What Is the Impact on Children's Physical Activity if Play Grounds Are Renovated?

    • January 26, 2010

Lois A. Brink, MLA
Professor of Landscape Architecture
College of Architecture and Planning
University of Colorado at Denver
Denver, Colorado

The Problem: Since 1998, landscape architects at the University of Colorado at Denver have worked in partnership with Denver Public Schools to renovate 48 public elementary schoolyards. Through a program called Learning Landscapes, they have turned neglected playgrounds into attractive and safe parks that reflect the needs and interests of nearby communities while promoting healthy activities for children.

But no one had figured out what impact, if any, these renovations had on the physical activity levels of children in these playgrounds. Which aspects of the playground design had the greatest impact on activity levels? Did neighborhood use and school policies have any impact on activity?

RWJF Approach: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research (ALR) program stimulates and supports research to examine environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Funded researchers use a transdisciplinary approach—one that encourages experts from various disciplines to collaborate on identifying environmental factors and policies that are related to physical activity. For more information on the program, see Program Results Report.

Programee Background: Lois A. Brink, MLA, is a professor of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado at Denver. In the early 1990s, her daughter attended kindergarten at Bromwell Elementary School in Denver, where, Brink recalls, the playground had "not a blade of grass and nothing else living."

Brink decided to act. She moved beyond the view that landscape architecture merely adds beauty to a setting, recognizing that "the spatial design of an environment can impact human activity levels with that environment." She coined the term learning landscape to describe a playground that includes grass playing fields, age-appropriate play equipment, trees, shade structures, gateways, artwork, gardens and traditional and nontraditional play structures.

By 1998, Brink's daughter was long out of kindergarten at Bromwell, but the renovation of the school's playground that year marked the first of 48 Learning Landscapes developed by Denver Public Schools, Brink and the University of Colorado.

The Project: Do Learning Landscapes encourage children to be more active? RWJF's Active Living Research program provided a grant that allowed Brink to answer this question. To help determine the impact of redesigned playgrounds on children's activity levels, Brink and her colleagues studied elementary schoolchildren at nine Denver elementary school playgrounds: three that were newly renovated, three that were renovated four years earlier and three that were not renovated.

Under the study, conducted from May 1, 2005, to December 31, 2007, and entitled Evaluating the Effects of Inner-City School Playground Redevelopment on Physical Activity Levels in Children, researchers observed children at all nine playgrounds for four days during September and October in 2005 and 2006. Through validated and reliable observation methods developed by SOPLAY (System for Observing Play and Leisure Activity in Youth), the observers identified and recorded 60,000 points of activity at three levels: sedentary, moderate (walking and moving around) and very active (running, jumping, moving quickly).

Brink and her colleagues also developed surveys to determine how community residents used the playgrounds and to see if schools placed restrictions on playground use.

Findings: In 2005, the first year of observation, results showed that the renovated playgrounds and the Learning Landscapes designs positively influenced children's activity levels.

  • Children at the six renovated playgrounds were significantly less sedentary than were children at the three playgrounds without renovations.
  • Boys were significantly less likely than girls to be sedentary at the renovated playgrounds.
  • A significantly greater percentage of boys (50%) were very active on the newly renovated playgrounds than on earlier renovated playgrounds (44%) and playgrounds without renovations (39%).
  • Boys and girls were significantly more active in the play equipment areas of renovated playgrounds compared with the play equipment areas of the old playgrounds. There was one exception: Seventy percent of girls and 59 percent of boys were very active on the swings, regardless of the renovations.

In 2006, the second year of observation, the results were mixed.

  • Children were more active and less sedentary in the renovated playgrounds than in the non-renovated playgrounds, but the difference was smaller than that observed in the first year and was not statistically significant.
  • Children in the non-renovated playgrounds had a higher "very active" rating than did children in the recently renovated playgrounds.
  • Declines in sedentary rates from 2005 to 2006 for children at the earlier renovated playgrounds were the same as declines in sedentary rates for children at the non-renovated playgrounds. In other words, than a space and equipment are needed. Some level of mediation is also necessary (e.g., a sports program or a mediated recess).

Overall, says Brink, the study did not reveal a substantial increase in very active children in renovated playgrounds, a finding that surprised her. Instead, she says, "what we saw was a major reduction in sedentary behavior and a substantial increase in moderate behavior."

Brink points out that in both years of observation, increased activity levels around the play apparatus in the renovated playgrounds were not gender biased. "Overall, research has proven that boys are more physically active than girls, who like to socialize more and don't demonstrate the same levels of activity. In our new Learning Landscapes, everyone was equally active."

The study's efforts to assess neighborhood influences and school policies on activity levels were less successful than the efforts to observe playground activities. In order to determine the impact of neighborhoods on playground activity levels, Brink and other project participants developed and attempted to conduct a survey of residents. Low response rates to the survey resulted in inconclusive findings. In order to analyze the role of school policies on playground activity levels, Brink and her colleagues designed and conducted the "School Opportunities Survey." This survey found that all schools put restrictions on physical activities during recess, but it did not determine how these restrictions affected activity on the playgrounds. Brink will continue to investigate whether school policies contribute to activity levels on playgrounds.

When this study ended in 2007, Brink and her colleagues received an additional RWJF Active Living Research grant (ID# 065323) to disseminate information about the program and develop a website about the Learning Landscapes program. In 2008, Denver citizens voted to build 37 new Learning Landscapes at Denver public schools from 2009 to 2012.

RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, the design of the built environment and other factors necessary to reengineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday lifestyles for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the lower-income and racial/ethnic minority communities in which childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.

ALR research teams are required to be transdisciplinary, involving investigators from multiple disciplines and backgrounds who work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries. ALR researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science). "In addition to building an evidence base to guide physical activity policy and community design, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and diverse network of researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

ALR actively seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. 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- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it."

Orleans adds, "The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the built environment and on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity. In addition, a growing number of urban planners and transportation policy-makers recognize that community design is critical for health."