Meaning matters: a dialogical narrative analysis of the role of physical activity in the everyday lives of parents of children aged 3-5 years

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Evidence from behaviour change research may not be immediately useful for affecting behaviour; the evidence must first undergo the creative analytic process of design. Design-based methods like, Human-Centred Design (HCD), are concerned with a person-centred understanding of experiences and how these mediate behaviour according to the meanings ascribed to them. The purpose of this work was to initiate the process of HCD for an intergenerational physical activity (IPA-activity in which both adult and child engage simultaneously) intervention by understanding how parents of children (aged 3-5) experienced physical activity (PA) in their everyday lives.


Parents (n=20) and children (n=13) from 2 Scottish communities participated in design workshops. These were held in either a community facility or nursery school. Parent workshops (n=3) lasted approx. 3 hrs ea. and child workshops (n=4) around 45 minutes ea. The adult workshops combined ethno-methodological approaches with narrative interview practices resulting in a format that encouraged story-telling and creative interaction around PA in everyday life. The child workshops employed an adapted write-draw approach that replaced writing with telling. The children were asked to tell and draw about who they played with and where and what kinds of activities they did with their family. The workshops were video/audio recorded and data were transcribed verbatim. Taking the stance of a story analyst, dialogical narrative analysis (DNA) was used to create narrative typologies from the participant’s data. Typologies are helpful in identifying the narrative resources and complexity of individual stories; however, typologies are of narratives, not of people - no person can be reduced to a single narrative type.

The parents’ typologies demonstrated their configurations of dynamic, meaningful linkages between themselves, their children and PA. They were named for the narrative action identified as the central theme of that ideal type. The parents’ data were interpreted into 3 main typologies:
1. The Architect: PA is a tool for constructing the child
2. The Zephyr: PA is a non-event with little to no meaningful links
3. The Sower: PA is a seed for passing on ‘self’
The children’s data were interpreted into a composite typology called The Grain of Sand. This is a generic construct of how the children aged 3-5 generally experienced life and used emplotment to set out the structure, pattern, and effects of these experiences from a child’s point of view.

Architect narratives experienced tension in their meaningful configurations (semiosphere) more so than Zephyr narratives that lacked intentional trajectory, while Sower narratives thrived on imaginative possibilities. Both tension and imagination caused contradictions in the semiosphere which can become catalysts for re-configuration of meaning or ‘change.’ Meanings allowed parents to be productively inconsistent with themselves and demonstrated a dynamic mediating role across time (from past, through present, into future). Parents’ meanings can be seen working productively in the children’s narrative, particularly aspects of the Sower.

Design and narrative methods inform intervention research. They are person-centred and meaning-focused and offer a humanistic approach to behaviour change. Further research should consider the dynamics of meaning-making and how it is reconfigured across time.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2016
EventScottish Physical Activity Research Conference -
Duration: 26 Oct 2016 → …


ConferenceScottish Physical Activity Research Conference
Period26/10/16 → …


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