Playground and Park Design: Getting Our Children to Exercise


Things to be considered, according to a new study: confined play spaces, need for parental supervision, organized programs and games


The current epidemic of obesity among our children and adolescents calls for creative, multidisciplinary approaches to address the problem. Improved nutrition at home, at school, and in the community is critical. Increased exercise is similarly important, but it is well known that the amount and quality of physical exercise declines as young children grow up and continues to decline into adulthood.

A recent study looked at the types and amount of exercise that kids engaged in in public parks and offers some insights as to how to improve the physical activity levels of our youth through improved park planning.

Researchers observed 2,712 children in 20 randomly selected parks in communities around Durham, North Carolina. They divided the children into preschoolers, ages 6-12, and adolescents. Then they watched the types of play and intensity of exercise in which children participated.

Earlier studies had shown that parks with playgrounds, basketball courts, walking paths, tracks, swimming areas, and multipurpose rooms were associated with higher levels of physical activity and better physical health. Similarly, sports fields, courts, and playgrounds were associated with greater activity compared to other types of parks areas, such as open space and picnic.

They found it was the presence of other children engaged in physical activity that had the biggest effect on increasing physical activity in recreation areas. When there were other children playing in the park zone, the odds of higher physical activity increased 3.67 times.

Boys were more likely to be engaged in vigorous physical activity than girls and used the courts such as tennis and basketball more often. Girls were more likely than boys to play in playgrounds. Children in 0-5 and 6-12-year-old age groups were most likely to be observed in playgrounds, open spaced areas, on trails, and paths compared to boys and girls aged 13-18 years.

Adult supervision actually lowered the likelihood of physical activity. Adult safety concerns seem to put a damper on children's physical activity levels, say the researchers. They recommend that parks be designed such that parents can allow their children freedom while being able to supervise them appropriately. This might include safer play equipment and play surfaces as well as the provision of confined play areas within larger parks.

The study also showed that for the youngest children, the more formal and organized the play activity, the less physical activity the children engaged in. They noted that younger children are more spontaneous in their physical play and have a limited attention span for organized activities that may actually serve to suppress their natural tendencies for vigorous physical play.

The researchers suggest that their information be used to inform planning for parks and children's activity programs but parents can also use their findings to help make good choices about playground outings for their children. Choosing locations with sport-specific courts for adolescents, choosing well used locations for all age children, seeking safe, confined play spaces for younger children to avoid the need for parental over supervision, and being aware of the nature of organized programs and the degree to which they allow for vigorous exercise are all useful considerations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for

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