Innovative large-area playgrounds encourage parental involvement and make the whole family more active, a comparative study shows.
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Playgrounds have traditionally been built with children in mind, but that is changing. Today’s newest playgrounds are designed to encourage play among children and adults.
Instead of parents or educators watching from a bench, the idea is to build playgrounds that attract the whole family to be active, including older children and grandparents.
The innovative playgrounds are located on a large area. Gone is the familiar layout of one or two static climbing and sliding structures along with a few swings. Instead, you’ll find a variety of structures with different heights and surfaces, natural areas designed for play, loose or movable equipment that lends itself to more varied and creative movement, and structures sized for collaborative play between smaller and larger – older siblings, their peers and parents and grandparents.
Well-designed outdoor playgrounds help children get the recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, of which only about 28 percent of Canadian children currently achieve. And the more adults play with their kids, the more likely they are to add exercise minutes to their own weekly total.
A trio of American researchers documented the effect of innovative playgrounds on physical activity. Their study compared eight innovative playgrounds in London, England, to eight similar-sized traditional playgrounds in the United States to determine not only who visits the parks, but also how the park’s play structures are used.
The research team also compared usage patterns in eight large one-acre parks located in central London with eight smaller parks (less than an acre) in large population centers in the US (New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles). . And to ensure appropriate representation, parks in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods were included.
Patterns of use were determined by observation and video technology, with observers collecting data three times a day on two weekdays and two weekends, for a total of 12 observation periods. The results revealed a significant difference not only in who used the parks, but also in the number of people who visited them.
“The number of hours spent on playgrounds was 58% higher in London,” the researchers said. “Matching playgrounds in London had 37.8% more children and 129% more adults who participated in 90% and 116% more moderate-to-vigorous activity, respectively, than children and adults in similar large American playgrounds.
There was also a striking difference in how London’s urban parks were used, with the proportion of adult visitors to London playgrounds more than double the number seen in US urban playgrounds – even when controlled for the size. And like other parks, children, teenagers and adults are more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity in London’s urban parks than in smaller and more traditionally built parks in large US cities.
It is true that some of the differences in usage patterns can be attributed to features beyond the design and type of equipment, but this opens up a discussion about whether the current design of our local parks best serves Canadians of all ages.
“Playgrounds, traditionally thought of as serving only children, are actually a rich community resource that can serve multiple age groups if they are designed to support the wants and needs of all ages,” the researchers wrote.
London’s preference for an open-concept mix of playground and park space that allows families to move in and out of active play is quite different from the US habit of fencing off its playgrounds or segregating them by age. The same is true of the variety of equipment in London’s playgrounds, with most of the innovative parks having an average of five more unique features, two more types of flooring and more water play, free equipment and seating. They also calculated an average of 43 users during the observation periods, versus 16 users in US parks.
The research team also commented on Americans’ tendency to dedicate more public green space to playgrounds rather than playgrounds, which serves fewer people per square meter, and is primarily aimed at athletes versus families looking for more ways to exercise together.
Nathan Shuster Park in Côte-St-Luc is a good Canadian example of an innovative park. It includes a zip line, a raised rope obstacle course, a tree house, many different types of climbing structures, areas for toddlers and older children and a strong nature component.
Tanya Abramovich, Associate City Manager/City Strategy for Côte-St-Luc, consults extensively with professionals and private citizens to ensure that the park reflects the needs of the community, a step they take before renovating or building a park in its green network of spaces. The extra effort paid off.
“This is the most popular of all our parks,” said Côte-St-Luc Mayor Mitchell Braunstein.
There are several other good examples of Canadian parks that have embraced innovative playground design, including Terra Nova Park in Richmond, British Columbia, Dingle Playground in Halifax, and Assiniboine Park Nature Playground in Winnipeg.
The idea of playgrounds is more than a set of swings and a climbing structure, as it were, which is good news for families looking for inexpensive ways to have fun and exercise together.