Skip navigation

Operation Long-Run: Covid recovery and the importance of keeping children active

EIF's Dr James Mulcahy and Max Stanford reflect on EIF's new parent polling showing that young children from low-income households are less likely to get the recommended amount of physical activity critical for their early development and general wellbeing, spotlighting the impact that ‘pandemic life’ has had on young children.

As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic, it remains crucial to understand how ‘pandemic life’ has impacted upon young children, many of whom have lived a large part of their life under some version of lockdown conditions. Hard on the heels of a University of Bristol study highlighting falling activity rates among 11-year-olds, new EIF polling of parents suggests that less than one in five under-6s are getting the recommended amount of daily physical activity despite the lifting of lockdown restrictions.*  

Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic placed an unprecedented strain on children and families. With schools closing their gates and community facilities shutting down, people were forced to spend more time at home and less time outside or in other recreational settings. As a first step towards understanding the impact of these major lifestyle changes, in November 2021 we published a review of emerging evidence on how pandemic conditions had affected young children’s physical health and development. There, we identified studies from the UK and internationally showing that the pandemic had drastically reduced the amount of physical activity children were getting.  

For many families, the burden of lockdown was much greater and impacts on activity levels more profound. Children from less well-off neighbourhoods or minority ethnic families saw an even greater decline in their levels of physical activity, with a lack of access to outdoor space or having less space to play at home emerging as important factors. Worryingly, in some cases this decrease in physical activity was accompanied by a decrease in positive attitudes (such as confidence and enjoyment) towards physical activity among both children and carers, suggesting that these changes in behaviour could take root and increase risks over the long term. 

EIF’s new survey of parents with children aged 1–5 supports these findings, indicating that children from lower-income households are taking part in less physical activity, and that compared to higher-income households, their parents are more likely to predict that their children’s physical activity levels will be lower this year than last summer. Significant barriers identified by parents with lower incomes include the cost of accessing safe spaces to play, such as soft play areas, as well as simply having access to suitable play and open spaces. Clearly, increases on the squeeze in household finances could exacerbate these concerns and further limit the ability of many families to support their young children to keep physically active. 

Why does this matter? We know from the broader evidence that physical activity in early childhood is critical to bodily growth and physical development. There are lots of key milestones that young children reach as they grow up, such as learning to crawl, and taking part in physical activity can help them to reach some of these key milestones appropriately or earlier than children not exposed to the same level of activity. Taking part in physical activity can help to improve body control and strengthen bones and muscles. Importantly, physical activity does not appear to be associated with increased risk of harm (such as injury or falls) for young children – so the more physically active they can be, the better. Indeed, government guidance recommends three hours a day of physical activity for children under the age of 6. 

Physical activity can also have wider-reaching benefits, with more physical activity associated with improved learning in language and maths, for example, and improved attention and concentration. There is also evidence to suggest that physical activity can enhance children’s socialisation, such as making and maintaining friendships or interacting with peers, as well as improving behavioural problems. 

Physical activity is also a crucial part of the larger health puzzle, in combination with other elements of diet and lifestyle. Recent data shows a sharp increase in childhood obesity, for example, and the decrease in physical activity during and since the pandemic, combined with other factors, such as disrupted sleep patterns or an increase in children’s consumption of processed foods and sweet and salty snacks, is likely to be contributing to this increase.  

For all these reasons, it is now crucial that physical activity is prioritised and supported for all families – particularly those for whom these risks are higher. This includes short-term measures to support parents and families with young children, for example through the government’s previous commitments to bolster breastfeeding services, parent-infant mental health support, and the rollout of family hubs. Physical activity can be supported through early childhood education settings or schools, and a key goal should be to ensure that young children – especially those from low-income households – have access to affordable and safe play and open spaces. Over the longer term, there is a need to trial promising interventions that work with families or caregivers to foster early physical development, which includes support specifically designed to increase physical activity and improve healthy eating habits and routines, as well as other lifestyle changes. If these interventions are found to be effective, they could be scaled up across the country, to mirror the catch-up literacy programmes that the government is funding to support early learning. 

Crucially, physical activity should be fun and enjoyable for children, so they can build confidence in taking part and establish the habits which are more likely to keep them physically active in the long run. Staying active is too important to a child’s physical health and development to let the issue lie.

Data is based on a YouGov survey of 1,000 parents of children ages 1 to 5. Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th March - 4th April 2022. The survey was carried out online. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all parents of children ages 1 to 5.