PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Colorful, inviting play areas, such as this Learning Landscapes-designed playground at Denver's Edison Elementary School, encourage physical activity.

One by one, the first-graders at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School handed over their paperwork, picked out the color of wristband they wanted, then stuck out their non-dominant hand and watched while the accelerometers were strapped around their wrists.

For the next week, these 6- and 7-year olds will be on the cutting edge of playground research, that liminal zone where architecture, urban planning and exercise science meet recess. They will wear their accelerometers – small water-proof, kid-proof devices that measure physical activity – 24 hours a day for six days. For their efforts, they’ll each get two $10 gift certificates to Walmart, and their families get a $30 gift certificate when the accelerometer is returned at the end of the week. They’re among the first wave of students taking part in a five-year study that eventually will encompass youngsters at 24 schools in three local school districts.

The object: To determine how much playground design and structured recess activities can boost physical activity levels in children.

“We’re trying to get a breadth of information from the students,” said Sarah Lampe, research coordinator for Learning Landscapes, the University of Colorado at Denver College of Architecture and Planning program that has been transforming DPS playgrounds into colorful, kid-friendly meccas for the past decade.

“In addition, a lot of our grad students are going out to the sites, looking at the play equipment, at the quality of it, the condition it’s in, and we’re putting in data about things like the distance between pieces of equipment, its color, its vendor. It seems strange, but what we’re hoping to find out is just what type of equipment drives more activity. Does a tether ball court being next to a four-square affect how active kids are?”

Researchers also will assess whether having a structured after-school physical activity program, called SPARK, available to students increases overall activity levels. Eventually, they’ll also assess the extent to which

The accelerometer is a water-proof, kid-proof device that students will wear continuously around their wrists for six days to track their physical activity.

having school gardens can entice youngsters to boost their activity levels by weeding, hoeing and all the other calorie-burning activities that come with gardening.

“We think it will be huge,” said Lois A. Brink, professor in the CU-Denver College of Architecture and Planning and the executive director of Learning Landscapes.

Results from earlier, less comprehensive studies show that while well-planned playgrounds don’t necessarily make active kids even more active, they do make sedentary kids more active. In a study last year funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, graduate students spent time observing activity patterns at nine school playgrounds. Three of the schools had old, unimproved playgrounds, three had well-established Learning Landscapes playgrounds, and three had newly-built Learning Landscapes playgrounds.

They determined that the Learning Landscapes playgrounds were used far more often than the non-improved playgrounds, sometimes by a factor of as much as 300 percent.

“We found that, of course, boys are always more active than girls. That’s all over the research,” said Lampe. “But we did find a couple of areas in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds that had no gender bias, where boys and girls were equally active. It was in the natural areas, the areas with trees and bushes and gardens – areas that aren’t typically found in a pea gravel playground.”

“We also found that, with both boys and girls, it’s not that we had an increase in very active kids. But we did have a decrease in sedentary children, which is a big deal. There were many fewer kids in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds who were just sitting around,” she said. “And we found that the results didn’t wear off after time. Whether the Learning Landscapes were recently built or were built years ago, they always had a lot of physical activity, more than the control schools.”

The results of the study will be published in August in the American Journal of Public Health.

What accounts for the magic? Brink said she isn’t sure – this latest ongoing study may help answer that more specifically – but she said she knows that colorful, dynamic play areas with plenty of age-appropriate play equipment, shade and green, growing areas, and a welcoming gateway that invites the community to come in are part of the equation.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Having something to provide shade is a critical element of a successful playground, Lois Brink says. Here, colorful canopies provide shade at the Wyman Elementary School playground.

Beyond that, placement of the play equipment is also crucial. “I liken it to balls in a pinball machine,” Brink said. “The kids are like the balls. And the more things there are for them to interact with, the more active they’ll be. But if the activities get moved too far apart from each other, then you lose the benefit. They like to bounce from one to another in short spurts of physical activity.”

By the end of 2012, every elementary school in Denver will have an upgraded Learning Landscapes playground incorporating all these things, thanks to voter approval of bond measures in 2003 and 2008.

The first one – at Bromwell Elementary, where Brink’s own children attended school – is now 11 years old, and is holding up well. That first playground grew out of Brink-the-mother’s concern that DPS playgrounds were uniformly dreadful in the 1990s. “It didn’t matter whether you were in a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, everybody had a crappy playground,” she said.

Brink, a professor of landscape architecture, was uniquely suited to do something about it. She led a grassroots efforts at Bromwell to improve the school’s playground and recruited some of her landscape architecture students to design a play area tailored to the neighborhood’s needs. It took them several years and multiple fund-raising projects, but eventually Bromwell parents raised the $250,000 needed re-do the playground.

From there, the Learning Landscape movement spread across the district. Principals began agitating for

A welcoming gateway, such as at the McMeen Elementary playground, encourages community use of the playground after school and on weekends.

improved playgrounds in their schools. With the end of court-ordered school busing, Denver voters grasped the importance of once again turning schools into neighborhood community centers where children could gather before and after school, and how crucial nice playgrounds were to that effort.

Of course, transforming arid, pea gravel playgrounds into lush, state-of-the-art Learning Landscapes isn’t an inexpensive proposition. “It takes more than just moving in some monkey bars and a couple of pieces of new equipment,” said Brink. “Most sites needed irrigation. They needed new asphalt. The cost can be $400,000 to $500,000.”

At present, 52 DPS elementary schools have Learning Landscape playgrounds, and 10 more are slated to be completed in 2010.  Sometime during 2012, every DPS elementary school will have such a playground.

Beyond the physical benefits, community and social benefits are also accruing, Brink says. “Anecdotally, we know we’re seeing a reduction in bullying,” she said. “Now the kids aren’t all fighting for the one tether ball pole.”

For more information

Click here to read a “best practices” report on Learning Landscapes from Kaboom!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing play into the lives of children.