Physical Activity

How To Evaluate The Built Environment: Tools For Measuring Physical Activity

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When given the opportunity, children choose to play. Play is recognized as the primary occupation of children, and every child has the right to play. Moreover, play promotes physical activity which may reduce the risk of obesity, decrease stress, and improve academic performance.

Across the world, play varies according to the physical landscape, the built environment design, social norms, and culture. In Naples, playing in the street is not unusual; the natural urge to play, the very essence of childhood, cannot be suppressed by a lack of recreational facilities. The narrow streets and tiny squares in the  historic Spanish Quarter are treated as modern-day urban jungle gyms, evident by the many warning signs: “Prohibited to climb.” Older children are left to find open streets to play soccer, while others race motor-scooters down crowded sidewalks.

In New York City, play is much more structured but well over-saturated. In a dense metropolis, no land use decision is a simple one. Does the city build a playground or an open field? A playground may satisfy younger children for hide-n-seek (unstructured play) or hopscotch (semi-structured play), but it may also attract the elderly. Open fields may be suitable for football (structured play), but families may wish to use the field for a picnic.

In recent years, research has taken a turn to physical activity promotion during leisure time. By factoring in the distance to school, neighborhood design, traffic safety, and access to green spaces or recreational facilities, we begin to eliminate the line between play and physical activity. For example, New York City’s Active Design Guidelines integrate physical activity into everyday design.

Measurement and Evaluation
For years, researchers have used set of objective tools for the evaluation of the built environment. While heart rate monitors, accelerometers and double labeled water serve a purpose on the individual level, an increasingly popular method is direct observation, now considered the “gold standard.” Direct observation utilizes momentary time sampling, a method by which trained observers visually capture data at time intervals. Variables of interest often include visitor age, gender, race/ethnicity, the level of physical activity and the predominant type of activity. Additional variables may include the number of visitors, as well as the time, available lighting/shade, distinct ground markings/material, visual cues, loose equipment, broken items, supervision, accessibility and locked areas.

Direct observation identifies barriers and promoters to physical activity, as well as discovers new information regarding the content and the quality of physical activity. What areas are promoting the least physical activity?  Is the volleyball net confusing residents that are culturally unaware of the game? Are older children misusing the slide as a staircase?

Different measurement tools are available depending on the type of environment. SOPLAY  (System for Observing Play and Leisure Activity in Youth) is originally designed for schools, whereas SOFIT (System for Observing Fitness Instruction Time) is specifically designed for physical education and SOCARP (System for Observing Children’s Activity and Relationships During Play) is better suited for recess. Outside of school, SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities) is designed for parks, whereas BEACHES (Behaviors of Eating and Activity for Children’s Health: Evaluation System) can be used at home and additionally measures dietary behavior.

The challenge lies in satisfying the majority and making improvements along the way, and this can only be accomplished by research and evaluation. With additional tools coming in the near future, direct observation is ensuring children are handed their right to play.


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