Journal of Community HealthThe Publication for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 201310.1007/s10900-013-9771-0
Utilization Patterns and Perceptions of Playground Users in New York City
Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University, 411 Lafayette, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA
Diana Silver (Corresponding author)
Published online: 11 October 2013
Playgrounds are assumed to be an important resource for physical activity. This study investigates seasonal utilization, user preferences, and perceptions of safety and upkeep of public playgrounds in New York City. A cross-sectional survey was conducted from May 2010 to January 2011 across 10 playgrounds in low/middle income neighborhoods in each of the five boroughs in New York City. A total of 1,396 adults accompanying children were surveyed. Outcomes included playground as main place of outdoor play, and perceptions of playground upkeep and safety. Covariates included socio-demographics and other characteristics of playground users. Multivariable logistic regression with playground/season fixed effects were used. Utilization varied substantially across the four seasons. Blacks had higher odds of reporting the playground as the main place of outdoor play (AOR 1.78, 95 % CI 1.13–2.80, p < .05). High income users had lower odds of reporting the playground as the main place of outdoor play ($60–$80,000: AOR 0.47, 95 % CI 0.29–0.76, p < .01, $80,000+: AOR 0.47, 95 % CI 0.28–0.79, p < .01). Racial differences in perceived upkeep and safety were not significant once playground/season fixed effects were included, highlighting the importance of neighborhood conditions. Women were more likely to report feeling unsafe within playgrounds (AOR 1.51, 95 % CI 1.12–2.02, p < .01). While some playground utilization is driven by individual characteristics, perceptions of public resources influences utilization and cannot be separated from neighborhood conditions. Increasing access to opportunities for physical activity for children requires new strategies beyond playground improvements.
KeywordsPlaygrounds Access Safety Physical activity Utilization
Nearly a quarter of children ages 6–11 in the US do not meet the U.S. guidelines for physical activity despite national efforts to curb child obesity . Healthy People 2020 recommendations highlight the role the built environment may play in increasing the portion of the children engaged in daily physical activity . Recent studies and systematic reviews have contributed to a growing understanding of park and playground utilization as part of this renewed interest in the links between the built environment and public health [3–7]. Ensuring equitable access to parks and playgrounds has been seen as an important component of the public health response to the problem [8–13]. However, evidence regarding disparities in access to parks has been mixed and may reflect different local investments over long periods to the built environment, as well as changes in residential patterns. Thus, because addressing such disparities may require local solutions, analyses of local resources and utilization can be especially important [10, 12, 14–20].
In much of the public health literature, parks and playgrounds have often been conceptualized as fixed community assets. However, access may have many dimensions beyond proximity, including perceptions of safety, hours of availability, weather conditions, and the variety of amenities contained within these areas. Several studies have found evidence regarding differences in racial minority perceptions of safety and parks, although disentangling peoples’ stated preferences and norms regarding park and playground use from neighborhood conditions remains a challenge . While some scholars have reliably demonstrated the relationship between seasonality, weather conditions and physical activity [22–27], few studies that focus on disparities within the physical environment have investigated intended or actual utilization of the available parks and playgrounds over multiple seasons [28–30]. This dimension of access with regard to parks and playgrounds in low-income communities may be less well-understood.
The relationship between park and playground availability and use has been investigated using several methods, each with some limitations. Analyses of national and local population surveys have investigated stated preferences for playground and park use. However, these methods have relied on self-reports of actual use, which may be unreliable measures of actual behavior [10, 18, 31]. Spatial analyses using neighborhood measures of deprivation linked to park and playground siting have been used to investigate access, but may be limited by differences between observed spatial distance and perceptions of proximity [32, 33]. Validated directed observation tools have also been used to assess park and playground users’ physical activity level, modes of activity, and other socio-demographic characteristics as well as park and playground characteristics (e.g. accessibility, usability, supervision, etc. [34–37]. While these methods are beneficial for measuring individual usage and physical activity, their observational nature does not allow for the assessment of individual perceptions of park and playground facilities or perceived barriers to access.
