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Costly playgrounds boring kids: UBC

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

The before (left) and after (right) of a Vancouver play space given a $8,000 makeover to make the area more inviting for children. 

The before (left) and after (right) of a Vancouver play space given a $8,000 makeover to make the area more inviting for children. Submitted

Researchers at the University of B.C. are studying how straying away from the fixed-structure approach of most playgrounds could actually help kids get twice the amount of exercise.

Dr. Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics, said on Wednesday the thinking has roots in the belief that “prescribing” activities to children is often less effective than giving children the freedom to play on their own.

Previous studies, for example, have suggested that even kids enrolled in sports are likely getting exercise only 25% of the time — the rest of the time they’re standing or sitting around. But let them enjoy the outdoors on their own, and they’d be active 41% of the time.

In the initial five-year phase of the research, children aged two to five at 16 childcare centres across Vancouver were examined to identify what makes a successful playground.

This study, which observed children’s behaviours, found kids were only using playground equipment 13% of the time. And most of the time that they did use it, playgrounds were not being used the way they were designed.

“One of the favourite things they like to do is, some equipment has holes in the supporting structures — like taking pebbles and putting pebbles in the holes, that was one of the things that kept them entertained for hours,” Brussoni said.

“When people talk about a playground, they immediately think equipment. But kids, especially in childcare, they go there every day so the equipment is going to be very boring. You’re spending all this time, money and space for something not very useful on the long run.”

Two of the 16 childcare spaces were singled out as the worst, and a student was given $8,000, based on the new theories of a successful playground — lots of natural elements like stumps as stepping stones, private “forest” spaces, sandpits and the like — to redesign them.

Brussoni tracked the movement behaviour of children before and after the redesign and found that, after natural elements like grass, bamboo, sand or dirt were strategically placed, children were far more likely to use the whole play area.

“In the ‘before,’ it was space which was basically concrete, there was no green space, soft space for the kids to hang out,” she said.

“There was a bunch of plastic toys thrown out, so what tended to happen was they had these tricycles and the kids would whip around the middle — and if you were a kid not on a tricycle there wasn’t much to do.

“You can see in the movement patterns it’s kind of a little bit distracted, aimless movement,” or what researchers call “channel surfing” behaviour indicated by how the children were pacing back and forth in the same areas, similar in the manner of someone who can’t settle on an interesting TV channel.

The redesigned area turned the children’s movement patterns into a chaotic swirl of activity — precisely what the researchers were striving for.

Brussoni argues many of the traditional playgrounds are obviously designed by adults, who don’t keep in mind that a child’s imagination can shape their environment better than, say, a plastic house in the middle of a play area.

“One of the key things is the malleability of the space. The challenge of the (traditional) playground is you have a piece of equipment that tends to dominate the space,” Brussoni said.

The researchers, who have also come up with a guide based on seven criteria, stress childcare workers and educators should focus more on creative playground designs, rather than picking a modular structure out of a catalogue.

The guide is available at