“Sporting Playgrounds: Its time to play” – modifying school playground environments to increase physical activity
Submitting InstitutionLiverpool John Moores University
Unit of AssessmentSport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
This case study summarises impact consequent to empirical research
related to the concept of "Sporting Playgrounds" from the Research
Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences (RISES). The "Sporting
Playgrounds" project addressed the global problem of falling levels
of childhood physical activity through the introduction and assessment of
innovative markings and physical structures to the school playground.
Research outcomes have changed National and International school
playground planning and design as well as altering educational policy.
Associated health economics analysis has demonstrated the cost
effectiveness of these interventions. The project has also developed novel
approaches to the overall practice of assessing children's physical
activity levels which have informed continuing efforts to monitor and
improve children's physical activity within educational settings.
The "Sporting Playgrounds" project began with empirical work
undertaken between 1996 - 2000. This work was led by Professor Gareth
Stratton (LJMU: 1990-2011) and supported by Professor Stuart Fairclough
(2001-present) and Dr Nicola Ridgers (2003-2010). The overall project
assessed complex playground marking interventions within longitudinal
study designs and produced 9 peer-reviewed publications to 2013.
One of the first publications (Sec.3, Ref.1) used a novel approach
to change the physical playground environment in infant schools. By
painting the playground surface with multi-coloured markings, playtime
moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and vigorous physical
activity (VPA) significantly increased by 10% and 6%, respectively.
Uniquely, the laboratory-based technique of indirect calorimetry was used
to generate heart rate and oxygen consumption regression curves for
individuals that allowed accurate quantification of energy expenditure
during play. Subsequently, a competitive grant from "Health Promotion
Wales" funded further exploration of the effects of painting
multi-coloured markings in school playgrounds on children's physical
activity. Again, multicolour playground markings significantly increased
children's MVPA and VPA by a similar amount (13.4% and 4.5%,
respectively). This research proposed that if these observed levels of
physical activity could be sustained, then multi-coloured playground
markings could make a valuable contribution to the attainment of
health-related physical activity recommendations in young people, thereby
leading to short and long-term health benefits (Sec.3, Ref.2).
In 2003 competitive grant funding was obtained from Sport England to
undertake a controlled trial of school playground design and markings on
children's physical activity. This was part of a £12M intervention
project, involving 500 schools nationally, sponsored by Nike Inc. and
organised by the DfES. Thirty-four schools were recruited in Liverpool to
the "Sporting Playgrounds" project to assess both the initial and
long term effects of playground redesign on children's physical activity
and energy expenditure. In extending the work of Stratton and Mullan (Sec.3,
Ref.2), the next RISES study by Ridgers et al., (Sec.3, Ref.3)
re-designed playgrounds at fifteen intervention schools into three
specific colour-coded zones; ball games (red zone), less structured active
games, such as chase and tag (blue zone), and quiet activities, such as
socialising and inactive cooperative games (yellow zone). The project also
installed physical structures that included soccer goal posts, basketball
hoops, fencing and seating as well as ensuring manipulative sports
equipment such as soccer balls, skipping ropes and tennis balls were
provided to promote activity. A unique aspect of this study was the medium
and long-term follow-up measurements at 6 and 12 months, respectively. The
strongest positive effects of the playground redesign on MVPA and VPA were
observed after 6 months, and were still evident on VPA after 12 months.
Concomitant to these studies, peer review publications utilising heart
rate data, accelerometry indices (Sec.3, Ref. 3&4), and a new
systematic observation tool (System for Observation of Children's Activity
Relationships during Play; Sec.3, Ref.5) assessed the modifiable
conditions (physical activity levels, social group sizes, activity type,
and social behaviour) that influence play behaviour and are needed to
design optimal playground-based physical activity interventions.
Techniques such as `draw and write' have also been used in recent
empirical work to provide rich representations of the playground
experiences of children and how these can be altered by novel playground
designs. More recent studies have also used multi-level modelling to allow
for changes in participants activity levels over time, as well as
adjusting data at individual and school levels. Overall these
methodologies have enabled the demonstration of sustained changes in
physical activity at 6 and 12 months post-intervention and therefore have
provided practitioners with greater confidence in altering the playground
References to the research
Reference for the peer-reviewed outputs from the RISES research described
in Section 2.
1. Stratton G. Promoting children's physical activity in primary school:
An intervention study using playground markings. Ergonomics.
2000;43(10):1538-46. Cited 60 times Web of Knowledge (WoK).
2. Stratton, G & Mullan, E. (2005). The effect of multicolor
playground markings on childrens physical activity level during recess. Preventive
Medicine, 41, 828-833. Cited 84 times WoK.
3. Ridgers, N.D., Fairclough, S.J. & Stratton, G. (2010). 12-month
effects of a playground intervention on children's morning and lunchtime
recess physical activity levels. Journal of Physical Activity and
Health, 7, 167-175. Cited 25 times WoK and classed as "Recent
Original Research of Particular Note" by the journal. No DOI, PDF
available upon request.