This study makes several contributions to these previous investigations. It examines how access, measured as utilization, to playgrounds varies throughout the year in New York City, adding the seasonality dimension to the discussion. In addition, using cross-sectional survey data collected from adults accompanying child playground users, it investigates racial differences in perceptions of safety, cleanliness and maintenance of these facilities and their relationship to playground utilization. This study focuses on children’s utilization of playgrounds for two reasons. First, children in dense city neighborhoods may have few opportunities for regular physical activity outside of schools and public recreational facilities. Second, children have less autonomy than adults in selecting areas for play and recreation. Finally, creating and maintaining neighborhood public playgrounds has been an important component of urban development for more than a century [11, 38, 39]. Ensuring equitable access to playgrounds has been identified as an important component of recent efforts to reduce childhood obesity [3, 40].
Sample and Methods
New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation administrative data was used to identify playgrounds throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Playgrounds were selected for inclusion in the sampling frame if they had no more than two entrances (so that utilization could be properly counted), were easily accessible by public transportation, were no more than 3 acres, were not bisected by active streets, were open to the public for full days, and contained an on-site bathroom (n = 24). Selected playgrounds were small with a variety of amenities including swings, climbing structures, sprinklers, and attached basketball courts. Playgrounds were matched to 2000 census zip code data regarding median income. In each borough, one playground in a low income and one in a medium income neighborhood (relative to the borough’s median income) were selected for inclusion, comprising a sample of 10 playgrounds. Data were collected on the same week day and weekend day in every playground during each season. During the spring, summer and fall data were collected from 9 am to 7 pm. Due to weather conditions, data collection activities were limited to 12–4 pm in the winter season. Data was collected from May 2010 to January 2011.
Project staff was stationed at each entrance of the playground to count the number of adults and children entering the playground and to approach adults entering the playground to complete the survey. The survey instrument was designed to be completed in approximately 5 min and was available in English and Spanish. Survey items include travel time, self-reported use patterns, perceptions of safety, maintenance and cleanliness of the playground, and demographic information. The survey instrument was pre-tested on 2 days preceding data collection. The study received approval from the Institutional Review Board at New York University in April 2010.
Across all days, 2,316 adults were asked to participate in the survey and 1,627 agreed, resulting in a response rate of 70.3 %. Adults who were not accompanied by children (n = 231) were excluded from this analysis, resulting in a final sample of 1,396. Adults accompanied by more than one child (n = 659) were asked to choose one child for which to answer questions regarding that child’s utilization. Total utilization was measured by tallying daily totals from the tally counters used by project staff stationed at playground entrances. Because data collection was restricted to afternoon hours during the winter days, values for the missing hours were imputed using an algorithm based on the ratio of afternoon to morning playground users in previous seasons. Seasonal totals for each playground were calculated and are presented in Fig. 1.
Total playground utilization by season and day of week, May 2009—January 2010
Pearson’s Chi square test for significance was used to identify differences in study covariates by race. Multivariable logistic regression models were used to estimate the adjusted odds ratios (AORs) with 95 % confidence intervals (CIs) for perceptions of playground cleanliness and maintenance, whether the playground was the child’s main place for outdoor play, and perceptions of safety within the playground. Fixed effects for seasons and playgrounds were also included. There was <2.5 % of data was missing for all variables except for the income level variable, where data for approximately 19 % of the total sample was missing. To rectify this, the median income level reported by users in each individual park replaced missing values for the income variable.
Utilization of these playgrounds varied by season and day of the week (Fig. 1). Across these playgrounds, utilization was highest during the spring and summer. During the spring season, over 9,000 adults and children used these playgrounds on the weekday and more than 8,500 on the weekend day of the study. Utilization was lower on both summer data collection days (approximately 6,700 on the weekday and 6,000 on the weekend day), when the temperature reached over 95°. Utilization was higher on weekdays versus weekend days in the spring and summer months but higher on weekends in the fall and winter. Winter utilization was substantially lower than all other seasons, both during the week and the weekend. Poor weather conditions across all seasons (substantial precipitation or cold below 32°) required the study to use alternate dates for 50 % of the initially selected dates for data collection.
