"The kids back away from each other now at the playground": Exploring families' experiences of preschooler sport and physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic


Growing participation in organized sport and physical activity (PA) during the early (<6) years (ParticipACTION, 2018) has resulted in examination of associated outcomes (Harlow et al., 2018). Despite caution against organized sport prior to age 6 (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019), emerging research suggests many parents feel pressured to enroll children in organized programs, rather than engaging in unstructured activities (Pynn et al., 2018). The suspension of organized sports due to the global COVID-19 pandemic forced sudden shifts in young families' sport and PA habits. The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences of young families during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific focus on preschoolers' evolving sport and PA engagement. Participants included parents of eight children ages 3-5 years (Mage 3.7) in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Alberta. Virtual semi-structured interviews were conducted in the summer of 2021, guided by the graphic elicitation method of 'timelining' (Bagnoli, 2009). Findings highlight four main themes with accompanying sub-themes, outlining hardships and coping strategies, including: (a) life disruptions (i.e., uncertainties and unknowns, everyone and everything home, loss of playgrounds and parks, exodus from urban centres); (b) social isolation (i.e., grandparent-void, missing friends, stranger distancing, loss of birthday parties, embracing community); (c) loss of organized sport (i.e., lack of structure, virtual activities, (un)supervised play, navigating return to sport); and (d) preschooler development (i.e., physical, social-emotional, cognitive). Findings offer valuable insight into how young families' experiences throughout the pandemic may have altered their values and behaviours related to preschoolers' sport and PA involvement.