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Boring playgrounds discourage outdoor active play

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Australian students who could improve their health by playing outside at school are avoiding using school playgrounds because they’re bored. Southern Cross University physical education and health expert Dr Brendon Hyndman says children and teenagers are staying away from or not using unattractive, unappealing outdoor spaces such as empty grassed areas, courts and fixed facilities that may not have changed or been updated with new activity options for months or even years.

“Evidence shows that if they’re not challenged or exposed to new and enticing facilities and equipment, students move less,” Dr Hyndman said. “In my research, students have voiced that boredom can prompt them to misbehave, push boundaries and even become reckless to the point of injuring themselves or others.

“Secondary students have also voiced a desire for more challenging physical experiences. If they’re not given those attractive options, there can be a tendency to hang around the canteen and lounge areas.”

In his new book Contemporary School Playground Strategies for Healthy Students, Dr Hyndman suggests that strategies as simple as making available weather-appropriate uniforms and inexpensive mobile equipment such as hay bales and blocks, students could become motivated to venture into their school playgrounds, and reap the health benefits as a result.

But Dr Hyndman said, students should be consulted about the features to be included in their playgrounds. He said Australian children can experience more than 4000 recess and lunch periods during their primary schooling, presenting a large period that could be used to influence behaviour, recreational preferences and habits into secondary schooling and beyond.

“Teachers are conscious of changing educational content and their classrooms to prevent boredom, yet there isn’t the same consideration of how best to use schools’ outdoor spaces for learning – both for physical education and the broader recreational options,” Dr Hyndman said. “This is especially important for those students who prefer not to participate in competitive sports.

“Girls, in particular, enjoy creative, imaginative and social play opportunities that can’t be fulfilled in tired, old-fashioned facilities. Innovative suggestions such as dog walking or dance programs give them opportunities to exercise and socialise."

In his book, Dr Hyndman suggests a range of strategies that could be considered by the more than 9,000 Australian schools that have playground facilities, including:

  • introducing mobile equipment in primary schools such as sports equipment (balls, bats, boards and hoops), and parts (large blocks for climbing or building, tunnels, pipes, crates, foam, rubber and plastic parts) that can be easily manipulated and used, and which can evolve over time to develop students’ potential to meet engaging playground objectives of thinking, doing, being and feeling
  • countering the decline of physical activity between primary and secondary school by providing safe and supervised adventure-focused activities in secondary schools, such as indoor climbing structures, low ropes courses or hiking groups) and modern sporting facilities (such as running tracks, fitness/exercise/gymnastic facilities) to challenge students’ movement capabilities
  • introducing a policy that requires each school to have at least a prescribed minimum amount of physical activity equipment, facilities and outdoor spaces
  • ensuring equipment is regularly updated to invigorate outdoor spaces and stagnant play options
  • providing more creative, imaginative and social activities to improve girls’ engagement, such as social walking, music and dance programs during break times
  • considering strategies to counteract adverse weather conditions such as shaded and enclosed areas, indoor programs, providing weather-appropriate uniforms and more cooled water facilities
  • re-visiting policy provision for school playground activities. Ideas can include the provision of animal programs (dog walking), sporting excursions to pools and other community sports venues and replacing dresses, skirts and sandals with more suitable uniforms for physical activity.  

Dr Brendon Hyndman (ed.), Contemporary School Playground Strategies for Healthy Students, Springer Nature Singapore, 2017 (DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-4738-1_16)


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