Reported Usage and Perceptions of Playgrounds
A total of 1,396 adults who were accompanied by children were surveyed during the study period (see Table 1). Almost 40 % of the sample identified themselves as Hispanic (39.4 %, n = 500), followed by 33.6 % (n = 426) who were white and 14.6 % (n = 185) who were Black. The majority of respondents were women (70.2 %, n = 977), aged 26–35 years old (39.4 %, n = 502), and reported a household income of under $40,000 per year (46.2 %, n = 645). Among Hispanics, 43.4 % (n = 217) of adults had incomes of less than $20,000 a year, a far higher percentage than among other racial groups. Approximately 70 % of participants (n = 954) knew other adults who also used the playground. Adults reported that almost two-thirds of children attended school (62.2 %, n = 856). There were significant differences by race for children who were in school (p < .001), with 76.8 % of Black, 70.6 % of Hispanic children, 54.0 % of whites and 57.0 % of Asians/Other children in school.
Demographic and playground usage for adults and children, overall and by racial category, N = 1,396 (valid %)
n = 1,396
n = 426
n = 185
n = 500
n = 158
Live in neighborhood
Knows other playground users
Safety traveling to playground
Less than very safe
Safety within playground
Less than very safe
Main place child plays outdoors
Child school status
Not in school
Overall, adults and children were local and frequent users of the playground. More than three-quarters of adults (75.7 %, n = 1,041) lived in the neighborhood (as defined by respondents) in which the playground was located, and almost two-thirds (64.4 %, n = 885) reported it was the main place their child played outdoors. Respondents varied significantly by race (p = .002) in reporting if the playground was the main place that their child played outdoors, with whites reporting the lowest percentage (56.6 %). On the day of the survey, 75.9 % reported walking to the playground and for 67.7 %, that trip took less than 10 min. There were significant racial differences (p < .001) in adults reports of how they traveled to the playground.
As expected, the majority of adults had favorable impressions of playground maintenance, cleanliness, and safety. However, just under one-third of adults (29.3 %, n = 401) rated the playground cleanliness as fair or poor, and nearly one-fifth (19.1 %, n = 261) rated the maintenance of the playground as fair or poor. More than a quarter of adults reported feeling less than “very safe” when traveling to the playground (28 %, n = 387) and 34.4 % (n = 474) reporting feeling less than “very safe” while in the playground. There were significant racial differences in ratings of playground maintenance (p < .001) and cleanliness (p = .004). In both cases, the proportion of respondents rating the playground as “excellent” was highest among white respondents. Significant racial differences (p < .001) were also observed among respondents when asked about feelings of safety traveling to, or within, these playgrounds.
Predictors of Whether Playground is the Main Place Where the Child Plays Outdoors
There were significant differences across all parks in the odds of reporting that the playground visited is the main place that the child plays outdoors (Table 2, model 1). Compared to whites, Asian/others (AOR 1.65, CI 1.08–2.52, p < .05) have greater odds of reporting the playground as the main place that their child plays, controlling for all else. Compared to those reporting the lowest income levels, adults with household incomes of $60,001–$80,000 and those making $80,000+ have about half the odds of reporting that the playground is the main place their child plays outdoors (AOR 0.53, CI 0.35–0.80 and AOR 0.51, CI 0.33–0.81, p < .01) holding constant other factors. As expected, those traveling longer distances have lesser odds of reporting that that the playground is the main place that the child plays outdoors, controlling for all else. Finally, adults accompanying children who are not enrolled school had about sixty percent higher odds (AOR 1.64, CI 1.12–2.40, p < .05) than those in private school of indicating that this was the main place their child played outdoors, holding all else constant. While fixed effects entered for the playgrounds and seasons are not significant in model 2, suggesting that the observed relationships do not reflect substantial within playground differences, additional racial differences emerge. Controlling for season, the playground in which respondents were located, and other covariates, Blacks (AOR 1.78, CI 1.13–2.79, p < .05), Hispanics (AOR 1.53, CI 1.05–2.21, p < .05), and respondents in the Asian/other group (AOR 1.79, CI 1.15–2.80, p < .01) had higher odds of reporting that this playground was the main place their child played, compared to whites.
