Design Concepts completes cutting-edge study of play infrastructure in Alexandria, Virginia to prevent obesity and encourage play

Lafayette, CO...May 23, 2012

Design Concepts of Lafayette, Colorado, an award-winning landscape architecture and planning firm specializing in parks, playgrounds, and schools, recently completed a cutting-edge study of a city's play places as a system. The study, conducted in Alexandria, Virginia, is unique because it considered the entire environment at locations where children play, not just the play equipment, and used an innovative methodology for measuring levels of service for play spaces citywide. Research has shown that play, including unstructured activity and contact with nature, is important for many reasons, such as physical health and social and intellectual development. 

"We are using the assessment study as a springboard to bring awareness about play and address the needs for children ages two to five in Alexandria," said Carrie Fesperman Redden, MPH, MCRP, health planner for the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria, a citizen-led coalition of nonprofit organizations, schools, municipal agencies, local businesses, government and community leaders, and concerned citizens. An assessment report and video that Design Concepts produced are "critical building blocks for building a play movement in Alexandria, drawing attention to the importance of play, and determining how we can improve opportunities for children," said Fesperman Redden. 

The project was funded by a Kaiser Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) grant. The Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network, collaborating with the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria, Alexandria Smart Beginnings, the City of Alexandria, and others, hired Design Concepts and team members GreenPlay, LLC of Lafayette, Colorado, and psychologist Helle Burlingame, Ph.D., of Olympia, Washington, to assess Alexandria's playground infrastructure and the quality, distribution, and accessibility of play spaces for toddlers and preschoolers. A recent health survey of Alexandria, a city of 140,000 located six miles south of downtown Washington, D.C., indicated high obesity levels among children. The city has a large proportion of immigrant families and young parents the coalition hopes to reach with information about the importance of play and good places to play. While the focus of the study was on play opportunities for 6,000 young children, it also evaluated play for children of all ages. The coalition also asked the team to propose actions to improve and expand on these opportunities. 
The team developed an assessment survey and evaluated 86 public and private playgrounds at parks, schools, churches, public housing developments, and apartment complexes, using geographic information system (GIS) technology and Geo-Referenced Amenities Standards Program (GRASP®) methodology. Developed primarily by Design Concepts and GreenPlay, GRASP® methodology assesses the value of parks and recreation facilities and other infrastructure in communities. In the past 10 years, Design Concepts has conducted GRASP® studies in more than 75 cities in 30 states, including evaluations of how communities provide an environment for active living and health. 

The study included an inventory of play spaces, with an evaluation of the functionality of each play space; an analysis of the physical distribution of and access to play spaces across Alexandria; focus groups with daycare providers, family services, and others to determine the community's needs, values, and priorities for play; a citywide evaluation of the gaps, opportunities, and constraints that affect access to play; and value scores for play spaces, as well as recommendations and strategies for improving access to play spaces for young children. Using a numerical scale developed for the project, each play space was assigned a play space score, which was also used to measure levels of service for play citywide. Parts of the city with lower levels of service were identified and targeted for improvements to play spaces to enhance opportunities for healthy play. 

Through the study, "we were able to confirm what everyone suspected about current play spaces, and then quantify what the deficits were," said Rob Layton, RLA, FASLA, CPRP, the Design Concepts principal in charge of the project. "The advantage of looking at play citywide is that the community doesn't have to address all needs in all places. A cluster of play spaces in one part of the city that work together can provide a wide range of experiences for the children that live there." 

The study was begun in April 2011 and completed in February, 2012. The study report is available at Design Concepts also produced a video on play to encourage Alexandria parents to take their children to playgrounds every day, and to different places to experience different kinds of play. The video is available at

Using data and recommendations from the study, the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network launched the Project Play Task Force to raise awareness about the importance of play, improve play environments for Alexandria children, and ensure that every child has access to a high-quality playground. Alexandria's obesity prevention campaign will include outreach such as information sessions and maps showing the location of play places that will be distributed at community centers, schools, PTOs, churches, and preschools. 

The City of Alexandria recently was named one of 213 Playful City USA Communities by KaBOOM! for its efforts to increase play opportunities for children. Playful City USA, sponsored by the Humana foundation, is a national program advocating for local policies that improve children's play opportunities.