Presentation at the 2009 Active Living Research Annual Conference
Recent studies show that access to public parks and recreation areas contribute to moderate and vigorous physical activity among children. Additional evidence is needed to show how specific park characteristics are associated with park-based physical activity among children. Studies also indicate that age level and gender affect physical activity behavior, suggesting that parks and recreation facilities may be more beneficial for younger children and boys. Greater understanding of these issues is needed to inform policies that shape park environments and physical activity opportunities for children and families. A systematic review of studies on environmental correlates in parks and recreation settings and physical activity found that child related studies are relatively rare (Kaczynski & Henderson, 2007).
The objectives of this study were to (1) describe the physical activity levels of children and adolescents in a sample of urban parks; and (2) examine the association among individual, social, and environmental features in parks and physical activity.
Data were obtained from direct observations in 20 randomly selected parks serving low income and African American neighborhoods in Durham, NC. Observations were conducted by trained System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) assessors (McKenzie et al., 2006). Given the focus on children, SOPARC codes accounted for age using three categories: young child (0-5y), middle child (6-12y), and older child (13-18y). Additional codes accounted for gender, type of play, presence of adults, and activity level (sedentary, walking or moderate, and vigorous). Physical codes were collapsed to sedentary and moderate-vigorous for this analysis. Inter-rater reliability for SOPARC codes was acceptable (kappa > .80). Data were collected over an 8 week period (May 21st, 2007 - July 15th, 2007). Observers recorded activity in predetermined zones between 10AM-2PM and between 3PM-7PM. Each park was visited 16 times. Park features were measured using the Environmental Assessment of Public Recreation Spaces instrument (Saelens et al., 2006). Audits were conducted by zone during daylight hours by two pairs of two raters working independently. Features serving as primary supports for physical activity were categorized as recreation facilities (e.g., trails, playground equipment); secondary features (e.g., tables, benches, signs) were treated as park amenities (Kaczynski et al., 2008). The mean kappa across audited features was 0.92. Binary logistic regression and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) were used to assess the influence of personal, social, and environmental factors on physical activity.
During the study 2847 children were observed. A mean of 142.75 (IQR, 98 and 166) children was observed per park. Approximately 52% were girls; 48% were boys. The majority of children observed were 0-5 years (43%) or 6-12 (39%) years old. Overall, 43 percent were observed in sedentary behavior, 45% were observed walking, and 12% were observed in vigorous activity. Fifty-seven percent were observed in free play; 24% were observed not playing; 13% were observed in informal organized play; and 6% were observed in formal organized activity. Boys, children in the 6-12y age group, and children observed in free play and informally organized play were more likely to be moderately or vigorously active. Across the 20 parks, 135 zones were audited. The mean number of recreation facilities per zone was 1.04 and the mean number of amenities was 1.23.
Among individual characteristics, gender (boys) (OR =2.28, p<.0001) and children in the 6-12y age group (OR=3.40, p<.0001) significantly increased odds of engaging in moderate-vigorous physical activity. Among social variables, informal organized play (OR=2.60, p<.0001), free play (OR=1.56, p<.0001) and formal organized activity (OR= 1.51, p<.05) were associated with increased odds of engaging in moderate-vigorous physical activity. Presence of a caregiver (OR=.57, p<.0001) and supervising adults (OR=.77, p<.05) were associated with lower odds of engaging in moderate-vigorous physical activity. There was no association between the total number of children in a zone during the SOPARC scan and physical activity. Regarding environmental factors, the number recreation facilities significantly increased odds of engaging in moderate-vigorous physical activity (OR=1.26, p<.0001). However, the number of amenities significantly decreased odds of engaging in moderate-vigorous activity (OR=.84, p<.0001). HLM produced similar results but also found a few importance differences. Gender, age, presence of caregiver and supervising adults, recreation facilities, and amenities showed similar effects. Types of play did not have a significant effect on activity. However, a significant interaction was found between informal organized play and number of recreation facilities in zones (OR=.823, p<0.05).
Children's gender and age level were important determinants of moderate and vigorous physical activity in parks. Adult presence and supervision curtailed activity. Recreation facilities increased physical activity whereas amenities were associated with lower levels of activity. Clearly, individual, socio-contextual characteristics, and environmental factors are important. The results of the analyses are promising for further development of models to help understand patterns of children’s physical activity in parks and for informing park programming and design.
This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research Program (#527244).