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18.02.2019 - Ausgabe: 1/2019

Research focus on specific schoolyard characteristics and on the physical activity of children by applying mapping methods

Prof. Claudio R. Nigg Institute for Sport and Sport Science (IfSS), Karlsruhe Institute for Technology & Office of Public Health Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa)


At a worldwide level, schools as such possibly offer the best prerequisites to support the physical activity (abbreviation in German kA) of children (Institute of Medicine, 2013) as on the one hand and according to Black et al, 2015, children spend the majority of their growth period at school. At the same time, it is at schools where a high number of children from different social backgrounds can be reached (Andersen et al., 2015). However, it is in particular the minority children who benefit from the offerings at educational institutions (Meyer et al., 2013).

Whereas the impact of built-up environments on the physical activity of children is covered by several studies (Fleas et al., 2016), the research on the special characteristics of schoolyards and their effect on the physical activity of children is very limited in the Anglo-American language area. However, previous studies have shown that so called "active playgrounds" which offer a great variety in devices and materials that can be used by children in a creative way can have a positive effect on their social, physical, emotional and cognitive development (Czalcynska-Podolka, 2014). To ensure that playground devices and functions will promote the physical activity of children the use of colours (Ridgers et al, 2007; Stratton & Mullan, 2005) as well as the provision of fixed and removable devices (Haug et al., 2010) complemented by devices and line markings of flexible design are of utmost importance (Willenberg, 2010).

A cross-sectional study of Black et al. (2015) shows which types of playgrounds promote either a moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVkA )  or a behaviour which is based on a predominantly seated activity (sedentarism) (Black et al., 2015). According to the observation period calculated via SOPLAY (a system which is aiming at the observation of play behaviour and leisure activity of children and young adolescents, see also footnote 2), maps of two selected primary schoolyards were created in order to visualise the activity of children in the different areas of schoolyards by applying the Scribble Maps Pro (Black et al., 2015) method. The results show that on the one hand the schoolyards were highly frequented, but on the other hand that almost 50% of the children were physically inactive (Black et al., 2015). If schoolyards could be seen, or better yet, redesigned as playgrounds offering organised programmes which support the physical activity, a higher level of moderate to vigorous physical activity among children could be reached (Black et al., 2015). Brittin et al (2015) also refer to the connection between school environment and physical activity of children, but also point out the absence of concrete and practical proposals for both school designers, planners, architects, pedagogues and representatives of public health. However, they developed school design guidelines by combining the results of a qualitative review with the usual schoolyard design and the findings about physical activity of children (Brittin et al., 2015). For this it is necessary to understand the specific kinds of spaces and devices which will most probably stimulate children to become physically active. To do so, empirical methods are to be applied (Farley et al., 2008).

Based on this current status of US- American research, we have analysed the specific characteristics of schoolyards and their impact on the physical activity of children by creating maps of the physical activity of children at schoolyards. Combining the activity maps with detailed maps of the schoolyard areas can provide information as to which design features of schoolyards (for instance the use of green areas or a dense configuration of play devices) are most attractive and have the highest stimulating effect on children. Our aim is to have a close look at the design principles in order to understand them and focus future efforts on creating healthier and more active spaces for children.


24 urban primary schools of Denver in Colorado participated in the project. The children observed were between 6 and 11 years old (Anthamatten et al., 2011; Brink et al., 2010)

Depending on the size and specific characteristics of the schoolyards, they were subdivided into different observation zones. (Brink et al., 2010). Systematic observations were carried out at each of the schools in April and May on four days and over a period of four years from 2010 to 2013. The children were observed within certain time periods before school started in the early morning, during breaks and after school as well as over the weekends. SOPLAY observers  classified the intensity of each child's physical activity as "sitting", "walking" or "very active" (McKenzie, 2006).
The specific characteristics of the twenty-four schoolyards were digitised in a geographical information system (GIS). The geographical data were checked via Google Earth satellite images. The most relevant design characteristics are shown on the illustrations, such as planted areas, trees, shade areas, sandboxes as well as further structural features (for instance for hopscotch or basketball) and other areas exclusively dedicated to certain sports, such as baseball or basketball). The original documentation served for identifying the monitoring areas the observers had to evaluate for their respective data collection.
At each monitoring area, an average of 46,3 empirical observations were collected. In order to obtain data about the physical activity of children, the data which were taken from the SOPLAY observation were aggregated for each monitoring area. The results showed the percentage of observed children in each of the zones involved in the overall MVPA study.

