Playground Features and Physical Activity in U.S. Neighborhood Parks

Published in: Preventive Medicine, Volume 131 (February 2020). doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105945

Posted on RAND.org on December 12, 2019

by Deborah A. Cohen, Bing Han, Stephanie Williamson, Catherine J. Nagel, Thomas L. McKenzie, Kelly R. Evenson, Peter Harnik

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All people need to engage in routine physical activity and children require it daily. Playgrounds are settings designed for children to be physically active, yet there has been little research assessing which play elements and structures are associated with more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) among both youth and adults. We conducted a national study of neighborhood parks with the goal of identifying factors that promote more MVPA. We selected a nationally representative sample of 162 parks between 3 and 22 acres in 25 U.S. cities with a population >100,000. We used direct observation to measure MVPA in 147 playgrounds during spring and summer of 2016, documented playground characteristics and assessed hours of use and MVPA by age group and gender. We analyzed data using descriptive statistics and generalized linear models. The most common play elements and structures were slides and ladders (92% of parks) and swings (81%); elements supporting balancing, crawling, spinning, sand and water play were in <30% of playgrounds. Each additional play element was associated with about 50% more users and 50% more MVPA. Spinning structures and splash pads were associated with more playground use and more MVPA. Playgrounds with signage advertising park programs and on-site restrooms had more person-hours of use, but only half the parks had restrooms and <30% had signage. To address insufficient physical activity, upgrades to playgrounds should include restrooms, structures that support a wide variety of movements, and elements that also encourage adults to be active.

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