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Original research
Ecological study of playground space and physical activity among primary school children
  1. Anne C Grunseit1,2,
  2. Blythe Jane O'Hara1,
  3. Bradley Drayton1,
  4. Vincent Learnihan3,
  5. Louise L Hardy1,
  6. Eve Clark4,
  7. Paul Klarenaar4,
  8. Lina Engelen1
  1. 1Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  3. 3Centre for Research and Action in Public Health, Faculty of Health, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  4. 4Northern Sydney Local Health District Health Promotion, Brookvale, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Anne C Grunseit; anne.grunseit{at}


Objectives To examine the relationship between school playground size and total physical activity (PA), fitness and fundamental movement skills (FMS) of primary school students.

Design Cross-sectional ecological analysis.

Setting 43 primary schools in New South Wales, Australia.

Participants Data were from 5238 students, aged 5 to 12 years, participating in the Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey.

Outcome measures Self (for age ≥11 years) and parent (for age <11 years) report of PA (meeting PA recommendations and number of days meeting recommendations), objectively measured FMS and cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness.

Results Associations between playground space and measures of PA and fitness were mostly non-linear and moderated by loose equipment. Students in schools with no loose equipment showed a weak association between space and meeting PA recommendations (self-report). In schools with equipment, students’ predicted probability of meeting PA recommendations increased sharply between 15 m2 and 25 m2 per student from 0.04 (95% CI: 0.01 to 0.08) to 0.30 (95% CI: 0.14 to 0.46), but at 30 m2 returned to levels comparable to students in schools with no equipment (0.18, 95% CI: 0.07 to 0.28). For cardiorespiratory fitness, in schools with no loose equipment, probabilities for being in the healthy cardiovascular fitness zone varied between 0.66 and 0.77, showing no consistent trend. Students in schools with loose equipment had a predicted probability of being in the healthy fitness zone of 0.56 (95% CI: 0.41 to 0.71) at 15 m2 per student, which rose to 0.75 (95% CI: 0.63 to 0.86) at 20 m2 per student. There was no relationship between space and FMS.

Conclusions School space guidelines need to incorporate sufficient playground space for students. Our study provides evidence supporting better PA outcomes with increasing space up to 25 m2 per student, and access to loose equipment, however further research is required to determine precise thresholds for minimum space. Intersectoral planning and cooperation is required to meet the needs of growing school populations.

  • physical activity
  • playground space
  • children
  • primary schools

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  • Contributors ACG designed the study, contributed to the analysis design and interpretation of the results, drafted the introduction and edited the manuscript. BJO contributed to the analysis design, and drafted the introduction and edited later drafts. BD conducted the analysis and drafted the results. VL derived measures from GIS data and contributed to the design of the analysis, drafted relevant parts of the methods and commented on later drafts. PK and EC conceived the study, contributed to the study design and provided input on the interpretation and implications of the findings, and critical review of the manuscript. LLH is the principle investigator on SPANS and contributed to the planning of the analysis and critical review of the manuscript. LE contributed to the study design and analysis, contributed to early drafts and provided critical review of the manuscript.

  • Funding Funding by Northern Sydney Local Health District was provided for this study.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval Ethics approvals were granted by The University of Sydney (No: 2018/048), the NSW Department of Education and Training and the NSW Catholic Education Commission. Informed written consent by students and their carers was required for participation.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement No data are available.