Motivating Playgrounds

Thea Toft Amholt

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis

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This thesis, Motivating Playgrounds, arose from the enormous global health challenge that children are not physically active enough and that their physical activity (PA) levels decline as they grow older. PA is crucial for physical and mental health, and persistent low PA levels have profound health consequences in a life course perspective. Generally, children report that play is a motivating way to be physically active, and research has shown that play in school playgrounds during recess can contribute with up to 40% of children’s daily PA. Therefore, researchers and policy makers have been interested in how to increase motivation for playground use to enhance children’s health. In this research field, tweens (9-12-year-olds) have been overlooked, and previous research has recommended that research be devoted to issues that may discourage this group from using playground. To increase tweens’ use of school playgrounds and help increase their health, we need to know what motivates them. On this basis, the aim of the present thesis, Motivating Playgrounds, was to investigate and document tweens’ motivation for school playground use. Firstly, a mapping of where on school playgrounds tweens are most and least physically active was conducted using GPS and accelerometer data. Secondly, we conducted systematic observations of what kinds of play tweens use school playgrounds for. These two studies led to the final study aiming to understand tweens’ motivation for school playground use. To get an insight into tweens’ own descriptions of school playground motivation, I conducted focus group go-along interviews to explore how school playgrounds can support the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) proposed by the self-determination theory (SDT). By supporting tweens’ needs, school playgrounds can increase their autonomous motivation to use school playground and be physically active. Thus, I aimed to understand what constitutes a Motivating Playground for tweens. The guiding research question for this thesis was therefore: “How do tweens use school playgrounds for physical activity and play, and what motivates them to use the school playgrounds?”
In Study 1, I concluded that high PA was found in ball game areas for both boys and girls. I also found that some areas facilitating higher PA for tweens were characterized by being away from the main school playground. For girls, I found high PA on climbing equipment and, finally, I found that areas with high PA of one gender often lay next to areas of low PA of the other gender. In Study 2, I found that tweens primarily used school playgrounds for two play categories, namely physical and talkative play, accounting for 80% of tweens’ play. I also concluded that tweens used all the different play equipment types available in the school playgrounds. The results of these two studies laid the foundation for interviewing tweens about their playground use and how to support their motivation. In Study 3, I found that school playgrounds could support tweens’ three basic needs. They supported tweens’ need for autonomy when the tweens could freely choose from different play equipment pieces. To support competence, school playgrounds should facilitate challenges at different levels, enabling tweens to practice and experience task mastery. Finally, school playgrounds provide a unique possibility for making and strengthening social bonds. To support relatedness, school playgrounds should include areas to hang out and talk with friends of similar age. Synthesizing the results of the three studies, I suggest three main conclusions in this thesis. Firstly, school playgrounds for tweens should include social areas designated for tweens to hang out with others of the same age. Secondly, school playgrounds for tweens should offer age-appropriate challenges that fit tweens’ competence levels. Finally, school playgrounds for tweens should provide opportunities for PA such as ball game areas and climbing equipment. The results of this thesis will help playground designers, city planners, schools, and playground owners understand how to create motivating school playgrounds for tweens to increase their school playground use and positively contribute to their PA levels.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern Denmark
  • Schipperijn, Jasper, Principal supervisor
  • Jespersen, Jeanette fich, Co-supervisor, External person
  • Zacho, Morten, Co-supervisor
External participants
Publication statusPublished - 24. Oct 2022


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