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Study Shows School Playground Design Contributes to Student Wellness


A study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows the design of a playground is linked to how much physical activity a child will experience during play. Playground designs that are visually appealing attract children. Playground designs that incorporate best practice design principles encourage children to play longer and be healthier.

Let’s look at the study results and how playground equipment can create fun places for children to play and improve their health and wellness.

Replacing an Old School Playground

The AJPM study considered a school playground that was in disrepair and out of date. The students barely played during recess and spent most of their time sitting around. The outdated playground had a few swings, a small play structure, and a large area filled with dirt and gravel.

First, the school removed the old playground equipment. They replaced it with a colorful and visually stimulating play structure with lots of climbers, slides, and interactive play activities. They added new swings, freestanding climbers, and other play activities designed to keep children moving.

The dirt and gravel were removed. In their place, the school installed walking paths, turf grass, and other natural plantings. The researchers came back to observe the students on the new playground and were amazed at the difference!

Playground Design Promotes Activity

The students were thrilled with the new playground design. Children who used to sit on the ground playing with gravel were now climbing up ladders and sliding down slides. Everywhere the researchers looked, they saw students running, climbing, and swinging.

The researchers observed students at play and found the number of sedentary children during recess was cut in half, and the number of very active children tripled!

Playground study shows children more active with new playground

When they came back six months and 12 months later, the study leaders found the students were still being active.

Elena Kuo of Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute is the co-author of the study. She stated, “A lot of things, when they’re new and shiny, lead to increased physical activity, but it’s not always sustained. That’s why it’s a pretty exciting finding.”

Playgrounds Improve Children's Health and Wellness

For decades, GameTime, and its parent company PlayCore, has pioneered research in the area of play and recreation. Thanks to the PlayCore scholar network and partnerships with leading universities, we offer research and best practice design guides to help schools design better playgrounds.

Children who are physically active on playgrounds are less likely to be overweight or obese. They are less likely to have weight-related health issues. The World Health Organization recommends schoolchildren get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day.

Globally, 81 percent of children fail to reach that goal.

Children who engage in active play also see improvements in overall physical and mental wellbeing. They learn how to handle their emotions and develop important social skills.

Active Students Are Better Learners

There are other studies that show students who are active during recess perform better academically. They are 20% more likely to earn an A in English and Math. Children who are active also perform better on standardized tests with improvements of six percent over three years.

Behavior issues in the classroom also diminish with students who are active during recess. Playtime and physical activity has been shown to reduce the amount of time teachers spend on behavior issues by 21%.

Six Essentials to Design the Perfect School Playground

The key to creating a successful school playground is using research and best practice design principles. For school playgrounds, the leading research is PlayOn! Play On! is a standards-based curriculum and design guide created by PlayCore. It promotes six essential elements of play that should be part of any school playground.

These six essential elements are balancing, brachiating (overhead climbing), swinging, sliding, spinning, and climbing. When you design a play system or include freestanding play activities that provide all six elements, you enhance the play experience for students.

As a bonus, schools that use the research in Play On! receive a copy of the Play On! activity guide. This includes 125 fun activities for children in Pre-K through 5th grade. Each activity is designed to keep kids moving and transforms the playground into the best P.E. class ever!

Western Michigan University analyzed the Play On! program and found some exciting results!

  • 91% of teachers reported that playground use increased
  • 100% rated the program 4 or 5 on a 5 point scale
  • 25% of parents participated in more family activity after the Play On! program was initiated
  • 100% of students reported having fun engaging in the activities
  • 90-100% of teachers said that Play On! motivated students to participate in regular, enjoyable, physical activity in a safe and supervised environment

Partners to Help Plan Your School Playground

GameTime believes in school playgrounds and their power to help children make friends, learn social skills, and learn active, healthy habits that last a lifetime. If you believe in school playgrounds too, we should talk! Get in touch with the GameTime school playground expert in your neighborhood today.