Putting Active Designs into Play

Good health can be as easy as child’s play, according to College of Design professors Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco. Leading the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), they work with Swedish scientists to create play areas that encourage plenty of activity for children while limiting their exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

“We could have a generation of children that won’t survive their parents. We believe design can be used as a health intervention.”

More than 15 percent of American children are considered obese, putting them at risk for health problems like diabetes and heart disease. The figure is more than double the percentage of 30 years ago and continues to grow. “We could have a generation of children that won’t survive their parents,” Cosco says. “We believe design can be used as a health intervention.” Getting children outdoors is a key to battling obesity, and outdoors play also helps children develop socially and cognitively, says Moore, a landscape design researcher who founded NLI eight years ago.

As part of a study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NLI researchers followed preschool children on playgrounds at 30 day-care centers. By combining geographic information system (GIS) technology and handheld devices, the researchers gathered data on exactly where children played and the environmental characteristics of each location. Using evidence from statistical analysis, they can design the most activity-enticing play areas possible. The designs include curvy, exploratory pathways connecting play houses, climbing equipment, and soft-surfaced open lawn areas, all within shady, natural surroundings.

But being outdoors can have health risks as well. Overexposure to the sun at an early age can increase the chances of developing skin cancer later in life, Moore says. Through a colleague of Cosco’s, the NC State researchers linked up with Swedish scientists who were looking at different environments for playgrounds and ways to minimize the risks of UV radiation. Using seed money from the Swedish public health agency, the combined research team is building on Moore and Cosco’s previous GIS-based work.

“The design of the physical world can be managed and manipulated for people’s benefit.”

To design for appropriate sun and shade in playgrounds, researchers monitor the movements of preschoolers and outfit the children with shoulder badges that degrade in sunlight to measure their UV exposure. Moore says the study could help guide public policy to require a certain amount of shaded play area at day-care centers. “Our whole focus is preventive health,” he says. “The design of the physical world can be managed and manipulated for people’s benefit.”

 

Professors Nilda Cosco, top, and Robin Moore have equipped a camera with a fish-eye lens—placed at the height of an average four-year-old and pointed at the sky—that gives researchers a view of the sun and shade on various playgrounds in Sweden, the Raleigh area, and Phoenix.