The Zona de Juego in Houston, Texas Community Design Resource Center

Playground designers are hoping kids will hopscotch their way to fitness—but it might not work quite that way.

The U.S. has a well-known childhood obesity problem. According to the CDC, more than one third of the nation's children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012. The percentage of obese children 6 to 11 years old more than doubled over the past three decades, from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012.

But some cities, designers, and child-health advocates think they have a solution—at least a small part of a solution. And the best news for cash-strapped schools and governments is that the solution is cheap.

In the language of playground design, "ground markings" are shapes, pictures, or games drawn onto the surfaces of play areas. These include readymade hopscotch squares, giant maps, and big circles to leap between.

(Soft Surfaces Ltd)

A number of studies have found that these simple ground markings can increase the amount of energy kids expend on playgrounds and in play spaces, as well as the number of calories they burn. A 2014 UK study found that, when children 10 to 11 years old were given access to playgrounds with painted lines and boxes, they increased their physical activity by 7.5 percent. Children who attended the control schools and who were not given markings actually decreased their physical activity by 7.7 percent. Research published in 2000, again from the UK, used heart-rate monitors to determine that children with access to school playgrounds painted with fluorescent markings increased their playtime physical activity from 27 to 45 minutes, compared with 29 to 36 minutes in the control groups.

Those may be moderate outcomes, but the price is certainly right to give this approach a try. The New York City Housing Authority, which often uses ground markings in its housing-development playgrounds, pays about $5 per square foot of acrylic "colored wearing surface," meaning a 13-by-6-foot hopscotch court costs around $400. NYCHA has what New York City calls a "chronic funding gap," but for a government agency slated to spend over $2 billion in 2014, ground markings are a drop in the bucket.

Blobs abound at the Gillingham Primary School in Dorset, UK (Soft Surfaces Ltd)

But even something as simple as adding color to the ground children play on must come with controversy. In 2010, researchers again found that ground markings, combined with other play structures, increased kids' physical activity levels during morning and lunchtime recess. But the novelty of the red, blue, and yellow play zones, the scientists discovered, wore off quickly. Kids were running around more six months after the markings were put down, but the effect was less pronounced six months after that.

Their findings also came with a warning: Sophisticated play spaces meant to be used in very particular ways "are adult attempts to constrain and control children’s play during recess," they wrote. "Imposing new structures on playgrounds may not be maintained for long, as they do not originate from the existing playground culture and the playground could revert back to its former structure; this structure being an established hierarchy of power based around age."

Even in playground planning, kids rule and adults drool.

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