Childhood obesity is a big problem in the United States and throughout the world. Finding ways to get kids more physically active has been a challenge everywhere. Only 34% of children between the ages of 4 and 12 currently get the recommended 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each day. Since kids spend a large amount of their days at school, parents often look to the schools and playgrounds to provide opportunities for their kids to get exercise.

At school there are two main options for physical activity – physical education class and recess. Many schools are cutting back on PE classes, often decreasing to one or two classes per week or eliminating physical education altogether.

Recess offers kids the opportunity to play sports, run and play on playground equipment. Two challenges often make it difficult for some kids to be active during recess, though. Often more assertive kids will use the majority of the playground space, like a field, to play soccer or football. The sport might take away free space for other kids to run around and play games like tag. Also, if too many kids have recess at the same time, they can become too crowded for many kids to play.

Kids playing tug of war

A new approach to playgrounds and recess

Researchers in Amsterdam studied whether modifications to the play area and schedule of recess could increase the activity levels of young students. Their PLAYgrounds program restructured the playground with multicolored lines to separate it into areas for specific activities – soccer, basketball, dance, throwing and catching, and running. They also created a recess schedule to ensure that only two classes of students were on the playground at the same time.

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In their study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, they used accelerometers and observation to determine the children’s physical activity. Compared to a group of students who had normal recesses, the students in the restructured recess program got much more physical activity. 77.3% of the children engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity compared to 38.7% in the control group. Interestingly, girls seem to benefit more than boys, especially the older girls.

Take home points and recommendations for playgrounds

This PLAYgrounds program was tested in the Netherlands, but the concept behind it could be replicated fairly easily. Schools could designate different areas on their playgrounds to provide students different physical activities. That restructuring could ensure that more timid kids would have access to what they wanted to do instead of the space being controlled by more assertive students. If separating the playgrounds into areas for different activities leads to more kids being physically active, I think it’s worthwhile for schools to consider.

Parents can be active in this process too. They can talk to the schools’ leaders about recess and work with them to create opportunities for all kids to play. They can also push to ensure physical education classes are held every day.

Finally, kids should be physically active after school too. They should go outside and play with their friends. They should play sports on a team or on their own in the afternoon instead of watching TV or playing video games.

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Schools and parents should make every effort to aid and encourage their kids to be physically active every day.

Kids can get exercise on playgrounds

Janssen M, Twisk JW, Toussaint HM, van Mechelen W, Verhagen EA. Effectiveness of the PLAYgrounds programme on PA levels during recess in 6-year-old to 12-year-old children. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015 Feb;49(4):259-64.