Odds of parents reporting that playground is the “main place” child plays outdoors (n = 1,202)
Less than 10 min (ref)
Not in school
Playground and season fixed effects
Chi square test of significance for change in log likelihood
Predictors of Playground Cleanliness and Maintenance
Racial and ethnic characteristics were significantly associated with respondents’ ratings of playground cleanliness across this sample, with Blacks (AOR 1.60, CI 1.08–2.39, p < .05) and respondents in the Asian/other group (AOR 1.66, CI 1.11–2.50, p < .05) having higher odds of reporting cleanliness as fair or poor as compared to whites (see Table 3, model 1). These observed racial differences disappear when season and playground fixed effects are added to the models, indicating that the differences in rating may be a result of using different playgrounds, not different experiences of the same playgrounds (Table 3, model 2). Income differences are not evident when examining the sample overall (Table 3, model 1), but within- playground income effects are evident (Table 3, model 2). Holding playground sampled constant, those in middle and higher income groups have greater odds of rating the cleanliness of these playgrounds poorly, compared to the poorest.
Odds ratios and 95 % CIs for rating cleanliness or maintenance of the playground as “fair” or “poor”
Odds of rating playground cleanliness fair/poor
(n = 1,238)
Odds of rating playground maintenance fair/poor
(n = 1,240)
Playground main place where child plays
Playground and season fixed effects
Chi square test of significance for change in log likelihood
Few statistically significant differences were found among playground users’ ratings of playground maintenance. In this sample, those with incomes of $60,001–$80,000 had lesser odds (AOR 0.39, CI 0.23–0.65, p < .01) than those from the poorest households of reporting that the playground was poorly maintained. However, when fixed effects for playground and season are added to the model (Table 3, model 4), these differences disappear. Within playgrounds (Table 3, model 4), Blacks have lesser odds than whites of reporting that the playground is poorly maintained (AOR 0.48, CI 0.27–0.86, p < .05), but otherwise these results indicate little differences among perceptions of playground cleanliness and maintenance.
Predictors of Safety Traveling to Playgrounds and Within Playgrounds
Table 4 presents results from logistic regression models examining respondents’ perceptions of safety both travelling to and within playgrounds. Controlling for sex, household income, and amount of time traveled, Hispanics had nearly sixty percent greater odds than whites of feeling less than very safe while traveling to the playground (Table 4, model 1, AOR 1.58, CI 1.11–2.25, p < .05). In addition, there is a monotonic relationship between income and perceptions of safety in traveling to the playground: compared to the poorest, each income group has lesser odds of feeling less than very safe, holding constant other factors. Racial and some income effects disappear when fixed effects for playgrounds and season are added to the models (see Table 4, model 2). Compared to the poor, holding constant other individual factors and the playground sampled, those in the highest income groups had approximately 50 % lesser odds of reporting feeling unsafe traveling to the playground, even controlling for the playground sampled ($60,000–$80,000: AOR 0.56, CI 0.33–0.95, $80,001+: AOR 0.52, CI 0.29–0.92, p < .05).
Odds of parents reported feeling less than “very safe” while traveling to or in the playground
Predicting that adult reports feeling less than very safe while traveling to playground
(n = 1,231)
Predicting that adult reports feeling less than very safe while in playground
(n = 1,219)
<10 min (ref)
Playground and season fixed effects
Chi square test of significance for change in log likelihood
Similar patterns were found when adults were asked about feelings of safety within the playground. Across all playgrounds holding all else constant (Table 4, model 3), Hispanics as compared to whites (AOR 1.48, CI 1.07–2.06, p < .05), and women compared to men (AOR 1.48, CI 1.13–1.96, p < .01) were more likely to report feeling less safe in playgrounds. Compared to the poorest, those in every income group were less likely to feel less safe, suggesting very different experiences of safety experienced in playgrounds throughout the city. However, when playground and season fixed effects were added to this model (Table 4, model 4), racial and income effects disappeared. In contrast, even within the same playground, women had more than 50 % greater odds (AOR 1.53, CI 1.15–2.05, p < .01) of feeling less than very safe there than did men.
This study provides evidence regarding the utilization of neighborhood playgrounds in dense city environments. These small neighborhood playgrounds are heavily utilized across both low and middle-income neighborhoods, despite differences in their amenities. However, this study highlights that utilization varies substantially throughout the year in New York City, with seasonal and other weather conditions. 50 % of the data collection days had to be rescheduled due to rain or other inclement weather, and one of the selected playgrounds was closed for one season due to fallen trees and damaged equipment that resulted from a windstorm. Thus, while these playgrounds are a necessary and vital part of neighborhood life, the role they can play in allowing for regular and sustained opportunities for outdoor physical activity is necessarily limited. Still, for more than 60 % of users, these playgrounds were the main place their child played outdoors.
