Specially tailored playgrounds met their goals of increasing kids' use and physical activity, in a new study from the Netherlands.
The Richard Krajicek Foundation creates public playgrounds – known as Krajicek playgrounds - in deprived neighborhoods there. Each playground has a unique design based on the needs of the kids who are most likely to use it. Each playground is supervised during the busiest times, and coaches are responsible for organizing activities.
Given the positive findings of the new study, researchers say that in underprivileged neighborhoods, adding supervised activities and equipment could increase use of regular playgrounds that are underused and often left deserted.
“Providing playgrounds . . . that provide a motivating and socially safe play environment will increase physical activity and will have – little but relevant – impact on public health,” said lead author Evert Verhagen of VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam in an email to Reuters Health.
“The problem of inactivity and . . . lifestyle related disorders is greatest in deprived neighborhoods where safe play opportunities are limited,” Verhagen said.
As reported in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, the researchers randomly chose 10 of the 99 Krajicek playgrounds and 10 typical playgrounds as comparisons.
Specially trained college students observed the playgrounds for four days to determine the number of children and their intensity of physical activity at the playgrounds.
The researchers found Krajicek playgrounds empty about 12 percent of the time. The regular playgrounds were empty about 29 percent of the time.
About 13 percent of the kids on the Krajicek playgrounds were engaged in vigorous physical activity, compared to about 10 percent of kids on the regular playgrounds - a small difference.
The Krajicek playgrounds seemed to attract more boys than girls. The researcher suspect boys are attracted to the playgrounds’ team sports like soccer and basketball.
Some designs are probably better than others, Verhagen said, adding that it’s important to take the local neighborhoods into consideration.
“As an example, it would have little use to install a basketball court in a neighborhood where the children are generally of younger age,” he said. “In contrast, swings will appeal less to older youth.”
Verhagen said the best way to match playgrounds to neighborhoods is to talk to the residents.
“Also make sure to include the social environment,” he said. “The playground needs to be accessible to all and not only to a small group of big kids who ‘own’ the playground - all users need to feel safe there.”
The study is important but more research is needed to determine if the design of the playground explains differences in use and activity, said Peter Anthamatten, a researcher with the University of Colorado at Denver.
The difference may be the equipment, or it could be the adult supervision, said Anthamatten, who was not involved with the new study.
“This is an important debate on how to improve physical activity among schools and there is good research to investigate whether lending equipment, organizing activities, renovating schoolyards, or improving adult supervision is the most effective strategy,” Anthamatten told Reuters Health in an email.
“What the authors can claim is that they observe meaningful difference on their playgrounds with the program (equipment and supervision) but they cannot say which part of the program makes the difference,” he said, adding that playground renovation does tend to be expensive.
“Whether it is worth the time and money for schools to renovate their playgrounds will of course be driven by the needs and wealth of individual communities,” Anthamatten said.