As the objective of the activity mapping was to show in which schoolyard areas children were most active, a relative measurement had to be carried out at each schoolyard involved. The purpose of the maps was to show which space components of each school had a positive effect on the children's physical activity.  By displaying a relative measurement, the effect of changing results between the different schools depending on the number of students, school activities or other social or environmental factors could be compensated. The figures on the maps show the variations observed at each selected area regarding the MVPA score.  That means that the values observed were deducted from the overall average of the school.

The maps were coloured in order to highlight the areas of high activity whereas in the dark areas hardly any physical activity was practised. The lightest colour represents the result of less than 25 p.c. of the MVPA school average, followed by -25 p.c. - -5 p.c. -5 p.c. to 5 p. c., 5 p.c. to 25 p. c. and more than 25 p. c. (see picture).

The objective was to determine those areas, or to be more precise, the specific characteristics of areas which showed either the highest or the lowest physical activity of children. To achieve that, the schoolyard areas were grouped according to the respective activity level of each school.  The findings shown on the schoolyard maps were documented in detail.  All data were collected and displayed in a large matrix to gain an overview of the physical activity of the children.  Based on these results, the connection between the schoolyard design and the physical activity of children could be analysed enabling the researchers to identify the associated pattern of findings.

The results of the observations conducted at 24 schoolyards about the physical activity of children were visualised by mapping. This is an innovative method to gain new findings about the use of various functions of schoolyards which helps to draw conclusions about innovative schoolyard design options.

The analysis showed that there are more areas of low physical activity compared to the number of areas of high activity.  10 of 24 schoolyards consisted of areas of an activity level of >+ 25 p.c. The lowest activity level was <-25 p.c. in 17 of 24 schoolyards.  Each schoolyard was equipped with swings, fields with and without field markings for typical child-appropriate games, such as hopscotch, further play devices and designated basketball courts. Almost every schoolyard offered planted, shaded and seating areas. Five of 24 schoolyards had, however, no planted areas at all and 9 of 24 schoolyards offered neither any shaded nor any seating areas.

The highest MVPA level was observed in swing areas, often in combination with sand. Five of 24 schoolyards showed an activity level of > + 25 p.c. in the swinging areas.  In + 5 p.c. up to + 25 p.c. swings were available in 12 of 24 schoolyards. The lowest activity level (<- 25 p.c.; - 25 p.c. to - 5 p.c.) could not be found in any of the 24 schoolyards equipped with swings. In general, swings showed a high MVPA level among children. The fields with field markings for typical child-appropriate games also showed physical activity results of + 5 p.c. up to + 25 p.c. of an overall of 4 out of 24 schoolyards.

The lowest MVPA level was observed in the planted areas. Ten of 24 schoolyards showed a value of less than - 25 per cent of physical activity. It is noticeable that 7 of the 10 planted areas observed with the lowest MVPA level contain trees. Planted areas can, however, also be found at other MVPA levels, e.g. on five schoolyards showing an activity level of + 5 p.c. to + 25 p.c. None of them reached, however, an activity level of more than 25 per cent. An MVPA value of <-25% was the result of 9 out of 24 fields without any ground markings nor specific functions.
The lowest MVPA value was measured among shaded structures and seating places on 3 of 24 schoolyards. On 6 schoolyards shaded structures and seating areas achieved also an MVPA score of - 25 per cent up to - 5 per cent.

Areas with field markings showed a broad spectrum of MVPA-levels.  They showed both high and low activity levels.

The data gained by observing the use of basketball courts in general showed either a moderate or a high level of physical activity. The MVPA level at basketball courts was between - 5 p.c. up to + 5 p.c. and of + 5 p.c. up to + 25 per cent. Nine of the 24 schoolyards provided sports fields with basketball courts, 15 of them had floor markings and basketball courts.

In general, all play devices, too, showed between moderate and high activity levels. The use of child-appropriate play devices showed an MVPA level of -5 p.c. to + 5 p.c. or + 5 p.c. to + 25 p.c.


By mapping the observed activity levels on schoolyards, important information regarding the relative utilisation can be gained.  Planted areas, areas without field markings and shaded areas are obviously connected with reduced levels of physical activity whereas swings, basketball courts, play devices and areas with field and ground markings can be associated with a high level of physical activity. These findings gained in Denver can also be applied to the design planning and activation measures of schoolyards and playgrounds in Germany, because from a health perspective here, too, the activity level of children outside school hours and during school breaks is still able to increase.  To achieve that, however, schoolyards with a high stimulating effect on the respective target groups are necessary.

Acknowledgement: the author appreciates the contributions of Peter Anthamatten, Julia Schneider and Swantje Scharenberg. This study was financed by NICHD/NCI/NIDDK R01HD057229.

Sources: see article on     www.playground-landscape.com

Image: Kinderland Emsland Spielgeräte


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