4. Ridgers, N.D., Stratton, G., Fairclough, S.J. & Twisk, J.W.R
(2007). Long-term effects of a playground markings and physical structures
on children's recess physical activity levels Preventive Medicine, 44,
393-397 Cited 21 times WoK.
5. Ridgers, N.D., Stratton, G. & McKenzie T.L (2007) Reliability and
Validity of the System for Observing Children's Activity and Relationships
During Play (SOCARP) Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 7,
1, 17-25 Cited 11 times WoK. No DOI, PDF available upon request.
The journal papers have been subjected to blind peer review by
Internationally-based editorial boards. Outputs listed above were
generated from competitive grant funding. A grant of £5,000 was awarded by
Health Promotion Wales in 2000 to explore the effects of painting
playgrounds on children's PA levels. A grant of £50,000 was awarded by
Sport England in 2003 titled Sporting Playgrounds: A Mixed longitudinal
Details of the impact
The "Sporting Playgrounds" research (Sec.3, Refs.1-5)
demonstrates impact by increasing children's MVPA and VPA and represents
an improvement in childhood health attained in a cost effective manner. By
way of a narrative context from research to impact, between 2000 and 2008,
alongside the peer reviewed journal outputs, outcomes from the "Sporting
Playgrounds" research were disseminated to over 1000 practitioners
and policy makers via invited sessions at 13 local, regional and National
events for schools, public health play and public sector agencies. These
included PE and School Sport Club Links (Hyde-2005); Lancashire Healthy
School Good Practice Conference (Chorley-2005): Play research Network,
(Bristol-2006) and Rotherham PCT (2006).
Since 2008 the LJMU "Sporting Playgrounds" research has featured
in both National and International evidence-based reviews, educational
policy statements and practical guidance in printed formats. In the UK, "Sporting
Playgrounds" research has been promoted in reviews by Play England
and the National Children's Bureau that advocate the role of recess based
play in moving children towards the recommended accumulation levels for
physical activity (Sec.5, Source.Ai/Aii). In the USA, The National
Association of Physical Education (Sec.5, Source.B) reported
evidence (Sec.2, Ref.2) within their position statement in the
drive to increase appropriate and novel opportunities for non-curricula
physical activity within schools. Active Living Research Briefs (2011,
2012; Sec.5, Source.Ci/Cii) featured multiple exemplars of RISES "Sporting
Playgrounds" research within its "key" results that subsequently
informed policy statements within the USA (Sec.5, Source.Cii p.5).
To further demonstrate the geographic reach and significance of this
research, in 2008 `A Call for Action' was made to change legislation by
the Government of Western Australia via the Children's Physical Activity
Coalition (CPAC) Charter for Active Kids. Within this document RISES "Sporting
Playgrounds" research was highlighted when constructing the action
point to "provide traditional and innovative playground markings in
schools to motivate participation in physical activity before school and
during breaks in classes" (Sec.5, Source.D p.18-19). Most recently
the American Journal of Paediatrics (Sec.5, Source.E) published a
policy statement on the crucial role of recess in promoting physical
activity. RISES "Sporting Playgrounds" research (Sec.3, Ref.4)
are the only references cited from outside the USA and this has led to
policy recommendations (Sec.5, Source.E; 3 & 4, p 185)
outlining the benefits of playground design for child development and
recess as a contributor to daily MVPA targets.
The Liverpool "Sporting Playgrounds" work was incorporated in to
the 2008 NICE Public Health Guidance 8. The NICE Environment and Physical
Activity group was reconvened in 2010 to discuss new research evidence and
update Public Health Guidance 8. The consensus was that RISES "Sporting
Playgrounds" research remained central to the "environment" guidance
produced in January 2008. Public Health Guidance 17 `Promoting Physical
Activity for Children and Young People', published in January 2009, was
chaired by Professor Gareth Stratton and promoted aspects of play for
families, including children's active play (Sec.5, Source.Fi/Fii).
Locally, the "Sporting Playgrounds" project has informed the
School Improvement Policy of Liverpool City Council (Sec.5, Source G),
and impacted the redesign of school playgrounds in a region of the UK that
is exposed to significant health inequalities. Furthermore, the UK based
company Magical Markings was commissioned by the "Sporting Playgrounds"
project to implement the playground markings. The economic impact of this
research was reflected by the Director of Magical Markings (Sec.5
Source.H) who stated that "the research at the Liverpool John
Moores University helped me to form integral parts of my business plan
and helped gain a `competitive edge' at a time, when at is most
prosperous, 47 employees were employed by the company working all over
The health impact of changing physical activity in this manner is
important, since it has recently been demonstrated that increasing VPA by
5 minutes per day reduces the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease.
Health economics analysis of our RISES "Sporting Playgrounds" data
concluded that the cost of increasing playtime VPA by 5 minutes per day
was £5.40 per child per year (Sec.5, Source.I). According to
current NICE criteria, this modest amount represents an extremely
cost-effective intervention to enhance the health outcomes of children.
Sources to corroborate the impact