Playground Usage: What the Research Says

By Jordan Davidson

Recent studies highlight that families with limited access to recreational facilities and places to exercise mostly rely on public playgrounds to meet their fitness needs. However, the same studies show that those people are most likely to feel both unsafe at playgrounds as well as dissatisfied with the lack of cleanliness and the quality of the equipment.

“When I go to work, I pass by all this shiny, new climbing equipment,” said Asia Herrera, a parent of two who takes her kids to the Marble Hill Playground in the Bronx, but works in TriBeCa. “Here we’ve got broken mats, cracks in the pavement. We’ve got rats running on the benches. We’ve got drug deals going down right across street.”

A study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Community Health, examines how playgrounds are used and how people in neighborhoods across New York’s five boroughs perceive the playgrounds’ maintenance and safety. Researchers hope the study’s findings will act as a launch pad for playground management – one that is reliable, useful and not onerous, according to Diana Silver, an associate professor of Public Health at New York University who co-authored the study.

“We were surprised that issues of safety in traveling to and from the playground kept coming up,” she said. “We recognized there’s an issue of getting to the playground versus being in the playground. That’s a systemic problem that extends beyond Parks and Recreation’s scope.”

The advocacy group, New Yorkers for Parks, which commissioned the study, declined to comment until it completes a brief with actionable steps for Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s administration.

The study’s researchers chose two small, but heavily utilized, playgrounds from each borough: one in a low-income area, and the other in a medium income area. In teams, they fanned out across the city to visit the 10 playgrounds on the same day each season. Researchers surveyed close to 1,400 adults who chaperoned kids to the playgrounds.

The researchers found:

When researchers looked at the perception of the same playground, racial and income disparities disappeared. That is to say, participants felt equally safe and happy with the playgrounds in the higher-income areas.

Problems with safety — travelling to and from playgrounds in the low-income areas — became apparent to the researchers when several inebriated people blocked the entrance to one of the playgrounds for several hours one day during data collection. The park attendant was unable to address the problem and the playground was unused during those hours, according to the paper.

“Parks and Rec can’t control all these issues,” said Silver. “This is a wake-up call for the public health community. You can’t just build playgrounds. It takes resources and policing to handle safety traveling to and from the playground.”

The Marble Hill Playground is located behind the housing project where Asia Herrera lives. She echoed the study’s sentiments while she watched her four-year-old son climb the steps of a slide.

“In the summer, the kids are whining to go out, but you hear some gangs are out,” she said. “You catch wind something’s going down, so forget it. It’s safer to stay home and watch TV.”

Another study published in Academic Pediatrics earlier this year tracked the steps of kids in East Harlem in an effort to chart health and fitness trends in that neighborhood. Researchers gave 259 kids pedometers and cross-referenced the children’s daily steps with proximity to playgrounds, race and family-income level. They found that the poorest kids in this low-income area recorded the fewest steps per day, which fell drastically short of the CDC recommendations for physical activity. These kids were also the least likely to have a playground on their block.

Researchers also found that blocks with predominantly Hispanic or African-Americans  had fewer playgrounds than mixed-race blocks, which is commensurate with access to grocery stores and restaurants.

The researchers concluded from the pedometer data that if a child has a playground on his or her block, the kid is 95 percent more likely to participate in outdoor physical activity, which is proven to reduce obesity and foster brain-development.

“Kids need to run around,” said Herrera. “But, if the choice is outside or safe, I’m always going with safe. It’d be nice to have both.”