Physical activity during youth contributes to enhanced health and development, and time spent outdoors is a positive correlate of children's physical activity levels. Despite the importance currently attached to building healthy communities, children in the United States from economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods often lack access to quality open space. In response to insufficient outdoor play options for children in Newark, New Jersey, several existing inner-city elementary school playgrounds have been rebuilt through public-private partnerships involving the municipal government, school district, and nonprofit agencies. This study explores the extent to which neighborhood children use these renovated playgrounds outside of school hours.
The investigation centers on four playgrounds, three of which were renovated between 1996 and 2003. The study employs an ecological framework to explore the effects of socioeconomic, environmental, and political dynamics on children's after-school playground use. Respondents included fifth-grade students (n=179), their caregivers (n=154), and select school personnel (n=25). Data collection was from surveys, interviews, and playground observations. The themes examined are neighborhood setting, neighborhood perceptions, playground features, school features, and individual user characteristics.
Data analysis revealed that across all four neighborhoods most children lived within walking distance of their school (>75%), were not allowed by their caregivers to be alone on school playgrounds (>55%), and did not use school playgrounds after-school hours (>68%), although the playgrounds were open to public use. Despite a complex interplay among perceived and actual features of school playgrounds and neighborhood settings, a consistent finding across respondent groups was the issue of child safety. The study demonstrates that children in Newark often have limited opportunities to use school playgrounds after-school hours due to potential personal risks arising from threatening conditions such as crime and gang activity in their immediate neighborhoods.
These findings suggest that Newark's current strategy of rebuilding school playgrounds in low-income, minority neighborhoods as a means to bolster children's physical activity levels, while possibly health promoting in many ways, may well be at odds with the everyday circumstances that residents encounter living in a high-risk city. Study results indicate that policy initiatives directed toward promoting leisure-time physical activity among youth need to consider strategic approaches that address individual-environment interactions and are more community specific.