Social capital, children's sport participation and physical literacy development in rural Western Australia

Author Identifier


Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Master of Education


School of Education

First Supervisor

Dawn Penney

Second Supervisor

Ruth Jeanes


Local sports teams are at the heart of many rural Australian communities, a hub of physical and social activity. Historically, in rural communities, children’s access to opportunities to build foundations for lifelong participation in sport and physical activity is primarily derived from parents’ and guardians’1 access to the social networks developed within and around these traditional teams. Parents use social capital built within these networks to provide opportunities for their children to move, play, socialise, and develop their capabilities on a physical literacy journey. This project sought to extend understanding of children’s sport participation in rural Australia by examining the relationship between social capital and physical literacy development. It centred on one rural community in Western Australia (WA), called Emelle for the purposes of this study.

Changes in sport participation in Australia and directions in sport policy set an important context for the project, which recognised that participation in formal sport team environments is one of several prospective avenues for children’s physical literacy development. Engagement in informal sport was acknowledged as also important to examine, particularly given participation trends and the need to consider issues of equity and inclusivity in relation to the physical literacy opportunities. Informal sport is largely unexplored in research addressing community sport in rural Australia and little is known about its significance as a mechanism for developing social capital relationships of trust and reciprocity and for expanding opportunities for children’s participation. The project also reflected an absence of current research examining the opportunities for physical literacy development that formal sport provision in rural communities facilitates, and for whom.

Narrative inquiry was employed to generate rich insights from five purposefully selected parents and other community sport stakeholders associated with Emelle, concerning the question: How does social capital influence opportunities for sport participation and physical literacy development for children in rural communities? As a community member my role as researcher was multifaceted in developing my personal narrative alongside participant interviews and focus groups that explored stories of social capital’s past, present, and future influence on children’s physical literacy development in Emelle.

The investigation uncovered stories of social conditions that facilitated children’s sport and physical activity participation. Social capital resources of knowledge and identity were shared through bonding and bridging interactions. Members of formal sport organisations were significantly more empowered by these resources to focus provision on the historical sport models of physical literacy progression. Informal sport however, enabled broader community access to avenues which developed physical literacy progression with less pressure to meet social norms than formal sport may allow.

The project has provided original contemporary insight into children’s sport participation and the opportunities arising for physical literacy development in rural communities. It has explored and illustrated the importance of conceptual links between social capital and physical literacy development and the resulting impact on cultural connection, historic team spirit and friends who are family. Findings provide in-depth perspectives for policymakers and the local community to consider in relation to the mechanisms affecting children’s sport participation and physical literacy development in rural communities.



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