The findings from this study support the relevance of applying the socioecological model of behavioural influences to examine young children's physical activity. The identified influences upon young children's physical activity behaviour included (a) personality traits within the child; (b) functioning within the family unit including parental attitudes and capacities, and modeled behaviours by parents, siblings and peers; (c) attitudes, policies and regulations within preschool facilities; (d) social connectedness within the broader community; (e) perceived safety of the neighbourhood environment and (f) access to areas and facilities that promote physical activity. Similar influences at these varying levels have been reported in older children and adults [2, 25–33].
Compared with older children and adults, there are fewer studies that have specifically examined influences upon physical activity in young children [17, 34–42] and very few that have utilised a qualitative research approach [43–46].
The participants in this study had a clear insight into the nature and value of physical activity. An important finding of this study was a strong sentiment that the term 'intensity' was not applicable to young children's physical activity patterns. Current physical activity guidelines for children aged 5–18 years and adults, are framed according to duration, intensity and frequency of activity [47–50]. A different framework or lexicon may be required for young children if activity guidelines are to be meaningful to parents and carers of young children.
The types of physical activity reported by the participants were very similar to studies involving Hispanic, Canadian and Australian preschool-age children [45, 46, 51]. This suggests that young children engage in similar physical activities within varying ethnic groups across developed countries.
Although participants were aware of the benefits of physical activity, none was familiar with any formal guidelines about the amount of physical activity that should be encouraged in children. Preschool staff adhered to a very broad recommendation provided by their State Department of Sport and Recreation , and they complemented this with safety recommendations related to time spent outdoors provided by the NSW Cancer Council SunSmart policy . As more specific recommendations about optimal physical activity behaviours in young children emerge, it is important that these recommendations are communicated effectively. More precise regulations would also assist to ensure that all child care agencies are promoting appropriate activity programs. A US study showed physical activity program standards varied amongst agencies with an impact upon activity behaviours in the children attending those centres .
In this age group, the influence of parents upon child's behaviour is critical . Our participants especially acknowledged that parental modeling and/or encouragement of activity was a key influence and predictor of physical activity and sedentary behaviour in children. Parental physical activity has been recognised as a correlate of physical activity among preschool children [17, 42].
Television viewing and other SSR has been identified as a negative influence on children's physical activity . It was seen as an important parental role to moderate television viewing habits, as well as other SSR. In our study only three participants (7.7%) were familiar with the national guideline for SSR which recommends children aged 2–18 spend no more than 2 hours/day on quality viewing [47, 53]. Instead parents used personal judgement to gauge the amount of time their children used SSR and this usually related to undesired behavioural changes noted in their child such as a 'zombie look' or display of aggressive behaviour. Our participants, especially the parents, stressed that in the young age group television viewing was the greatest barrier to children being active. A strong opinion expressed by parents was that if the television was turned off then children in this age group would naturally be active. Further investigation of this hypothesis would be helpful to guide possible health promotion interventions.
Parental attitudes and behaviours frequently reflect broader cultural issues and beliefs which may give rise to competing agendas, for example a focus upon education at the expense of participation in physical activity. The importance of educational achievement has previously been reported among Chinese cultures [54–56] but is less well publicised in Middle-Eastern communities, although for Lebanese families in Australia the value of education is considered an important means of upward social mobility . These issues and challenges were raised by both parents and preschool staff who catered for children from a Middle-Eastern background. The degree of focus upon educational achievement in this group was an unexpected finding of this study.
Safety was the major issue of concern, and barrier to physical activity, reported by participants. Safety concerns were identified at two levels; firstly at the child's personal level with parents acknowledging a tendency by some to over-protectiveness and secondly, at a broader community level with concern about predators and traffic. The concept of over-protectiveness or the "bubble-wrap" phenomena has been noted previously . These findings about broader neighbourhood safety issues align with studies in older children [18, 59, 60]. Social connectedness would appear to be a potential counter to these neighbourhood issues.
A potential consequence of safety concerns, along with the infiltration of technology into the lives of children, is a change in the nature of young children's play. Staff in our study commented on this change. Specifically they felt that the art of creative play needed to be restored to the lives of young children: a concept which has been advocated by others [4, 53]. In a recently published consensus paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics explored the issue of reduced child-driven play and its potential repercussions. The Academy advocate that free play should be included along with academic and social-enrichment opportunities and that safe environments be made available to all children [ page 188]. Achievement of this ideal may be some time off but this approach does create the potential for healthy activity habits to be established early in life.
Selection bias may be considered a limitation of this study because all participants had a keen interest in the area of physical activity in young children. Additionally, only a limited number of participants in the study were male (2/39) and because the focus groups were conducted during the day it limited the participation of parents who were employed in full-time work.