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Does playground improvement increase physical activity among children? A quasi-experimental study of a natural experiment

Summary


Impact of playground design changes on usage and physical activity may depend on gender, parent perceptions and play affordances

In creating a quasi-experimental pre-post evaluation study, these authors aimed to examine the impact of park/playground improvements on playground usage and physical activity of children, as well as parent perceptions of a public park, in a lower socioeconomic status neighborhood in Sydney, Australia (Park A). Improvements included age-specific playground apparatus dispersed across the park including public art and an aboriginal theme; water play; basketball and skating areas; upgraded paths; new greenery, lighting and benches; and the opening of existing team sports fields to public use. A comparison park (Park B) with similar amenities (pre-renovation) was chosen in a geographically and demographically similar area. The authors collected pre- and post intervention data from direct observation of children’s activity and interviews of parent park users.

Overall, playground renovations did not lead to a significant increase in children’s playground usage or physical activity. Prior to renovation, playground usage was greater for Park B than Park A; following renovation, usage increased for Park A and decreased for Park B resulting in equal usage after renovations, but these changes over time were not significantly different. Although analyses by gender were non-significant, there was a trend towards a decrease in usage by girls in both parks and an increase for boys at Park A.

Prior to renovation, physical activity was lower in Park A than in Park B; physical activity was essentially the same between parks after renovation, though it had declined for both. Boys tended to be more active than girls in both parks and both pre- and post-renovation. Girls at Park A showed a statistically significant decline in physical activity post-renovation. The authors suggest that the gender difference may be due to the reduction of swings (used by more girls) in favor of large open green spaces such as athletic fields, which were commonly used for boys’ sports. According to parent interviews (of 140 parents), attainment of recommended levels of physical activity was not correlated with frequency of use of the park.

The authors suggest that parental perceptions of the play equipment may explain park attendance and physical activity findings. Overall parental perceptions of the parks’ maintenance, safety and aesthetics as well as the variety, condition and adventurousness of the playground were positive. However, concerns were raised about adequacy of the amount of play equipment, particularly of slides and swings as well as safety concerns about location of play equipment near traffic, fencing and flooring. Response to the introduction of thematic material and art was mixed with some parents feeling those features lacked play value. The introduction of new, stimulating playground equipment, appears to have attracted initial use, but not sustained use.

 

Citation

Bohn-Goldbaum, E. E., Phongsavan, P., Merom, D., Rogers, K., Kamalesh, V., Bauman, A., (2013). Does playground improvement increase physical activity among children? A quasi-experimental study of a natural experiment. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 1 - 9.

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