HOW children spend their after-school hours has a big impact on their levels of physical activity, according to research.
The “Move More” study, partly funded by the World Cancer Research Fund, has highlighted the need for children to be given more opportunities to play outdoors with friends.
Researchers found that for every hour spent outdoors with friends, children were doing an extra 17 minutes of physical activity.
In the study, researchers at the University of Bristol showed that hours spent outdoors with friends had the greatest positive effect on a child’s level of physical activity.
But researchers found children actually spent most of their after-school time indoors, either alone or with parents.
Health experts said that such outdoor, physical play could help protect children from future illness, including cancer.
Dr Angela Page, who led the research, said: “We found that children spend most of their after-school time indoors and little time outdoors playing with other children, which makes the biggest contribution to the amount of physical activity they get.
“Building stronger neighbourhood community links between parents and children could restore the social norm of children playing outdoors and relieve some concerns parents may have about safety.”
Dr Rachel Thompson, head of research interpretation at the World Cancer Research Fund, said outdoor activity could help safeguard children against cancer.
“There is evidence that physical activity protects against cancer, particularly bowel cancer, one of the most common forms of the disease in the UK,” she said.
“Getting into healthy habits during childhood is a big advantage when it comes to reducing the risk of getting cancer in later life as active children are more likely to become active adults.
“Being active is also beneficial in other areas of physical and mental wellbeing.
“This research demonstrates how children are most active when they’re playing outside with friends, so we should be looking at ways we can encourage this in a safe environment.”
Tina Woolnough, Edinburgh representative of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said improving local parks and making use of school facilities would provide year-round areas for after-school play.
She said: “There are a number of initiatives designed to reinvigorate parks for children to gather for outdoor activities. But this can come unstuck in Scotland in the winter when it gets dark at around 3:30pm.
“It would make sense to use school premises for the winter months for activities such as indoor pilates and bike repair classes.”
Anne Houston, chief executive of Children 1st, said many parents were nervous at letting their children play outside, and that parents were “rightly concerned about keeping their children safe”.
Ms Houston said: “As well as the very real danger of traffic, there is fear about ‘stranger danger’, which often leaves parents unwilling to allow their children out unsupervised.
The research studied a sample of 427 children aged ten to 11 from the Bristol area.