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State of Play(grounds)



If you build it, he will come.

No, we’re not talking about a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, but rather a playground in an urban community. And "he" isn’t the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, but that neighborhood kid you know from down the street — or rather, kids throughout the community.

Leaving our corny "Field of Dreams" metaphors aside, new research shows that yes, if you build facilities for kids to play in, they’ll play. Two new briefs from Active Living Research (ALR) find that communities that build and maintain safe and easy to access playgrounds can help young people be active, and that walking, biking or hiking trails support physical activity in the community.

But researchers caution more research is needed, especially to find out how kids use trails.

"Parks, playgrounds, and trails are designed to be places for active recreation, and this brief and synthesis considers how we can design them to maximize opportunities for physical activity," says Jim Sallis, ALR’s program director. "These summaries show that we have evidence about how to design parks, playgrounds, and trails to support physical activity, so that is the good and useful news."

The first brief, "The Potential of Safe, Secure and Accessible Playgrounds to Increase Children’s Physical Activity," looked at how the design of playgrounds affects their use. Sallis and his team discovered that playgrounds which are easy and safe to access, are well-maintained and feature a variety of different equipment help children stay active.

"The unfortunate news is that parks and playgrounds are less available in low-income and mostly-minority communities where obesity rates are highest," Sallis adds. "Thus, there is a big challenge to think creatively about how to improve access to these public recreation facilities for youth in all neighborhoods."

For example, the researchers studied schoolyards in two New Orleans neighborhoods, one that stayed open and supervised after school and on the weekends, the other that didn’t. The report found the number of children who were outside and active in the neighborhood with the open schoolyard was 84 percent higher than in the other one.

Policy-wise, researchers suggest that communities look at joint-use agreements between local governments and school districts as a way to encourage physical activity. They also encourage city planners to build safe playgrounds in residential areas and promote their use in the community.

The second brief, "The Power of Trails for Promoting Physical Activity in Communities," found that biking, hiking and walking trails can be a cost-effective measure for communities to promote physical activity. But Sallis adds more research is necessary to find out exactly how young people use them.