Observations on Observations: Studying How Children Use Parks

Observations on Observations: Studying How Children Use Parks

By: The NC State team (Floyd, Hipp, Marquet, Mazak, Alberico, Huang)

In cities across the country, public parks and playgrounds provide opportunities to increase routine physical activity among children during non-school hours. Because neighborhood parks are widely available and affordable, their potential to encourage children to be more active is particularly important in low-income communities of color. The NC State team for the Physical Activity Research Center (PARC) has been observing, surveying, and objectively quantifying use and physical activity across parks in New York City. NY, and Raleigh and Durham, NC.

Across four months in 2017 our team observed more than 50,000 people using 20 different New York City parks. For consistency we used the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities, or SOPARC. Parks were observed during the school year (spring) and summer, weekdays and weekends, mornings, afternoons, and early evenings. We did not observe the entirety of each park, but instead pre-selected specific areas heavily used by children and youth (playground equipment, splash pads, basketball courts, etc.). Observations were brief scans of each of these areas once every 15 minutes for 2-3 hours per visit. We noted activity level (sedentary, moderate, or vigorous), gender, age group, race/ethnicity (White, African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, and other/unsure. We worked with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and used US Census data to identify parks in lower income neighborhoods with high proportions of either Asian Americans or Latino/Hispanic populations and parks with at least one playground and sports court/fields.

As PARC focuses on kids between 5 and 10 years of age, we want to share our observations on observing children across all these days; 79 unique days in fact. Over 16,500 children were observed during this study. Each momentary scan averaged over 1.5 children per area observed, or 56 children observed per hour. Playgrounds had the most children and there were more in the parks from 6-7pm than any other time (10am, 3pm, 3:30pm). More children were observed in parks during the school year than the summer, and more on weekend observations than weekdays. Areas of the park where organized activities were occurring or were in the shade were more popular than those not organized or in full sun.

Most children were active during the observations (69%). Activity differed little across parks. Non-shaded areas were a little more active than shaded, perhaps accounting for activity on larger sporting courts and fields like soccer and basketball. Swing sets were also high in physical activity with children often vigorously pumping their legs to go higher and higher.

The parks and playgrounds we observed in New York City were well used. Across all visits, children were present over 60% of the momentary scans of playgrounds. Kids ran from playground area to swings to splash areas while parents, guardians, or older siblings sat nearby in the shade. During one observation, a parks staff member brought out bouncy balls, cones, and hula hoops, just setting these in the middle of the playground area. He did not provide instructions, but allowed the children to use the equipment as they wanted. A hula hoop competition ensued in one corner followed by the use of a hula hoop set on cones as a sort of basketball hoop with children running around and throwing the balls toward the hoops while others blocked their shots. Also anecdotally we saw families spending multiple hours in the parks during the summer, especially those parks featuring splash areas for the kids.

In the highly dense environments of New York the space of a park and playground and even the simplest of play equipment kept the parks well used across the four months of observations.

Promoting Physical Activity with Temporary Street Closures

Promoting Physical Activity with Temporary Street Closures

By: Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD, MPH, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Renée Umstattd Meyer, PhD, MCHES, Baylor University, and Amanda Walker, MSRS, Physical Activity Research Center

[Reprinted with permission from Parks & Recreation magazine from its May 2018 issue. Copyright 2018 by the National Recreation and Park Association. Also available online here.]

Parks and playgrounds are a good source of physical activity for kids, but not all kids have access to safe and well-maintained facilities. In fact, lower-income communities and communities of color tend to have less access to quality park and recreation facilities. Research shows that Latinos, African-Americans and lower-income individuals are more likely to live in areas that have fewer park acres per person compared to whites and individuals in higher-income communities. Traffic and crime are also barriers to safe outdoor play and activity in some communities.

The concept of “Play Streets” has emerged as a way to promote outdoor play and physical activity for children in neighborhoods without access to safe, well-maintained parks and playgrounds. Play Streets are temporary street closures that, for a specified time, create safe play spaces. These closures can be recurring or episodic and offer a safe place for children to be physically active without traffic-safety concerns. Banning vehicles from the streets also has the added benefit of improving air quality, as well as enhancing neighborhoods by building partnerships and increasing social cohesion. Thus, Play Streets not only provide places for safe play, but also advance health equity. Play Streets have primarily been implemented in urban areas, so there is a lack of examples and resources for rural communities to use.

Play Streets Case Study

With support from the Physical Activity Research Center (PARC), we selected four rural communities — in Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas — each with a history of hosting community events, to organize and host Play Streets during summer 2017. PARC is a collaboration of internationally recognized faculty from five leading universities — University of California – San Diego, Georgia Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Baylor University — with backgrounds in public health, city planning, behavioral science, and parks and recreation. It is funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of a larger effort to build an inclusive Culture of Health across America to ensure that all children have opportunities to grow up at a healthy weight.

