities are carried out is boring. For example, one of the boys says: “When we play football we only play football – nothing more”.

A new thread in the debate about children not being active enough is Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann’s discovery that children harbour their own desire to move about, whether they are asked to do just that, or they are sitting still. The dissertation shows that children create variation when they move about, both in adult-controlled activity or in free activity. Children like to choose, and they like to feel themselves part of the activities.

Researching together with the children

Ingulfsvann’s research was the qualitative sub-study in the Active Smarter Kids study. She involved 98 fifth-graders at four schools in Sogn og Fjordane. The material was created from participating in observer hours, both in physical education and in ASK intervention. Furthermore, she chose to follow up on 32 of the children with in-depth interviews as well as talking to their teachers.

Cannot assume that movements should be pleasurable and without competition

The ASK study intends that physical activity should be pleasurable and without competition. However, Ingulfsvann’s study shows that physical activity opens up for interaction between children and which can further contribute to strong social ties between them, for good or ill.

“Getting to work together, having fun learning and being involved in new activities, but at the same time it can be frustrating not to get it working straight away. Despite that, activities can just as easily lead to exclusion and bullying”, she says. 

“Some might feel weaker than others or that they are not ‘in’”. Here, the thesis shows that doing research with the children reveals that their world has more nuances than the approved guidelines would tend to indicate.

Ambivalent experiences, variation and feelings

The qualitative study also shows that not all children like to move in the same way or to the same extent. And how they move can vary from day to day and with the various challenges that arise in social interaction. Such ambivalent experiences and emotions further show that choosing one’s own ways of moving about is not simple.

How children choose to move or are drawn to move can lead them in wide variety of directions. It is also the case that some children like to tire themselves out while others are not so inclined. What is common to all is that they can benefit from experiencing and learning to balance times of activity with those of rest.

Outcomes of the thesis

The findings create opportunities for conducting critical discussions about children’s mobility opportunities in school. Various measures and political decisions should also be critically reviewed taking into account the children's experiences of mobility in school and be included more in research as well as in practice.

Children are unique in their own ways, and one challenge presented to teachers and researchers is for them to behave sensitively and inquisitively towards the children and include them in the program and interventions. It is important to note that almost all the children participating in the project enjoyed moving about both in school and in their spare time, while this is not necessarily the case for all children in all school classes.

“How researchers, teachers and others can be inspired by the dissertation’s findings will depend on what values ​​in and by the movement they are based on”, says the soon-to-be disputed candidate.


  • Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann defends her doctoral thesis “Affected by movement” on 19 November 2018 at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, auditorium Innsikt.