Outdoor play experts in UWE bid to prevent childhood obesity

Issue date: 17 March 2005

Issue date: 17/03/05

One of the biggest public health challenges in the 21st century is growing obesity in children. Child and adolescent health experts are linking up with urban designers, teachers, crime prevention officers and play equipment suppliers in a new move to find out how best to encourage outdoor play and physical activities in children. This unique collaboration, led by the University of the West of England, is aimed at finding out the best ways of counteracting children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

“We are going to explore the potential of creative design in outdoor public spaces to promote healthy and inclusive environments for the young people of the 21st century,” said Professor Lamine Mahdjoubi from UWE’s Faculty of the Built Environment. “We are delighted to have succeeded in our bid for funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) – this is one of the first awards they have made for a design-based project.”

Professor Mahdjoubi is co-ordinating a team from a wide variety of professions, including architects, landscape designers, traffic engineers, community safety experts, child psychologists and organisations involved in child health and to ensure that designs for public open spaces integrate the elements vital to encourage children and adolescents to play in safety. The project will create a focus for exchanging information and advising those involved in allocating public sector funding for such projects.

Between 1974 and 1984, levels of obesity and overweight among children showed little change. However, between 1984 and 1994, and levels of overweight increase from 5.4% to 9% among boys, and from 9.3% to 13.5% among girls. By 2002, levels of obesity had risen to about one in 20 boys (5.5%) and one in fifteen girls (7.2%), according to a report in the British Medical Journal. A recent report of the Select Committee on Health concluded that most overweight children become overweight or obese adults, and said there was clear evidence that being overweight greatly increases the risks of a huge range of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

According to the research team, every effort should be made to help young people develop healthy lifestyles, including increased physical activity. The government suggests that schools should timetable at least two hours per week to be spent on physical activity. However, this in itself is not enough to meet the total recommended levels of 30 – 60 minutes of activity per day. Changes have occurred in the patterns of young peoples’ outdoor play over the last three decades, which is now centred on the home and garden rather than the streets. As the researchers point out, streets used to be places for people - today they are through routes and places for cars, and children have vanished. Parents have other reasons for not allowing children to walk to school or play outdoors unsupervised, including fear of abduction or vulnerability to violence or drugs.

“It is crucial to identify the barriers to outdoor play, and to find effective ways of surmounting these barriers. We will be conducting questionnaires at three schools, holding workshops, and taking into account differences in the activity needs of boys and girls. We also hope to extend the study to look at the impact of crime, transport issues, and the placing of play spaces near to other amenities.” commented Professor Mahdjoubi.

“Our main aim is to find out what should be expected, in the 21st century, from public outdoor spaces to encourage outdoor play and regular physical activity. For the first time, all the relevant knowledge that exists in different disciplines will be brought together to generate a blueprint for changing young people’s sedentary lifestyles and increasing their physical activity levels.”


Editor’s notes

1. The project, entitled ‘Designing healthy and inclusive public outdoor spaces for young people’ is being funded by £51,000 from Designing for the 21st Century, a joint initiative of the Arts and Humanities Research Board http://www.ahrb.ac.uk and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council http://www.epsrc.ac.uk . It will be launched on 23 March 2005.
2. Relevant research reports include:
• Chinn, S. and Rona, R. (2001), “Prevalence and trends in overweight and obesity in three cross-sectional studies of British children”, British Medical Journal 322, pp 24-26
• UK Parliament (2004) Select Committee on Health Third Report
3. Cluster members include: designers (architects, urban and landscape designers); Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE); Learning through Landscapes Trust; Children’s Play Council; Bristol City Council; University of Bristol; Centre for Child and Adolescent Health; Bristol Grammar School; Crime Prevention Design advisor, Oxfordshire County; Base Leisure Ltd and Continental Landscape Ltd.

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