The communities received mini-grants to use to purchase equipment for free play, rent equipment and purchase snacks (we encouraged healthy snacks) for four Play Streets during the summer months. We studied how each community implemented the Play Streets, including how they were advertised, available activities and when they were held. We used a popular and valid tool for observing physical activity, called SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities), and pedometers to measure how active kids and adults were at the Play Streets. We also completed a systematic review of the peer-reviewed and “grey” literature to document what we know about Play Streets and their impacts on play for children, physical activity levels and communities.

The literature review evaluated hundreds of documents, and, based on 13 peer-reviewed articles and 36 reports/documents that met our inclusion criteria, we found the following:

  • Play Streets have mainly been implemented in cities and suburban areas.
  • Play Streets were described as safe places for children to play because of reduced traffic and increased supervision.
  • Only a few studies measured physical activity as an outcome.
  • Play Streets strengthen communities and increase social interactions.
  • Some residents complained about traffic detours and noise on the days that Play Streets were held.
  • Some organizations that hosted Play Streets hope they can decrease crime and violence among adolescents.

Preliminary Findings

While we are still in the early stages of analyzing the data from the four communities, our preliminary findings are that Play Streets are a good way to get kids active in rural communities. Each of the Play Streets included a variety of activities using temporary play spaces and equipment, with inflatables being the most popular activity and where children seemed to be most active. We also found that in rural communities, streets are not always the most accessible places for Play Streets to be implemented, considering that there are fewer streets and those streets often are major thoroughfares through town (hence, they cannot be closed to traffic!).

Play Streets in rural areas might actually be more accessible in other public spaces, like fields and/or parking lots. For instance, one community collaborated with its local park and recreation department to identify a location for the Play Streets, which ended up occurring on sections of an underutilized public park, including the parking lot.

We are also learning how each community implemented Play Streets, including the partners they are working with and how limited resources are being creatively combined within these organizations. For example, one community partnered with a summer meals program and hosted the Play Streets at a time that overlapped with when children were picked up for their summer meal. The intentional “coupling” of Play Streets with other community or organization events was consistent across the four communities. This approach allowed organizations not only to capitalize on shared resources, but also to reduce the burden and barrier of suburban sprawl faced by rural residents, who often had to travel via car to attend the Play Streets. We look forward to learning more about the impacts of Play Streets on children and families, in addition to important lessons regarding how communities should organize and run them.

Conclusion

For individuals interested in this method of intervention to promote outdoor play, it is important to know that Play Streets offer an opportunity for safe outdoor play for children, especially in communities that lack safe parks and playgrounds, and/or available and affordable programming opportunities. They are relatively low cost and carry many potential benefits for host organizations, the children who participate and the broader community. Play Streets are a promising intervention strategy that can help communities close gaps in availability of and access to safe places to play and enhance health equity while doing so, especially in areas that have fewer resources and greater challenges to supporting and promoting physical activity and play.

The practicality and low costs of Play Streets also provide a “reachable” solution to address challenges around access and availability of safe play spaces that can simultaneously bring communities together in a meaningful manner not only to support their children, but also to improve community connectedness and capacity, potentially increasing social networks within the community and collective efficacy. In many rural areas, public resources are limited, and the idea of advocating for new parks or even renovating parks or other play areas can be daunting and often unrealistic as an immediate or even long-term solution. Working with communities to understand how to advocate for some of these larger environmental changes remains important; however, Play Streets offer a more attainable, immediate and likely sustainable solution, with potential for broader social impacts and reach.

Keshia Pollack Porter is a Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. M. Renée Umstattd Meyer is an Associate Professor of Public Health at Baylor University. Amanda Walker is a Research Associate for Active Living Research and the Physical Activity Research Center at the University of California San Diego.

Physical Activity Advocacy Training Among Youth in Lower-Income Racial and Ethnic Minority Communities

Physical Activity Advocacy Training Among Youth in Lower-Income Racial and Ethnic Minority Communities

By: Nisha Botchwey, PhD and Katie O’Connell, MCRP, Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning

The panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies offered a spectacular backdrop for conversations led by our Georgia Tech research team about the “Physical Activity Advocacy Training Among Youth in Lower-Income Racial and Ethnic Minority Communities” poster presented at the 2018 Active Living Research Conference (ALR) in Banff in February 2018.

Our work grows out of the Physical Activity Research Center and its goal to create safe and appropriate physical activity spaces for youth with a focus on low resource, ethnic and racial minority youth. The Youth Engagement and Action for Health (YEAH) curriculum was originally designed by the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative to train youth to assess their neighborhoods and develop advocacy plans to promote health promoting changes. Our team modified the curriculum to focus on physical activity and to study the ways advocacy-training can address disparities in lower-income racial and ethnic minority youth. At the time of the conference, there were six completed clubs, located in suburban Virginia around D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, rural north Georgia, and Charlottesville, VA.

