The findings confirm the importance of the family environment for children’s physical activity. Physical activity equipment items in the home, parental provision of financial, logistic and emotional support, and parental modelling were all positively associated with children’s participation in ≥30 min/week of sport. These associations were at least partly mediated by cognitions, as proposed in the EnRG framework . This indicates that the influence of the family environment on children’s sport participation operates (at least in part) via children’s physical activity attitudes, beliefs, perceived behavioural control and enjoyment. The findings are consistent with other studies showing that cognitions mediate associations between elements of the family environment and physical activity in youth [21, 27, 28, 30]. However, this study was the first to consider a range of cognitive mediators and sport participation in a large multi-national sample of European children.
The finding that the family environment was both directly and indirectly associated with children’s sports participation via different cognitions supports the dual process view outlined in the EnRG framework  that the environment influences behaviour through personal psychological constructs, and may also have an unmediated effect. For example, parental encouragement may have a direct influence on sports participation as it may prompt children to participate through a more automatic process without child deliberations regarding, for example, pros and cons or behavioural control beliefs. However, rather than indicating a degree of automaticity, it may be that direct effects were found because other unmeasured cognitive or personal factors are stronger mediators or also make a contribution to the combined mediated effect. It may also be that parents exert significant control of children’s behaviours at this age and that children have comparatively little autonomy.
For family environment variables with a significant total effect, the strongest associations were generally found for family (financial, logistic and emotional) support. This indicates that, for children, perhaps the most important aspect of the family environment to foster positive cognition toward sport is parental support, consistent with previous studies . Further, repeated encouragement and other forms of support from parents may initiate and build confidence so that perceived behavioural control is enhanced or may make the positive consequences of sports more apparent so that attitude becomes more positive. The relatively low total proportion of behaviour mediated (< 34%) in this study, however, may be because children’s sport participation is less driven by cognitive processes than the behaviour of adolescents or adults. The establishment of positive cognitions towards sport participation during childhood may be particularly important for future participation as children gain autonomy and independence in choices about their leisure-time. It is also possible that the low proportion mediated could be due to measurement error given that the mediators were self-reported and were measured by single items rather than scales. Most likely, these family environment variables exert a mostly direct influence or can be explained by cognitive processes or innate preferences not measured in this study.
In general, the strongest mediated effect was found for perceived behavioural control. This is in contrast to the findings of van der Horst et al. , who found no evidence that perceived behavioural control mediates associations between the family environment and sports participation among adolescents. In this study, perceived behavioural control was measured by a single item asking how easy or difficult the child finds it to do physical activity/sport for an hour each day. It is perhaps not surprising that this item was the strongest mediator given that direct and indirect parental support and the provision of equipment provide favourable conditions that make it ‘easier’ for children to be active. Future studies should include control beliefs and specific forms of self-efficacy, such as barrier and instrumental self-efficacy.
Strengths of this study include the large sample of children from diverse countries across Europe and the inclusion of a wide range of family environment and cognitive variables. However, response rates differed between countries and there were several differences between the analytic sample and those excluded, which may have implications for generalizability. For example, the results may be less applicable to children whose parents have a low level of education. In addition, this study was cross-sectional and the findings are limited to sports participation rather than general physical activity. Our measure of sports participation may underestimate sports participation as only two ‘favourite’ sports could be reported and children’s understanding of the term ‘sport’ may exclude unorganised sports. However, this measure had good construct validity . Despite this, correlational bias may have occurred as children self-reported each of the four mediators and their sports participation. Different, perhaps weaker, results may have been found if more objective measures of sports participation, such as parental report, were used. The study is further limited by the inclusion of only single-item measures of the family environment and the cognitive mediators.