Placemaking Scholar Corner

Increasing Play Opportunities for ALL Kids through Space Activation

Guest Authors:

Dr. Jim Sallis, Health Psychologies San Diego

This study was part of PARC, the Physical Activity Research Center, funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Please visit to learn about other PARC studies on physical activity among diverse youth. 

Not only is physical activity a major source of enjoyment and socialization for adolescents, it is essential for physical and mental health. Physical activity is not just a seasonal pursuit; it is a year-round need for all youth, regardless of sex, race/ethnicity, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, not all adolescents are active year-round, so we need to do better helping them obtain the physical activity they need. 

Earlier studies found many youth gained more weight and were less physically active during the summer than the school year. This is surprising because school policies and class schedules do not force children and adolescents to sit in class for 6 hours per day in the summer. Summer weight gain was greater in some race/ethnic groups and among lower-income youth. The purpose of the study described here was to examine whether school year vs summer differences in physical activity varied by race/ethnic group and by sex. 

Study Methods

Recruit adolescents aged 11-17 years from diverse race/ethnic backgrounds living in lower-income areas of several US states

Measure their physical activity and sedentary time during the school year and summer vacation with an electronic accelerometer worn around the waist for up to 10 days 

Collect surveys about current and preferred activities and places to be active during the school year and summer

Main Results

Physical activity

Physical activity declined from school year to the summer among all subgroups.

Daily physical activity dropped by an average of 14 minutes per day. 

American Indians, Latinos, and girls were the least active groups in the summer.

Sedentary (sitting) time

Based on the accelerometer, all racial and ethnic groups were sedentary between 8 and 9 hours per day, which did not differ from the school year to the summer. 

All groups of adolescents reported more screen time in the summer, except for American Indians. It appeared enforced sitting time during school was replaced by more screen time in the summer. Perhaps in these low-income areas, parents were not comfortable allowing their teens to go outdoors in the summer, or there might have been few opportunities for safe physical activity in the summer.

What activities do adolescents prefer in the summer?

Walking was the most preferred physical activity across all subgroups and seasons. Exercise (perhaps interpreted as dance exercise) and running were highly rated by all race/ethnic groups, and girls showed strong preferences for water play.

Where do adolescents prefer to be active in the summer?

In and around the home was the most highly rated place for physical activity, regardless of season.


Because declines in physical activity from the school year to the summer were documented in all groups of adolescents, population-wide interventions are needed to increase physical activity in the summer. American Indians, Latinos, and girls had the lowest overall physical activity in the summer. These groups should be the highest priority for summer-time interventions.

Walking was consistently the most preferred activity, so increasing walking should be a major focus of interventions. Organizing walking groups around low-income neighborhoods in the summer would provide safe and accessible opportunities for adolescents to remain active.

Helping Adolescents Stay Active During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Adults who work in parks and recreation, youth-serving organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs, pediatricians, educators, college students, retired persons, and interested parents can contribute by directly providing physical activity services to youth and by advocating for governments and community organizations to organize safe physical activity opportunities, especially in low-income communities of color. 

It is more essential than ever for children & adolescents to meet physical activity guidelines during the pandemic.

Helps manage stress

To maintain overall physical and mental health

Because physical activity improves immunity and inflammation if youth become infected

Closing of parks, trails, and schools creates challenges.

During closings, parks and recreation staff could organize distanced neighborhood walks

Refer youth to online activity classes & lessons

Advocate for openings of parks and trails, with supervision to ensure social distancing

Advocate for regular and frequent “open streets” in all neighborhoods, during and after closures

About this study:

Sallis, J.F., Conway, T.L., Cain, K.L., Geremia, C., Bonilla, E., and Spoon, C. (2019). Racial/ethnic variations in school-year versus summer differences in adolescent physical activity. Preventive Medicine, 129(12), 105795 Open Access.Lay Summary.

Recommendations based on this study.

Learn more about using Parks as Equitable Resources for Youth Physical Activity.

Watch the On-Demand Webinar in partnership with PARC to leverage your local spaces to encourage youth physical activity.

Watch the Webinar