The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical activity environment in English primary schools: A multi-perspective qualitative analysis

Danielle R House*, Robert Walker, Ruth E Salway, Lydia G Emm-Collison, Katie Breheny, Kate M Sansum, Sarah Churchward, Joanna G Williams, Frank de Vocht , Russell Jago

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, including school closures, had a major impact on children’s physical activity in England, with data showing an initial reduction in activity in the short-term post-lockdown phase of the pandemic followed by a recovery on average in the medium-term post-lockdown period. The school environment is an important context for child physical activity. The purpose of this study is to understand the changes that took place to school physical activity environments once schools reopened after lockdowns. This information will improve understanding of why changes to children’s physical activity have occurred over the course of the pandemic and the implications for future promotion of physical activity in schools.
Interviews with parents (n=43), school staff (n=18), and focus groups with 10–11-year-old children (participant n=92) were conducted at two time points: between September-December 2021 and February-July 2022. Interview and focus group guides covered the impact of the pandemic on child physical activity and changes to this over time. The framework method was used for analysis.
Three themes and three sub-themes were generated: 1) The return to school; 2) Over-pressured staff and environment; and 3) The uneven impact of the pandemic. Theme 3 consists of 3 sub-themes: a) Retained pandemic policies; b) Impact on physical activity culture; and c) Different children need different things.
Limitations and future work
Conducting this research in schools during ongoing COVID-19 disruptions was a challenge and may have limited school and participant participation, particularly school staff. The parent interview sample is predominantly female, active, and of higher socio-economic status, so the experiences of male, less active, and lower socio-economic parents are limited. This study suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on child physical activity is uneven, affecting some children more than others. Future work is therefore needed to explore the details of this potential diverging experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and post-lockdown school policies, have impacted upon primary school physical activity environments. The post-lockdown school environment is highly pressured, impacting the extent to which schools can support and encourage child physical activity. Future research is needed to further explore the impact of post-lockdown changes on physical activity environments in schools, particularly over the longer-term, as schools continue to adapt post-lockdowns. Strategies required to support school physical activity environments must be context specific and sensitive to these changes, pressures, and needs.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages37
JournalPublic Health Research
Early online date7 Feb 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Feb 2024

Structured keywords

  • HEHP@Bristol


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