Investigating the Impact of a Smart Growth Community on the Contexts of Children's Physical Activity Using Ecological Momentary Assessment

Compared to children living in traditional suburbia, children who had recently moved to a smart growth (SG) community spent more of their play time outside with friends in walkable locations, but did not increase their total activity, according to this study.

Smart growth communities are based on sustainable principles and encourage social interaction and active lifestyles with green spaces, recreation areas, sidewalks, and clustered homes. In 2009, researchers took advantage of a quasi-experimental opportunity to examine the play behaviors of children shortly after they moved into a new California SG community to study whether the kids’ activity patterns were altered by the SG setting. The play behaviors of 46 children, 9-13 years old, were compared to those of 48 similar children who lived in a nearby traditional suburban community. About 15 months after the children moved into the SG community and then again six months later, data was collected through Ecological Momentary Assessment: the children were given smartphones with software that periodically prompted them to answer questions during non-school hours on a Friday-Monday. The children’s activity level was verified with an accelerometer.

Key Findings:

  • Compared to the control, children living in the SG community were more likely to be active in the company of friends, perceived their play areas to have more vegetation, and were more likely to walk to a play area within a few blocks of their home.
  • Over the six months of the study, the SG children—but not the control group—decreased the time they spent playing at home (indoors) and in high traffic areas.
  • During the study, the SG kids did not significantly increase their activity more than the control kids.

The authors temper these findings by noting the children may have adapted their behaviors to the SG setting prior to the first data collection. They also note the SG community was not fully developed and thus had more open space and less traffic than planned.