Red Bars.

The Playing Ground Part Two

“Come back daddy…DADDY!” But daddy was too busy talking on his phone while lounging on a park bench to play with her on the monkey bars. Annoying. As I stated in my last post, The Playing Ground Part One, I frequently use the playground for my workouts: pull-ups and laps on the monkey bars; dips on the handrails at the top of some slides; knee-tuck push-ups on a swing; and running drills in the field. Playgrounds, to me, are the ideal place for both parents and children to enjoy physical activity together. It provides an opportunity for parents to show, help, and encourage their kids to be physically active. Sadly, I rarely see this interaction. Parents are usually sitting on a bench talking with other parents or on the phone. Even if there are a number of kids engaged in unstructured play, who don’t need constant surveillance, parents could use this time to get in some physical activity and be role models to their children.

Researchers from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota had also noticed this lack of parental physical activity and child engagement during playground visits. The research team, led by James Roemmich, wanted to see if removal of park benches from a playground would passively increase physical activity in parents and children. The team conducted two studies over the summers of 2012 and 2013.

Study 1 investigated changes in physical activity of adults and children at a playground in a 17.5 acre park in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Roemmich and his team used an A1-B-A2 study design over seven day periods to assess the impact of manipulating eight picnic tables around the playground. During A1 (79 adults and 91 children), researchers observed how the standard positioning of the benches influenced physical activity. The team then removed the benches for seven days (B: 22 adults and 27 children) and then returned the benches to their original position for a final seven days of observation (A2: 55 adults and 57 children). Data was collected using the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities, which measures number of people, their demographics, and level of physical activity. The researchers omitted teenagers from 13 to 18 years of age because some acted as children or caregivers. The ‘child’ category consisted of children from 0 to 12 years of age and ‘adult’ was 19 years of age or older. The team combined moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) categories because they didn’t observe many park users in the separate categories.

The results of Study 1 showed that children were, overall, more intensely active than adults and their level of physical activity exceeded 3 METs. The odds of adults standing were 9.4 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.7 times greater than A2. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.1 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 22.7 times greater than A2. Overall, both children and adults increased their MET intensity when seating was removed.

Study 2, conducted in the same park a year later, consisted of the same study design as Study 1 except that the number of observed individuals was different (A1: 130 adults and 115 children; B: 48 adults and 69 children; and A2: 49 adults and 73 children). Roemmich and his team added a two-hour observation period to assess the activity level of adults and the children that accompanied them to the playground. In Study 1 these groups were not assessed together.

The results of Study 2 were similar to Study 1: children were, overall, more intensely active than adults, exceeding 3 METs, and their intensity was the highest when the benches were removed. The odds of adults standing versus sitting were the same as Study 1. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.5 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.3 times greater than A2. In both children and adults MET levels were higher in B than A1 and A2. There was no association between adult MET intensity and the MET intensity of the children they brought to the playground. However, families with a greater number of children had children who were more intensely active. The researchers also found that bench removal did not impact duration of stay, but the number of visitors to the park declined when the benches were removed. This was also observed in Study 1. Roemmich his team believes that the reduced visits may have been related to cooler temperatures during the period of observation.

Overall, “Adults were more active when seating was not accessible. Removal of seating did not shorten the time that adults were willing to allow children to play,” concluded the authors. However, Roemmich and his team suggest that, “instead of the removal of the comfort of seating, adults’ physical activity could be increased by adding positive reinforcements such as fitness stations or prompts to encourage being active.”

In my personal opinion, I would like to see playgrounds designed for multigenerational use and become meaningful focal points for our communities. They should be works of usable art that spark our imagination and inspire us to climb, jump, run, and play. Sometimes my dreams are two sizes too big.

Rodney Steadman 05 October 2014

Roemmich J, Beeler J, & Johnson L (2014). A microenvironment approach to reducing sedentary time and increasing physical activity of children and adults at a playground. Preventive Medicine, 62, 108-112 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.01.018

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