Park Characteristics, Use, and Physical Activity

A Review of Studies Using SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities)

Published in: Preventive Medicine, v. 86, May 2016, p. 153-166

Posted on RAND.org on March 29, 2016

by Kelly R. Evenson, Sydney A. Jones, Katelyn M. Holliday, Deborah Cohen, Thomas L. McKenzie

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Research Question

  1. What are studies using the SOPARC observation tool finding about the demographics and the physical activity levels of people who use public parks?

The System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) can obtain information on park users and their physical activity using momentary time sampling. We conducted a literature review of studies using the SOPARC tool to describe the observational methods of each study, and to extract public park use overall and by demographics and physical activity levels. We searched PubMed, Embase, and SPORTDiscus for full-length observational studies published in English in peer-reviewed journals through 2014. Twenty-four studies from 34 articles were included. The number of parks observed per study ranged from 3 to 50. Most studies observed parks during one season. The number of days parks were observed ranged from 1 to 16, with 16 studies observing 5 or more days. All studies included at least one weekday and all but two included at least one weekend day. Parks were observed from 1 to 14 times/day, with most studies observing at least 4 times/day. All studies included both morning and afternoon observations, with one exception. There was a wide range of park users (mean 1.0 to 152.6 people/park/observation period), with typically more males than females visiting parks and older adults less than other age groups. Park user physical activity levels varied greatly across studies, with youths generally more active than adults and younger children more active than adolescents. SOPARC was adapted to numerous settings and these review results can be used to improve future studies using the tool, demonstrate ways to compare park data, and inform park promotions and programming.

Key Findings

  • Among the surveyed studies, males visited parks more than females.
  • Studies reported seeing older adults in parks less frequently than other age groups, with the exception of one study in Taiwan.
  • Physical activity levels varied greatly among types of park users, with youths generally more active than adults and young children more active than adolescents during park visits.
  • The SOPARC tool can be used in many settings, collecting data to use in cross-park comparisons and to improve park design and programming.

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