How can social practice theories help us understand the physical activity culture of a school?

Gareth Wiltshire, Fiona Spotswood, Sara Spear, Liza Liew

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Introduction. Underpinned by the understanding that behaviour change requires a conceptualisation of both individual and social determinants, there is a growing interest in exploring social practice theory to address a range of harmful behaviours. As social practice theory is yet to be developed in physical activity (PA) research, the purpose of this study was to investigate how it could be utilised in the context of understanding children’s PA in primary schools. The three-elements model consisting of materials, competences and meanings was used to frame our approach. Methods. Focus group, survey, observation, and interview data were collected with pupils, staff, and parents at one primary school setting in England. Analysis involved identifying physically active practices which comprise the school PA culture and thematically coding those practices using the three-elements model. Findings. Analysis revealed how seven clusters of physically active practices throughout the school day were sustained by and interrupted by the configurations of (1) physical resources (e.g. playground space and equipment), (2) practical know-how (e.g. a skilled understanding of performing the activity), and (3) the socio-cultural significance of those practices (e.g. the values and meanings of the activity). Findings also illuminate how physically active practices are contingent on whether conflicting or complementary social practices exist. In this way, practices such as walking to school were sustained by the complimentary practices involved with ‘doing’ parenthood. Conclusion. Social practice theory offers new ways of conceptualising PA in schools and may help identify opportunities and frameworks for simultaneous policy, school and individual level interventions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAcceptance date - 2018


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