The Problem. Research shows that children who spend time outdoors have higher levels of physical activity. Access to neighborhood parks, playgrounds and other community resources also spurs physical activity. But what specific elements of a neighborhood park encourage families and children to use it, and what then motivates physical activity?
RWJF Approach. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research national program supports and stimulates research on the environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Researchers use a transdisciplinary approach: experts from various fields collaborate to identify the environmental factors and policies linked to physical activity. (See Program Results for additional information.)
Programee Background. Robin Moore, Dipl.Arch., M.C.P., has been studying connections between urban design and healthy human development, primarily in children, for 40 years. In 2000, with Nilda Cosco, Ph.D., he co-founded the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at the North Carolina State University College of Design. NLI pursues research, offers training on designing the built environment and helps communities create stimulating places for play, learning and environmental education.
Moore has always been interested, he says, in how the outdoor environment can motivate both physical activity and learning among children. Decades ago, Moore noticed that kids were spending less and less time outdoors, while more were becoming overweight and obese. Those trends triggered his desire to study links between outdoor environments and physical activity.
The Project. From 2007 to 2009, Moore's transdisciplinary research team pursued "Investigating Parks for Active Recreation for Kids (I-PARK)," a project to explore links between specific design elements in neighborhood parks, the park context and children's physical activity. The project was funded under the RWJF national program Active Living Research. Moore's team focused on 20 randomly selected parks in central Durham, N.C.—a socioeconomically mixed, majority African-American and Hispanic area with numerous small parks.
To measure the behavior of park users for the I-PARK study, Moore and his team used SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities)—a tool for measuring physical activity in parks. On the environmental side, EAPRS (Environmental Assessment of Public Recreation Spaces) was used to capture the physical attributes of different parks.
Programee Perspective/Results. During the summer of 2007, the research team studied the 20 parks. The "main surprise was that the majority were highly underused," says Moore. One park never saw a single user. However, four of the parks drew much greater use by neighborhood children. Moore returned to three of those parks to interview users and employ behavior mapping—a direct observation tool used to collect more detailed information on behavior and the related environment by coding them simultaneously.
The team found that the parks with the most activity had new or recently renovated playgrounds that offered diverse choices for play, including climbing structures, swings, water play and sand play. These parks also included relatively new settings with comfortable seating that fostered a social environment for adults—which prolonged park visits. In one of those parks, "Almost 70 percent of the activity took place in the really nice, renovated playground area, even though it accounted for just 2 percent of the total park size," says Moore. This park also had an area specifically designed for preschool children that attracted additional use by young families during the week.
Although his team is still analyzing the I-PARK results, Moore believes they will lead to guidelines for designing effective outdoor environments for families, including an array of settings for both play and social interaction. The project's findings also highlight the critical role of regular maintenance and periodic retrofitting of equipment in spurring park use.
The research team also strengthened the SOPARK tool by modifying the existing age codes to make the tool more sensitive to children's park activity. The standard SOPARC protocol uses a single code for "child" from infancy to 12 years old and a further code for "teen" (13 to 20). The I-PARK team developed codes for three age groups: 0 to 5 (Young Children); 6 to 12 (Middle Childhood); and 13 to 18 (Older Children) based on Erik Erikson's stages of child development, thus taking into account possible variations in physical activity behavior. (The reliability of the new tool was acceptable. See Bocarro et al., Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 6(6): 2009. Abstract available online.)
Moore also developed a simplified and shortened version of the EAPRS that focuses on the attributes of parks directly related to use by children and families. The new measure—known as CAFPAT (Children and Families Park Assessment Tool)—is not ready for public release as of the publication of this report, and information about the tool has not yet been published.
Moore believes that the I-PARK results provide an important step in evidence-based community design, which should inform decision-makers about the potential impact of the built environment on active lifestyles of children and families. The findings will also provide valuable guidance to parks and recreation systems as they embark on park renovation programs. In this regard, NLI is collaborating with a major playground equipment company to apply the results of I-PARK and similar studies in stressing the importance of playground location.
RWJF Perspective. Launched in 2000, Active Living Research (ALR) is a $31 million national program that looks at how the physical and built environments and related policies influence the level of physical activity in everyday life. Findings are used to help ensure that the lifestyles of all Americans include healthy levels of physical activity. The program has recently focused on reversing childhood obesity—particularly in low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities where obesity levels often are highest and rising fastest.
ALR-funded research must be transdisciplinary, and ALR investigators represent more than 20 fields, including public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology and political science. "Besides building an evidence base for physical activity, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and a diverse network of active living researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF senior scientist.
ALR seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision-makers and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible."
"The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders that how active we are depends greatly on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity," says Orleans. "Increasing numbers of urban planners now recognize that community design is critical for population health."
ALR has had a huge impact in terms of influence," says Celeste Torio, Ph.D., RWJF program officer for Active Living Research. "The research is very innovative and something policy-makers can use. It's not something you just put on the shelf and forget about."