The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has divided the global population’s lifestyle into the pre-and post-pandemic, with the latter placing major emphasis on the digitalization of one’s habits and promotion of efficient communication while maintaining social distancing. Hence, there currently exists a demand for defining the extent to which online education and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have affected the level of physical activity among school children. The core hypothesis of the present research concerns the idea that the current educational setting, social distancing, and lack of physical interactions such as commuting and real-life physical education (PE) lessons present a negative tendency in the levels of physical activity. The purpose of the literature review, for its part, is to outline and analyze the already existing research on the topic as well as to define the methodological patterns and core findings of the research data in question.
The present literary review, while focusing on the research topic in question, includes a wide variety of takes on the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential impact on human life. Indeed, it is of utmost importance to define the causal link between the pandemic and lifestyle changes it has brought to people’s routine, mental state, and physical performance. To achieve this, the articles for the review were searched with the help of such keywords as “COVID-19,” “coronavirus,” “pandemic,” “school children,” “physical activity,” and “mental health.” The primary databases used for the research included PubMed, Elsevier, Wiley, and Google Scholar. Hence, the topic area presented in the articles reviewed a deductive approach to the issue of the pandemic’s impact on children’s physical activity, as the broad topics of COVID-19 influence were narrowed down to the articles explicitly related to the issue in order to establish a broader picture of the research matter.
Impact of COVID-19 on Education
Prior to focusing on the separate aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on children, the primary concern was the children’s perception of education in the context of rapid adjustment to the online learning patterns. Thus, in a mixed-method study conducted by Kanik (2021), the author attempted to explore the students’ perception of the new reality of online education. The results of such a study indicate that despite the positive tendency in terms of GPA and academic achievement, students were dissatisfied with the lack of access to on-campus studying and real-life interactions with educators and other students (Kanik, 2021). However, as far as the research on school children is concerned, the primary obstacle concerns the fact that little to no empirical data have been presented so far, with the predictions and information coming from the expert reviews and editorials.
Thus, for example, a paper by Gupta and Jawanda (2020) outlines the positive and negative implications of COVID-19 on children based on the existing COVID-19-related scholarly research and commonly accepted scientific knowledge. Thus, instead of focusing on the children’s response to the pandemic, the data are drawn from the correlation between the socio-economic status disparity and access to education, claiming the pandemic to become a precedent to a new “social crisis in the making” (Lancker & Parolin, 2020, p. 243). Hence, it is reasonable to summarize that the overall context of the COVID-19 pandemic has an explicit effect on children’s access to education and its perception.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Physical Performance
Once the link between school performance and COVID-19 was established, the researchers started questioning the extent to which social isolation and socio-economic disparities could affect one’s mental health and physical performance. Thus, in research presented by Araby et al. (2021), the authors conducted a cross-sectional descriptive study by collecting and analyzing online questionnaires reported by parents. The findings revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the children’s sleeping and eating patterns, health conditions, frequency of aggressive behavioral swings, and focusing (Araby et al., 2021). However, while the study operates an extensive sample, its implications may be perceived as rather biased, as the data were reported by families without quantitative evidence on the decrease or disruption in sleeping patterns such as sleep duration or deep sleep phase patterns.
The Correlation Between Mental Health and Physical Activity in Adults and Children
The rest of the studies focusing on mental well-being in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic included an explicit correlation of one’s psychological distress and adherence to physical activity. For example, a cross-sectional study presented by Puccinelli et al. (2021) justifies a hypothesis that the prevalence of mood disorders and psychological distress is explicitly correlated with one’s physical activity rates during the quarantine, with people more engaged in physical activity experiencing lower levels of stress and fewer mood disorders. Another cross-sectional study presented by Alzahrani et al. (2021) indicates a positive correlation between people reporting a higher level of health-related quality of life and their involvement in the recommended level of physical activity during the pandemic. Both these studies are not focused on children, and they are based on the self-administered online questionnaire data
In order to tackle the issue of children’s mental health and physical activity in the context of the pandemic, some researchers used parental reporting as a core data collection technique. Thus, Gilbert et al. (2021) conducted mixed-methods research by presenting online surveys to the school children’s parents. The findings of the study revealed that maintaining children’s physical activity levels was associated with maintenance or improvement of children’s mental well-being during quarantine (Gilbert et al., 2021). For its part, the systematic review by Okuyama et al. (2021) addressed the studies, including online questionnaires filled directly by children either with or without parental guidance. The analysis of such primary research justified a positive correlation between physical activity and psychological health. One substantial flaw of such studies is their heavy reliance on self-administered online questionnaires that were mostly collected from parents on behalf of their children (Hu et al., 2021).
