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Testing a self-determination theory model of children’s physical activity motivation: a cross-sectional study

Simon J Sebire1*, Russell Jago1, Kenneth R Fox1, Mark J Edwards1 and Janice L Thompson2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Exercise Nutrition and Health Sciences, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, BS8 1TZ Bristol, United Kingdom

2 School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2013, 10:111  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-111

Published: 26 September 2013



Understanding children’s physical activity motivation, its antecedents and associations with behavior is important and can be advanced by using self-determination theory. However, research among youth is largely restricted to adolescents and studies of motivation within certain contexts (e.g., physical education). There are no measures of self-determination theory constructs (physical activity motivation or psychological need satisfaction) for use among children and no previous studies have tested a self-determination theory-based model of children’s physical activity motivation. The purpose of this study was to test the reliability and validity of scores derived from scales adapted to measure self-determination theory constructs among children and test a motivational model predicting accelerometer-derived physical activity.


Cross-sectional data from 462 children aged 7 to 11 years from 20 primary schools in Bristol, UK were analysed. Confirmatory factor analysis was used to examine the construct validity of adapted behavioral regulation and psychological need satisfaction scales. Structural equation modelling was used to test cross-sectional associations between psychological need satisfaction, motivation types and physical activity assessed by accelerometer.


The construct validity and reliability of the motivation and psychological need satisfaction measures were supported. Structural equation modelling provided evidence for a motivational model in which psychological need satisfaction was positively associated with intrinsic and identified motivation types and intrinsic motivation was positively associated with children’s minutes in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.


The study provides evidence for the psychometric properties of measures of motivation aligned with self-determination theory among children. Children’s motivation that is based on enjoyment and inherent satisfaction of physical activity is associated with their objectively-assessed physical activity and such motivation is positively associated with perceptions of psychological need satisfaction. These psychological factors represent potential malleable targets for interventions to increase children’s physical activity.

Motivation; Physical activity; Children; Self-determination theory; Physical activity