BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In an age when even preschoolers have
electronic toys and devices, many parents wonder how to get their
children to be more physically active. Now, two studies published
by University at Buffalo researchers provide some answers.
The UB studies are among the few laboratory-controlled studies
of how the choice and type of toys given to children affects their
physical activity. Study subjects were 8-12 years old.
The goal of the research, led by James Roemmich, PhD, associate
professor of pediatrics in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical
Sciences, was to identify basic factors that make children more
"We wanted to see if providing children with choices or autonomy
-- the ability for the individual to decide how he or she wanted to
be physically active -- increased their intrinsic motivation to be
physically active," said Roemmich.
The results showed that giving children more toy choices
markedly increases their physical play, especially in girls. And
giving children the opportunity to master games -- including
exergames, such as Wii games -- also increases their physical
The first UB study, published in the Journal of Science and
Medicine in Sports, found that when there was only one toy to play
with, boys engaged in 1.3 times longer active play than the
But when children were provided access to a choice of active
toys, physically active play time increased by nearly 200 percent
for girls, compared to an increase of just 42 percent for boys.
"We were quite surprised to find such a significant difference
between boys and girls," says Roemmich.
Previous studies in the field have consistently revealed that
girls are less active than boys.
"But giving girls a choice of physical activities made their
level of physical play equal to that of boys," says Denise M. Feda,
co-author on both studies and UB postdoctoral associate in the
Division of Behavioral Medicine of the UB Department of Pediatrics,
where the studies were conducted.
"Girls may enjoy the cognitive task of choosing toys, evaluating
them and selecting which to play with, whereas the selection
process and thinking about the toys may be less appealing to boys,"
the paper states.
In the same study, average exercise intensity increased for both
genders when children were provided with a choice of toys. Active
toys involved in the study included mini hockey, bean bag toss
combined with tic-tac-toe, mini indoor basketball and jump
In a second UB study published in the International Journal of
Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, the UB researchers
looked more closely at how autonomy and mastery -- a force that
motivates the child to develop proficiency -- increased a child's
intrinsic motivation for physical activity.
That study revealed that a combination of autonomy and mastery
were most powerful in increasing children's' physical activity
The UB researchers wanted to know if the mastery component of
exergames or Wii games would motivate children to increase play
time, reducing the need for choice to motivate activity, explains
"Indeed, we found that the combination of autonomy (choosing
from several different games) and mastery (playing exergames)
produced the greatest increases in physical activity time," says
However, he adds, increasing physical activity time isn't the
whole story. Roemmich says that while the children played Wii games
for twice as long as they played traditional versions of the same
games, such as basketball, boxing, golf and hockey, they expended
only half the energy during Wii games.
"In traditional games, children expend a lot of energy chasing
after balls and pucks, while with exergames, they are just waiting
for the game to reset," says Roemmich.
So what should parents do?
"Focus on finding 3 to 5 active games that your children like
and make them easily accessible around the home," says Roemmich.
These can be dance or yoga DVDs, exergames, or mini versions of
basketball and hockey for in-home use.
And, he says, exergames do have their place. "If an exergame
displaces watching TV or playing a videogame, then even the lighter
intensity physical activity is preferable."
Outside the home, he says, seek a variety of activities ranging
from formal to aerobic dance, to zoomba, basketball or martial
arts. And he suggests that parents seek out fitness centers and
youth centers that promote autonomy and choice by not charging
extra for such choice of programming.
Roemmich led the research and co-authored the papers with Feda,
Jacob Barkley, PhD, of Kent State University and Karl F. Kozlowski,
PhD, clinical assistant professor, and former graduate students
Maya Lambiase and Thomas F. McCarthy, all of the Department of
Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, UB School of Public Health and
The studies were funded by the National Institutes of