Presentation at the 2006 Active Living Research Annual Conference
Most research on the physical environment and physical activity has been conducted with adults. Young people, however, are likely to be active in different places and respond to different environmental characteristics. Very little is known about parents’ and children’s perceptions of different activity locations such as in the home, local neighborhoods, commercial, and public spaces. Qualitative methods are needed to identify the relevant environmental issues and factors that potentially influence children’s physical activity in order to subsequently evaluate these quantitatively.
Structured interviews were conducted with children and parents in potential activity locations, in an effort to uncover previously unstudied environmental factors relevant to children’s physical activity. Conducting interviews in local activity environments allowed for in-vivo questioning with the environment serving as a prompt to help participants explain their attitudes and experiences.
Data were collected in Cincinnati and San Diego from 16 pairs of parents and children (five- to 12- years old) or adolescents (13- to 17-years old) in a two-part interview process. Participants were recruited from four types of neighborhoods reflecting high and low-income and walkability (i.e., quadrants). First, parents were interviewed by phone regarding rules for their child’s activity and their child’s use of activity environments with the purpose of tailoring subsequent face-to-face interviews. These latter interviews with parents and children were semi-structured with open-ended questions relating to characteristics that might facilitate or hinder activity in their home, yard, local street and up to six familiar and nearby locations (including small and large parks, schools, recreation centers and malls).
The interview responses were grouped into the following categories: convenience, aesthetics, equipment, safety, social and other. Types of activities and activity settings were listed exhaustively. Parent rules were grouped by: behavior (walking or biking), outdoor location (neighborhood, park, recreation facilities, stores), home (particularly computer and TV use) and other. Two researchers independently reviewed and categorized responses. Frequency of themes were assessed and compared across age and neighborhood walkability.
Frequent “convenience” themes included distance to the location and scheduling difficulties when driving was necessary. Distance was mentioned noticeably less often in the low walkable, low-income quadrant. The main two “aesthetic” themes were equipment condition and need for large open grassy spaces. Multiple activity and equipment choices were frequently emphasized. For example, parks were considered uninteresting if they had little limited equipment or no area for team activities. Parks were perceived more positively in low walkable, high-income neighborhoods. Parents expressed many safety concerns, such as fear of abduction and drug dealers. Local neighborhoods were often considered unsafe to play in; supervised activities in recreation and other facilities were preferred. Street and traffic safety was a greater concern for children than adolescents. A recurrent theme was the need for activity areas to be fenced off and far enough from traffic. Lighting was also mentioned frequently. Presence of peers was particularly important for adolescents, with absence of someone to play with noted most in low walkable, low-income neighborhoods. The most frequent activity locations were friend’s houses, recreation facilities, schools, parks, malls and local streets. The most frequent rules included ‘not going alone’, ‘taking a cell phone’, ‘staying in contact’, and ‘staying within sight (particularly for children)’. Many parents reported multiple rules to limit TV and computer time during the week. Swing sets, basketball hoops, jungle gyms, monkey bars, bikes and soccer balls were the most frequently mentioned pieces of equipment, for all age groups and quadrants. Basketball, soccer and swimming were frequently mentioned activities but adolescents also mentioned walking and weight training as activities, while children played tag or on the jungle gym. High-income participants appeared to report a greater range of activities. Participants also noted age decreases in activity with more school work and driving.
This research has confirmed previous findings and identified many new themes, which have informed the development of a youth-oriented neighborhood environment survey. In particular, “new” rules regarding taking cell phones, avoiding strangers and cars and checking in were incorporated into the survey. Newly identified environmental and social supports included availability of large fenced off spaces, choice of activities, adult supervision and peer interaction. This innovative method of conducting interviews in the environments of interest was feasible and appeared to be effective in generating rich qualitative data regarding environmental influences on children’s physical activity.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research program.