Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture: New tool for built environment researchers and designers

According to a 2012 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, up to 50 percent of a child’s waking hours are spent in school. Furthermore, much of this time is spent sedentary. In efforts to decrease childhood obesity, research has increasingly focused on physical activity in the school environment. As this body of evidence continues to grow, however, a knowledge gap has formed between research and school design practice.

Spurred in part by recommendations from the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) along with the American Institute of Architects and U.S. Green Building Council, Brittin et. al. developed the Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture, published by PLOS ONE in July. The Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture is a tool that bridges the gap between science and practice. The guidelines have a two-pronged purpose to provide architects, designers, school planners, educators, and public health professionals with strategies to increase physical activity, while also engaging scientists in transdisciplinary perspectives to improve knowledge surrounding the impact of the school environment.

Through a systematic literature review by a team of public health scientists and design practitioners, Brittin et. al. consolidate 77 studies into guidelines containing 10 school design domains. The transdisciplinary research approach behind the guidelines includes a synthesis and analysis of studies on macro- to micro-level environment characteristics, followed by categorization based on three levels of evidence strength: Strong, Moderate, or Preliminary. Select findings of evidence in each category are:

  • Strong: Playground markings and equipment, playground availability and safety, presence of school gardens
  • Moderate: Presence and renovation of schoolyard playgrounds, outdoor physical activity facilities, ‘nature’ in the schoolyard, schoolyard surface materials, and population density
  • Preliminary: Open interior space and ‘outside’ elements, flexible ‘moving’ classroom, stand-biased desks, and dynamic furniture

These findings are re-conceptualized into the 10 spatially-oriented design domains. The 10 domains are as follows:

  1. School Siting and Community Connectivity
  2. Building Massing and Programming
  3. Smart Fitness Facilities
  4. Active Classrooms
  5. Outdoor Learning Areas
  6. Active Play and Leisure Areas
  7. Active Navigation Areas
  8. Signage and Wayfinding
  9. Furniture Specifications
  10. Mobile Technologies and Virtual Designed Environments

“The transdisciplinary process used to develop the guidelines makes them unparalleled in their value. This paper significantly advances the burgeoning field of design and health. It is a comprehensive look at the evidence to date and offers new testable ideas that researchers and architects can collaborate on,” said Dr. Terry Huang, member of the NCCOR External Scientific Panel (NESP) and senior author of the paper. “As a tool of equal value to both investigators and school designers, the guidelines provide a unique opportunity to focus industry and research” added Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, NCCOR contributor and also co-author of the study.

The release of these guidelines come at a time when billions of dollars are being spent annually on school construction and renovation and as researchers continue to explore the impact of school design on physical activity outcomes in children. By consolidating an array of evidence into a practical tool, the Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture streamline research allowing practitioners to move forward with evidence-based interventions in the school environment. Read the recently published article here and recent coverage by FastCompany here.


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