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Using 3D Printing to Enhance Children’s Understanding of Physical Activity

By Emma Norris, on 16 July 2018

By Sam Crossley (1), Dr. Kelly Mackintosh (1), Dr. Melitta McNarry (1) and Dr. Parisa Eslambolchilar (2)

(1)  Applied Sports, Technology, Exercise and Medicine Research Centre, Swansea University, Wales, UK

(2) School of Computer Science and Informatics, Cardiff University, Wales, UK

In the UK, more than one-third of children are not achieving the minimum recommended levels of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) every day. While there are several reasons that children do not achieve this recommended amount, including socioeconomic status, urbanisation, social and environmental differences, screen-based technology is perhaps one of the most criticised. A recent Ofcom report shows that children spend an average of 10 hours per week playing video games, which is associated with an increased risk of childhood obesity.

Schools are recognised as key settings to promote MVPA as a large number of children can be reached through break times, in class activity breaks and physical education classes. However, it has been recently suggested that children have a lack of understanding of what type of activities count towards their daily MVPA target. Understanding of physical activity behaviours has been identified as an important correlate for behaviour change, through motivating an individual to get ready to make healthy changes to their daily lifestyle. The use of technology could be a great way to enhance children’s understanding of physical activity levels, especially given that they are unlikely to relinquish such highly-valued, technology-based behaviours.

The release of wearable activity trackers that are more meaningful for children, such as superhero or Disney-themed trackers, represent potential tools to change their attitudes and physical activity behaviours. However, the on-screen visualisations of data interfaced on these wearable devices and adjoining screens (e.g., monitors, tablets and smartphones) are expensive and limited to stimulating a child’s visual and auditory senses, which tend to ignore the abundance of other senses, such as touch, which is especially pertinent to children.

It is with this in mind that we are exploring novel ways to encourage children to be more physically active with the aid of 3D printers. The Exertion Games Lab in Melbourne was the first to utilise 3D printing to visualise adults’ heart rate data during physical activities. Building on this, our research team undertook a qualitative study to explore children’s perceptions of 3D printing physical activity data and invited children as co-designers using Play-Doh to inform the development of prototype 3D models. The Play-Doh model designs took the form of both abstract and graphical designs, such as a flower or paddleboard (Figure 1), which provided feedback using the petals or paddles on the board to represent different days of activity, with larger petals or paddles corresponding to higher levels of physical activity achieved for that day.







Figure 1. Children’s Play-Doh Model Designs

Through an iterative design process, two age-specific 3D models of physical activity were developed, one taking the form of a ‘sun’ design (aged 7-8 years) and the other resembling ‘bar chart’ (aged 13-14 years old). The 3D models were designed to represent children’s moderate and vigorous physical activity levels achieved for each day, across a week, as well as displaying the physical activity guideline of 60 minutes of MVPA (Figure 2).







Figure 2. Children’s 3D Model of Physical Activity (ages 7-8 years).

We have examined the effectiveness of a three-month school-based intervention in South Wales, whereby ninety-six children (aged 7-14 years) were given 3D printed models of their previous week’s physical activity levels, objectively measured using an accelerometer (publications under review). Following receipt of their 3D models, each child completed a short video interview to assess their understanding of physical activity levels. Preliminary findings show that the age-specific 3D models may enhance children’s understanding of physical activity levels, with 73% of children demonstrating an awareness that their behaviours were not optimal. In this light, the novel approach of 3D printing physical activity may offer a unique strategy to promote children’s understanding of how much physical activity is important to gain health benefits.



How can 3D printing be adapted to account for the more complex behaviours of physical activity?

What other populations do you think could benefit from 3D printed feedback?

What limitations should researchers keep in mind when designing 3D printed feedback?

How can tangible data provide a more meaningful and rewarding experience than digital data alone?


Author Bios:

Sam Crossley is a PhD candidate at Swansea University, supervised by Dr Kelly Mackintosh and Dr Melitta McNarry in the College of Engineering. His research revolves around novel physical activity measurements and visualisations to enhance children’s physical activity levels. His current focus is on whether 3D printing children’s physical activity can enhance their understanding and levels of physical activity.

Twitter: @SGMCrossley | @3DPhysicalActiv

Website: https://3dprintingphysicalactivity.wordpress.com/

Dr Kelly Mackintosh is primarily interested in children’s physical activity and health, and in particular, school-based interventions. Within this area her work focuses on physical activity measurement and the role of behaviour change in developing physically active young people. Her recent work involves the integration of technology to measure, visualise and promote physical activity levels.

Twitter: @Kel_Mackintosh


Dr Melitta McNarry’s research focuses on exercise as a model to interrogate the integrated (dys)function of the cardiorespiratory system to provide further insight into health and disease. Integral to this is the development of interventions to promote physical activity and decrease sedentary behaviours across the life-span.

Twitter: @MMcNarry



Dr Parisa Eslambolchilar is an Associate Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction and leads the Human Factors Technology Research Priority Area. Her research interests include human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing and designing interactive systems to support self-reflection, self-monitoring, feedback (audio, haptic, visual and soma), identification of barriers to change, persuasion, immersion and navigation. Her work exploits Internet of Things, wearables, smartphones, augmented reality and virtual reality. Analytical orientations: experimental studies, design thinking and auto-ethnography.

One Response to “Using 3D Printing to Enhance Children’s Understanding of Physical Activity”

  • 1
    john nicholas wrote on 24 February 2021:

    When it comes to 3D printers yes it is true to enhance kids productivity, such printers will open up their career to the world. Here is my work on printer how to use wps pin hp printer

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