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Can neighborhood parks and playgrounds help fight childhood obesity?

By Maoyong Fan and Yanhong Jin

The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States has risen dramatically across all racial, gender, and ethnic groups since 1980. Approximately three out of ten children and adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese. Compared with normal-weight children, obese children are at a higher risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, bone and joint abnormalities, and sleep apnea. Furthermore, obesity imposes adverse effects on cognitive, social, and psychological development in children and has long lasting negative impacts on adult health, employment, and socioeconomic status. Stopping and reversing the childhood obesity epidemic requires promoting active lifestyle and increasing energy expenditure. Parks and playgrounds are important places for children to engage in physical activity. We evaluated the effect of neighborhood parks and playgrounds on childhood obesity by examining their effects on body mass index (BMI) and the risk of being overweight or obese, using the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health.

By studying a national population of children aged 10-17, we find that neighborhood parks/playgrounds have significant effects on childhood obesity (see below). Compared to girls without parks/playgrounds in their neighborhood, girls living in a neighborhood with a park or playground had lower BMI (by 2%). They were also 17% less likely to be obese and 28% less likely to be overweight. Similar, although smaller, park/playground effects were observed among boys. Boys living in neighborhoods with such facilities had slightly lower (1%) BMI and were 9% and 23% less likely to be obese or overweight.

parks and playground chart

We find significant differences in availability of neighborhood parks/playgrounds across regions. For example in Mississippi, only 54% of children reported that they had parks/playgrounds in their neighborhood while the proportion is 91% in New Jersey. In Washington, DC, 4% of white children live in a neighborhood without a park or playground compared with 15% of black and Hispanic children. Disparities in availability of neighborhood parks/playgrounds affect the ability of these populations to use neighborhood facilities and meet daily recommended level of physical activity.

We find that park/playground effects vary across demographic segments. For example, these effects are more pronounced for non-Hispanic white children than for black and Hispanic children. At the same time, we also find that the effects for children in low-income households are larger than for those children in high-income households. These findings have important implications in light of the fact that obesity rates are much higher among Hispanic and black children than non-Hispanic white children and among low-income children than high-income children. The results suggest the need to better understand social, cultural, and other factors that may presently be limiting physical activity through use of neighborhood recreation facilities.


It is reasonable to expect that other neighborhood characteristics, such as safety, also influence park/playground effects. Based on a self-perception measure of neighborhood safety, we find that the effects are larger for children in unsafe neighborhoods than for those living in safe neighborhoods. Although an unsafe neighborhood is likely to discourage its residents from outdoor physical activity, our results suggest that adding a park/playground in an unsafe neighborhood may provide a relatively safer place for physical activity, thus leading to an improvement in weight outcomes. It is important to devote community resources (e.g. policing, community volunteers) to maintain parks and playgrounds as safe venues for children to engage in physical activity, especially in unsafe neighborhoods. Other neighborhood amenities such as community centers/kids’ clubs attenuate the park/playground effects for both genders. This suggests that neighborhood parks/playgrounds and community centers/kids clubs are likely to be substitutes.

The results in this study suggest that improving a neighborhood’s built environment through the addition or maintenance of parks and playgrounds is an effective strategy for combating childhood obesity. Such policy interventions must consider the socioeconomic status of the targeted children as well as other neighborhood amenities.

Maoyong Fan and Yanhong Jin are the authors of “Do Neighborhood Parks and Playgrounds Reduce Childhood Obesity?” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Maoyong Fan is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ball State University, whose current research interests include economics of obesity and environment and health. Yanhong Jin is an Associate Professor of Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics at Rutgers University, whose current research interests include food and health economics.

The American Journal of Agricultural Economics provides a forum for creative and scholarly work on the economics of agriculture and food, natural resources and the environment, and rural and community development throughout the world. Papers should relate to one of these areas, should have a problem orientation, and should demonstrate originality and innovation in analysis, methods, or application.

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Image credit: (1) Chart courtesy of Maoyong Fan and Yanhong Jin. (2) Group Of Children Riding On Roundabout In Playground. © monkeybusinessimages via iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Ingrid Gould Ellen believes that urban development is a very important factor in low-income neighborhoods and that it is very beneficial; especially for residents who have children. For example, “Less exposure to environmental toxins could prevent diseases such as asthma; a safer, less violent neighborhood could improve health by reducing the chances of injury and death, and by easing the burden of stress; and a more walkable neighborhood with better playgrounds could encourage children to exercise, making them less likely to become obese. […]

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