Physical Activity Rates During the Pandemic Among School Children
Finally, once the significance of physical activity in the context of the pandemic was established, the researchers began to dwell on the overall patterns of physical activity among adults and children during the pandemic. Thus, in a cross-sectional study conducted by Bakhsh et al. (2021), the authors used self-administered online questionnaires to define the extent to which COVID-19 affected people’s dietary habits and physical activity rates. The results of the study revealed that more than 50% of respondents had a lower physical activity rate compared to the pre-pandemic context (Bakhsh et al., 2021).
However, unlike adults, children are not fully responsible for their physical health, as a major part of physical activity comes from the school curriculum and interaction with peers. For this reason, the researchers attempted to define how school closure affected school children’s health. Thus, in a literature review conducted by Tan (2021), the author estimates that prolonged school closures, although efficient at the beginning of the pandemic, eventually resulted in a significant reduction in children’s physical activity. In order to define the existing landscape of physical activity among school children, Pavlovic et al. (2021) presented a cohort study in which school PE teachers, administrators, and nurses were asked to complete an online survey concerning their impression of the existing PE requirements and physical activity rates in schools. Hence, almost 80% of the respondents claimed a rapid decrease in students’ physical activity rates during the pandemic catalyzed by a decrease in terms of PE requirements at schools (Pavlovic et al., 2021).
Similar results were identified in a quantitative study presented by Štveráková et al. (2021), in which the authors examined the physical activity rates of ninety-eight children. One of the benefits of this study was that nearly one-third of the responses were justified by the data recorded on children’s smartwatches or fitness trackers (Štveráková et al., 2021). Finally, the researchers questioned the extent to which structured physical activity encouraged by schools and extracurriculars was replaced by unstructured activity at home. Thus, both in a retrospective cohort study by Nathan et al. (2021) and a qualitative study by Pelletier et al. (2021), parents reported a shift from structured to unstructured physical activity at home and outdoors, with some of the parents perceiving such a change as positive.
COVID-19 and Positive Implications
However, despite an exhaustive list of evidence for the negative pandemic’s impact, some researchers outline beneficial implications. They include lower carbon footprint, lower rates if other infectious disease transmission, and a developing platform for public health promotion (Nelson, 2020). As a result, such public health domains as physical activity may become more popular with the community members with the help of various health awareness initiatives and online training resources.
As far as both short- and far-reaching solutions are concerned, the primary option would be to open schools. According to the UK Department of Education (2020), opening schools shall become the top priority for the governmental bodies across the globe to bridge the socio-economic gap catalyzed by the school closure. Additionally, in a qualitative expert review by Harrington and O’Reilly (2020), experts estimate the opening schools after such a crisis will require substantial human and financial resources. In the meantime, a cross-sectional study by Lanza et al. (2021) suggests that reintroduction children to school parks should be regarded as an option to exercise physical activity while maintaining social distancing and minimizing the risk of infection.
Having closely considered scholarly literature on the matter of physical activity among school children during the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes evident that the former has a tremendous impact on people’s mental and physical health. The literature available on the matter, although frequently focused on the children’s physical activity rates, lacks objectivity in terms of data collection. While the majority of data were collected among parents using self-administered questionnaires, the quality and relevance of the primary data may be tampered with by the respondents. Such an approach to data collection is mostly motivated by the existing pandemic and restrictions in terms of real-life subject observation and data collection. Hence, while researchers draw attention to the issue of physical activity rate reduction in the context of the pandemic, more evidence is required as far as school children’s activity is concerned.
The methods used in the studies discussed include mixed-methods cross-sectional studies (5 studies), qualitative studies using semi-structured interviews (1 study), cohort studies (2 studies), literature and systematic reviews (1 and 2 studies, respectively), inherently quantitative studies (1 study), expert reviews (2 studies), and descriptive studies (2 studies). Among all the aforementioned research techniques, the most popular approach with the authors was a cross-sectional mixed-methods design. Such a phenomenon presupposes that the researchers recruited a sample at a certain point in time in order to collect primary data using both quantitative and qualitative approaches to their analysis.
Undeniably, such an approach to data collection is justified by the research environment, as the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 does not allow for conducting a full-scale longitude study, and the process of sample recruitment is rather limited, given the situation. As a result, conducting a cross-sectional study by collecting information through online surveys and questionnaires is the most suitable approach to safe information processing. However, as far as the quality of the data is concerned, it becomes evident that such an approach to evidence systematization is rather unreliable, as it depends mostly on the respondents’ subjective perception of physical activity status. The physical activity rates were partly justified in one study that tracked the indicators of children’s steps with the help of smartwatches and fitness trackers. Hence, it may be concluded that while a cross-sectional mixed-methods design is rightfully the most suitable, there is a need to add measurable variables to the questionnaire templates. In such a way, the researchers will calculate tangible data along with the qualitative aspects of physical activity perceptions among school children and their families.
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