The current epidemic of overweight and obesity among our children and adolescents calls for creative, multidisciplinary approaches to address the problem. Improved nutrition at home, at school, and in the community is critical. Increased exercise is similarly important, but it is well known that the amount and quality of physical exercise declines as young children grow up and continues to decline into adulthood.
A recent study looked at the types and amount of exercise that kids engaged in in public parks and offers some insights as to how to improve the physical activity levels of our youth through improved park planning.
Adult safety concerns seem to put a damper on children’s physical activity levels, say the researchers. They recommend that parks be designed such that parents can allow their children freedom while being able to supervise them appropriately.
Researchers observed 2712 children in 20 randomly selected parks in communities around Durham, North Carolina. They divided the children into preschoolers, ages 6-12, and adolescents. Then they watched the types of play and intensity of exercise in which children participated.
They found it was the presence of other children engaged in physical activity that had the biggest effect on increasing physical activity in recreation areas. When there were other children playing in the park zone, the odds of higher physical activity increased 3.67 times.
Boys were more likely to be engaged in vigorous physical activity than girls and used the courts such as tennis and basketball more often. Girls were more likely than boys to play in playgrounds. Children in 0-5 and 6-12 year age groups were most likely to be observed in playgrounds, open spaced areas, on trails and paths compared to boys and girls aged 13-18 years.
Adult supervision actually lowered the likelihood of physical activity. Adult safety concerns seem to put a damper on children’s physical activity levels, say the researchers. They recommend that parks be designed such that parents can allow their children freedom while being able to supervise them appropriately. This might include safer play equipment and play surfaces as well as the provision of confined play areas within larger parks.
The study also showed that for the youngest children, the more formal and organized the play activity, the less physical activity the children engaged in. They noted that younger children are more spontaneous in their physical play and have a limited attention span for organized activities that may actually serve to suppress their natural tendencies for vigorous physical play.