Healthy Schools

Learning Landscapes boost physical activity

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Colorful, inviting play areas, such as this Learning Landscapes-designed playground at Denver's Edison Elementary School, encourage physical activity.

One by one, the first-graders at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School handed over their paperwork, picked out the color of wristband they wanted, then stuck out their non-dominant hand and watched while the accelerometers were strapped around their wrists.

For the next week, these 6- and 7-year olds will be on the cutting edge of playground research, that liminal zone where architecture, urban planning and exercise science meet recess. They will wear their accelerometers – small water-proof, kid-proof devices that measure physical activity – 24 hours a day for six days. For their efforts, they’ll each get two $10 gift certificates to Walmart, and their families get a $30 gift certificate when the accelerometer is returned at the end of the week. They’re among the first wave of students taking part in a five-year study that eventually will encompass youngsters at 24 schools in three local school districts.

The object: To determine how much playground design and structured recess activities can boost physical activity levels in children.

“We’re trying to get a breadth of information from the students,” said Sarah Lampe, research coordinator for Learning Landscapes, the University of Colorado at Denver College of Architecture and Planning program that has been transforming DPS playgrounds into colorful, kid-friendly meccas for the past decade.

“In addition, a lot of our grad students are going out to the sites, looking at the play equipment, at the quality of it, the condition it’s in, and we’re putting in data about things like the distance between pieces of equipment, its color, its vendor. It seems strange, but what we’re hoping to find out is just what type of equipment drives more activity. Does a tether ball court being next to a four-square affect how active kids are?”

Researchers also will assess whether having a structured after-school physical activity program, called SPARK, available to students increases overall activity levels. Eventually, they’ll also assess the extent to which

The accelerometer is a water-proof, kid-proof device that students will wear continuously around their wrists for six days to track their physical activity.

having school gardens can entice youngsters to boost their activity levels by weeding, hoeing and all the other calorie-burning activities that come with gardening.

“We think it will be huge,” said Lois A. Brink, professor in the CU-Denver College of Architecture and Planning and the executive director of Learning Landscapes.

Results from earlier, less comprehensive studies show that while well-planned playgrounds don’t necessarily make active kids even more active, they do make sedentary kids more active. In a study last year funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, graduate students spent time observing activity patterns at nine school playgrounds. Three of the schools had old, unimproved playgrounds, three had well-established Learning Landscapes playgrounds, and three had newly-built Learning Landscapes playgrounds.

They determined that the Learning Landscapes playgrounds were used far more often than the non-improved playgrounds, sometimes by a factor of as much as 300 percent.

“We found that, of course, boys are always more active than girls. That’s all over the research,” said Lampe. “But we did find a couple of areas in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds that had no gender bias, where boys and girls were equally active. It was in the natural areas, the areas with trees and bushes and gardens – areas that aren’t typically found in a pea gravel playground.”

“We also found that, with both boys and girls, it’s not that we had an increase in very active kids. But we did have a decrease in sedentary children, which is a big deal. There were many fewer kids in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds who were just sitting around,” she said. “And we found that the results didn’t wear off after time. Whether the Learning Landscapes were recently built or were built years ago, they always had a lot of physical activity, more than the control schools.”

The results of the study will be published in August in the American Journal of Public Health.

What accounts for the magic? Brink said she isn’t sure – this latest ongoing study may help answer that more specifically – but she said she knows that colorful, dynamic play areas with plenty of age-appropriate play equipment, shade and green, growing areas, and a welcoming gateway that invites the community to come in are part of the equation.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Having something to provide shade is a critical element of a successful playground, Lois Brink says. Here, colorful canopies provide shade at the Wyman Elementary School playground.

Beyond that, placement of the play equipment is also crucial. “I liken it to balls in a pinball machine,” Brink said. “The kids are like the balls. And the more things there are for them to interact with, the more active they’ll be. But if the activities get moved too far apart from each other, then you lose the benefit. They like to bounce from one to another in short spurts of physical activity.”

By the end of 2012, every elementary school in Denver will have an upgraded Learning Landscapes playground incorporating all these things, thanks to voter approval of bond measures in 2003 and 2008.

The first one – at Bromwell Elementary, where Brink’s own children attended school – is now 11 years old, and is holding up well. That first playground grew out of Brink-the-mother’s concern that DPS playgrounds were uniformly dreadful in the 1990s. “It didn’t matter whether you were in a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, everybody had a crappy playground,” she said.

Brink, a professor of landscape architecture, was uniquely suited to do something about it. She led a grassroots efforts at Bromwell to improve the school’s playground and recruited some of her landscape architecture students to design a play area tailored to the neighborhood’s needs. It took them several years and multiple fund-raising projects, but eventually Bromwell parents raised the $250,000 needed re-do the playground.

From there, the Learning Landscape movement spread across the district. Principals began agitating for

A welcoming gateway, such as at the McMeen Elementary playground, encourages community use of the playground after school and on weekends.

improved playgrounds in their schools. With the end of court-ordered school busing, Denver voters grasped the importance of once again turning schools into neighborhood community centers where children could gather before and after school, and how crucial nice playgrounds were to that effort.

Of course, transforming arid, pea gravel playgrounds into lush, state-of-the-art Learning Landscapes isn’t an inexpensive proposition. “It takes more than just moving in some monkey bars and a couple of pieces of new equipment,” said Brink. “Most sites needed irrigation. They needed new asphalt. The cost can be $400,000 to $500,000.”

At present, 52 DPS elementary schools have Learning Landscape playgrounds, and 10 more are slated to be completed in 2010.  Sometime during 2012, every DPS elementary school will have such a playground.

Beyond the physical benefits, community and social benefits are also accruing, Brink says. “Anecdotally, we know we’re seeing a reduction in bullying,” she said. “Now the kids aren’t all fighting for the one tether ball pole.”

For more information

Click here to read a “best practices” report on Learning Landscapes from Kaboom!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing play into the lives of children.

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year


A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.