As expected, those traveling longer distances had lesser odds of reporting that the playground is the main place that the child plays outdoors, both across and within playgrounds. This further confirms that playgrounds are important local neighborhood resources, as users are drawn from the immediate neighborhood in which the playground is located. Adults who are non-whites, lower income, and whose child is not in school were more likely to report that the playground was the main place for their child to play outdoors. This finding underscores the role these amenities play for vulnerable populations in New York City. Overall, our sample viewed the playgrounds as being reasonably well taken care of, with the vast majority of the sample rating the playground cleanliness (70 %) and maintenance (81 %) as excellent or good. Controlling for the specific playground sampled, respondents with higher incomes had higher odds of reporting playground cleanliness as fair or poor. These differences within playgrounds in perception may suggest that higher income respondents have different and perhaps higher expectations of the same public resources.
Many of the differences regarding perceptions of safety traveling to and maintenance of playground among study respondents became insignificant when fixed effects for the playground sampled were added to the models. However, some income differences in respondents’ perceptions of safety in traveling to playgrounds persisted regardless of the playground sampled. These findings may reflect differences in neighborhoods traveled through in the study sample, as lower and higher income respondents may take different routes to the same playground destination. However, as noted, when asked about perceptions of safety within playgrounds, all racial and income differences disappeared in the fixed effects models, implying that users of “safer” playgrounds experienced them similarly. Such differences suggest that addressing the relationship between safety concerns and playground utilization will require neighborhood strategies aimed at improving crime reduction, not only improving security measures within playgrounds. Indeed, on 1 day of data collection, several inebriated and agitated individuals effectively blocked the entrance to one of the playgrounds in a low-income community for more than half the day. The attendant at the playground was unable to address this situation, and the playground was virtually unused for the period.
The study findings are consistent with previous research that proximity to the playground is associated with increased utilization, but also caution that this relationship may be less strong in areas where neighborhood disorder and street life appear threatening . Finally, this study highlights women’s sense of vulnerability in urban environments—even public neighborhood playgrounds—regardless of race, income or place. This finding is troubling in itself. It may also have import for increasing utilization of neighborhood resources.
This study has several limitations. First, results cannot be generalized to the population of these communities as a whole, since users may differ substantially from community residents. However, a comparison of the study sample to 2000 census indicators regarding race/ethnicity, income and language for each zip code did not reveal substantial differences between respondents in a playground and demographic characteristics of that zip code. Second, total playground utilization figures may be underestimated due to surveyor error during peak times when playground entrances were especially crowded. Third, differences in perceptions of adults accompanying children in different ages groups could not be assessed, as respondents were not asked the ages of their children. However, in results not shown, significant differences were found between perceptions of safety among adults accompanying children not enrolled in school and those in school. Fourth, in reporting concerns about safety within playgrounds, adults may be reporting concerns regarding the safety of equipment rather than concerns about crime, given that maintenance ratings persisted in these models. If true, addressing these concerns might require capital improvements within the playground rather than increased efforts on the part of police, sanitation and other sectors.
Playgrounds are an essential feature of neighborhood life in dense urban areas, providing opportunities for leisure and physical activity. Individual user characteristics may predict some differences in patterns of playground usage. However, unlike other community resources such as schools or health care facilities, access to these resources is limited by changes in seasons and weather conditions. Further, perceptions of these resources cannot be separated from neighborhood conditions—perceptions of danger outside of the playground may influence perceptions of safety within it. Conditions within these playgrounds may also add to feelings of unease. Those that use playgrounds may have a higher threshold for braving unwelcoming neighborhood conditions, or less well maintained facilities than those who have already “opted out” of using such amenities. Their dissatisfaction should signal a need for greater attention to these issues. Public health advocates need new and flexible resources to meet national goals of increasing physical activity for children and adults alike.
The authors are grateful to New Yorkers for Parks, especially Cheryl Huber and Alison Beha for their support and assistance in conducting this study.
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