We used pre and post survey questions to understand students’ changing perceptions around leadership, physical activity, and healthy schools/communities. The three largest increases were reported in the number of students who felt they were leaders, those that participated in more than 60 minutes of physical activity in the past 7 days, and those who enjoyed talking in front of groups. For example, 37 percent of students felt they were leaders at the start of the project compared with 62 percent at the end. We also found a 23 percent increase in the number of students that felt they could ask others to help make their school/community healthier.

After YEAH site completions, we interviewed adult leaders as well as the decision makers that received presentations from the students. Everyone gave us positive reviews about the project.  One leader thought, “It was a great program that gave interactive lessons about themselves (the youth) and their community”. Another appreciated the students taking their research questions to a higher level as well as to watch them grow, especially around communication skills. One leader was surprised by the students’ enthusiasm for the project.

Given the recent social movements, especially that led by youth, the youth empowerment aspects of the project were received with great enthusiasm. People wanted to know about student motivations and their level of agency in going through the curriculum and targeting a physical activity challenge to solve. They were also interested in bringing YEAH back to their communities and eagerly anticipated a revised curriculum that incorporated lessons from our study.

We now have twenty-six clubs in progress across the U.S. including Miami, Maine, Hawaii, Saipan, and Atlanta. With approximately 300 participants, we will be able to look at our data across ethnicities, ages, geographies, and genders. The YEAH results will be published in academic journals but also converted into resources designed for youth serving organizations to support youth advocacy for physical activity promotion. Long-term, we believe the data gathered around YEAH can help make policy changes. Being at the Mountaintop in Banff allowed us to truly take an extended view of our work and ALR as the “premier venue for policy-relevant research and cross-sector exchange between scientists, practitioners and policy makers on how to create and sustain active living environments” provided a solid foundation and elevated conversations to inspire additional analyses, future research questions and community impact.

Exploring How Play Streets Impact Children’s Physical Activity

Exploring How Play Streets Impact Children’s Physical Activity

By: Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD, MPH, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Renée Umstattd Meyer, PhD, MCHES, Baylor University

Play Streets! Have you heard of them? Well, Play Streets are temporary street closures that allow for an area to be used for physical activity with the earliest of these events dating back to the 1920s. With support from the Physical Activity Research Center (PARC), we have been studying how Play Streets are organized and their impacts on kids, families, and communities in rural settings. To get the word out about our work, in February our team gave three presentations at the 2018 Active Living Research Conference in Banff, Canada and in March two presentations at the 2018 American Academy of Health Behavior Annual Scientific Meeting in Portland, Oregon. Our presentations highlighted initial findings from our study.

What do we know about Play Streets?

Two of our presentations described two systematic reviews of the existing literature regarding Play Streets and their impacts on play for children, physical activity levels, and communities. We examined 13 peer review articles (from 180 abstracts reviewed in the academic literature) that met inclusion criteria for the review. Six of these studies were from the U.S. and 10 out of the 13 studies did not measure physical activity outcomes. We also reviewed the non-academic literature on Play Streets. The 36 documents that we reviewed (out of 247 documents) were from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and Chile. Nearly all (34 out of the 36 documents) did not measure physical activity outcomes.

The main findings from the literature include:

  • While most of the documents that we reviewed did not measure physical activity, Play Streets were described as safe places for children to play because of reduced traffic and increased supervision.
  • Games, activities, and equipment were provided for children at Play Streets, most commonly including cycling, dancing, and walking.
  • Play Streets strengthen communities and increase social interactions.
  • Some residents complained about traffic detours and noise from Play Streets events.
  • Some organizations hope that Play Streets can decrease crime and violence among adolescents.

What do we know about Play Streets in rural communities?

Our other presentations examined how Play Streets impact the physical activity of youth in rural communities. We were excited for these preliminary findings because they are from the first ever investigation of Play Streets in rural communities. In our study, four different rural communities received mini-grants to each host 4 Play Streets during the summer of 2017. We used a popular and valid tool for observing physical activity called SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities). SOPARC has mainly been used to observe physical activity in permanent spaces such as parks, and we adapted it to temporary spaces, which are the essence of Play Streets.  Most notable about the use of SOPARC for Play Streets was that during the course of a Play Street, spaces had the potential to appear and/or disappear depending on how children were using the different areas! We are still analyzing these data, but what we have seen so far, is that across the 350+ children who wore pedometers at the Play Streets, another way to measure physical activity, many of them were active at the Play Street.

Based on existing literature, Play Streets seem to have positive impacts on children’s opportunities for general play and their physical activity levels, as well as on community safety and relations. Our data also suggest that Play Streets are a good way to get kids active in rural communities. We look forward to learning more about the impacts of Play Streets on children and families, in addition to important lessons regarding how communities should organize and run them.