Between 1997 and 2004, there were consistent, significant increases in competency in all skills in boys, except the kick (primary school) and overarm throw (high school). The average annual increases in competency ranged between 0.6% (kick in primary school) and 4.1% (catch in high school). After adjusting for fitness, BMI, and SES, primary and high school boys were 2.0 times (95% confidence interval (CI), 1.69–2.45) as likely to improve competency in the sprint run, 1.6 times (95% CI, 1.26–1.91) in the vertical jump, 1.3 times (95% CI, 1.06–1.58) in the kick, and 3.6 times (95% CI, 2.83–4.44) in the catch in 2004 compared with that in 1997.
Similarly, among all girls, there were consistent, significant increases in competency in the sprint run, vertical jump, and catch but a 20% decrease in the overarm throw in high school girls between 1997 and 2004. The average annual increases in competency ranged between 1.1% (run in primary school) and 3.9% (catch in high school). After adjusting for fitness, BMI, and SES, primary and high school girls were 1.9 times (95% CI, 1.56–2.27) as likely to improve competency in the sprint run, 2.0 times (95% CI, 1.59–2.45) in the vertical jump, and 3.6 times (95% CI, 2.86–4.56) in the catch in 2004 compared with that in 1997.
Between 2004 and 2010, improvements in competency were less consistent among boys. The odds of competency increased only in the catch, whereas competency in the vertical jump decreased. After adjusting for fitness, BMI, and SES, the only significant change was that all boys were approximately two times (95% CI, 1.57–2.49) as likely to have mastered the catch in 2010 compared with that in 2004.
The pattern of change in competency among girls between 2004 and 2010 was different to that among the boys. Competency significantly increased for the catch and kick, whereas a significant decline was observed in competency in the vertical jump. After adjusting for fitness, BMI, and SES, girls overall were 1.7 times (95% CI, 1.38–2.14) as likely to have increased competency in the catch and 2.4 times (95% CI, 1.70–3.29) increased likelihood of competency in the kick, and the odds of competency in the vertical jump decreased 47% (adjusted odds ratio, 0.53; 95% CI, 0.44–0.64) in 2010 compared with those in 2004.
This is the first study to report 13-yr trends of school-age children’s FMS competency at a population level. Our findings show that at each survey period, the prevalence of competency in FMS was low among school-age children. A lack of historical data precludes assumptions as to what is an acceptable prevalence benchmark for competency in FMS among youth. However, the prevalence of competency in 1997, when FMS were first measured, is lower than subsequent surveys, suggesting that FMS competency among youth can be improved beyond reported levels.
Between 1997 and 2004, changes in competency were generally in a positive direction for boys and girls, with the greatest annual gains in the sprint run, vertical jump, and catch. Between 2004 and 2010, competency in the vertical jump decreased 40%–50% (except high school boys); however, significant competency gains continued for the catch and, among girls, the kick. The temporal patterns of change in FMS competency, particularly the decline in the vertical jump in 2010, are unclear but may be related to changes in children’s participation in different physical activities across time.
Furthermore, the low prevalence of competency overall among girls in the kick and overarm throw may reflect the actual skills assessed or that activities associated with these skills do not resonate with girls. For example, overarm throwing is typically associated with smaller ball sports (baseball, softball, cricket, etc.) rather than larger ball throwing, such as the throw required for netball (Australia’s most popular female ball sport) (2). Similarly, the kick is most strongly associated with soccer, which until recently has low participation among girls compared with boys. The improvement in girls’ competency in the kick over time may reflect the growing investment in girls’ soccer, with participation increasing between 2003 and 2012 among girls (2).
Our study has several strengths, including the large sample of children from three methodologically comparable, cross-sectional, representative school-based monitoring surveys spanning 13 yr. Importantly, we used objective measures of FMS, cardiorespiratory endurance, and BMI. FMS competency was determined by process-oriented criteria to assess the technique in performing components of a skill. That is, the assessment is “how the ball is thrown,” not “how far the ball is thrown.” Boys demonstrated higher competency in the majority of FMS; however, this may reflect a sex bias in the skills assessed, which may be more common to sport and games boys play.
There are some limitations to consider when interpreting the current findings. First, there were some minor differences in skill components of the 1997 and the 2004–2010 FMS instruments. The components of both checklists were, however, adjusted to be as similar as possible in terms of the components and number of components. This is important because FMS assessment assumes each component has equal value, and skills with fewer components are mathematically easier to master. The declining response rate, which is the result of active rather than an “opt-off” consent processes, was another limitation. Although this was of concern, the participation rates were comparable with other population surveys (11,25).
The evidence shows that investment in FMS programs during early childhood is effective in improving FMS ability (17,20,22,40). Similarly, the generally positive findings reported here between 1997 and 2004 are likely to have resulted from a planned, sequential, and sustained focus on the development of FMS. After the 1997 survey, a resource was developed to support the teaching of FMS (i.e., Get Skilled: Get Active (27)), which was distributed among government schools. Potentially, its implementation through long-term professional development of teachers and the employment of specialist physical education (PE) consultants in government schools from 1998 to 2001 helped to make FMS a focus of school PE. The implementation of this resource potentially had a flow on effect to the levels of competency in high school children. The children who received this focus in primary school after 1997 would have been, in many cases, the same cohort assessed in the 2004 survey (i.e., those in grade 2 in 1998 would be in grade 8 in the 2004 survey).
It was concerning that the current findings suggest that many youths are underskilled, and FMS programs need to remain a key component of PE curriculum. The low competency in the kick and throw among girls also suggests that the underlying pedagogy of these skills was not successful or did not resonate for girls. There is good evidence of strong associations between FMS and health benefits (21), including a link to physical activity participation. A lack of FMS may be one of the causal factors related to children’s growing inactivity; however, few jurisdictions routinely monitor FMS (32). Continuing support is required to scale up professional development programs for nonspecialist early childhood and primary school teachers (26,28,38), which would be of great value to instilling teacher confidence in the delivery of PE and FMS programs (23,24).
Foremost, it is critical that the learning process for FMS be fun so that children and teachers are motivated to participate. By identifying specific components of skills that children are lacking, teachers can guide and develop implementation programs that focus on addressing the underdeveloped components of a skill. Most important is that children are provided with opportunities for active play and participation in organized games and sports to practice FMS.
Our findings indicated that the prevalence of FMS competency in 1997 was low; however, after dissemination of a specific FMS teaching resource in schools, the prevalence of competency was associated with an increase in FMS competency. The 2010 prevalence of FMS competency still appear low, and on-going investment could increase the current rates of competency. Surveillance of children’s physical activity typically focuses on the proportion meeting daily recommendations; however, children who have not mastered basic FMS are more likely to not participate in organized sports and play experiences because of a lack of basic physical skills (30). Potentially, strategies to improve children’s physical activity may need to first consider ensuring children have competency in the necessary FMS to be physically active.
The authors are grateful for the support and cooperation of the Government, Catholic, and independent education systems and for the cooperation of the participating schools and students.
This study was funded by NSW Health. L. Barnett is supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council early career fellowship. A. D. Okely is supported by a National Heart Foundation of Australia Career Development Fellowship (CR11S 6099).
L. L. Hardy, L. Barnett, P. Espinel, and A. D. Okely helped to plan the research and took part in the writing of the final article. L. L. Hardy undertook the statistical analyses. L. L. Hardy has full access to all the data in the study and takes complete responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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Keywords:© 2013 American College of Sports Medicine
SCHOOLS; PRACTICE; POLICY; PHYSICAL ACTIVITY