Youth Physical Fitness Research

Call it play or call it exercise, a child knows when they're having fun

Making Physical Fitness More Fun and Engaging

Physical activity in play is critical for healthy lifestyles and the development of the mind, body, and spirit. Communities are seeking valid ways to address the dramatic rise in childhood obesity and combat sedentary lifestyles in new, exciting ways. It is critical for professionals to advocate for play initiatives and effectively communicate how investing in play results in healthy community outcomes. Research indicates that children that engage in regular, healthy physical activity are more likely to continue to be active as adults. By providing evidence-based programs and well-designed outdoor play environments that intentionally promote fitness and physical activity, schools, parks, and activity centers can create more available opportunities for children to engage and have access to active play.

Encouraging activity in children

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States putting kids at risk for poor health. Despite recent declines in the prevalence among preschool-aged children, obesity among all children is still too high. However, research shows that meaningful exercise for kids is much different than what an adult will choose. Children exercise in short bursts and use their bodies in lots of different directions, so when suggesting activities for them, it’s more relevant to think like a playmate, not a personal trainer. Since children think of play as fun, and not work, and schools & recreation centers already have playgrounds available, it was logical to look for ways to help children meet physical fitness standards through meaningful activities on the playground.


Identifying a catalyst for action

PlayCore worked with SHAPE America, the organization that has established standards for developing physically literate students. These standards have become the guiding principles of meaningful youth physical education.  Together, with PlayCore, we developed Play On! which fully aligns with the SHAPE America standards while promoting fitness and fun on the playground. The 125 playground activities provide meaningful ways for schools and recreation professionals to effectively address health and wellness initiatives and provide active play through the use of six key play elements that promote fitness—balancing, brachiating, climbing, spinning, sliding, and swinging. The 6 elements of play were identified by experts Russell Carson, PhD., Department of Kinesiology, and Marybeth Lima, PhD., Department of Biological & Agricultural Engineering, of Louisiana State University, who served as the authors of the program. These six activities provide a developmentally appropriate total body workout for children to help engage them in active behavior and learn to enjoy physical activity and fitness.

Playgrounds not only promote gross motor development, but they improve critical thinking and problem solving skills, and provide opportunities for creativity, social interaction, and overall physical fitness. In addition, when children are engaged in physical activity on a playground, no one is "waiting for a turn," and no children feel left out due to a lack of skills. Play is fun, and fun is not something that children have to be encouraged to partake in. The Play On! program helps to promote moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity, promoting healthy benefits for children of all abilities. 

Research driven outcomes

To validate the program, through a research grant administered by SHAPE America, Dr. Yuanglong Liu and Dr. Suzan F. Ayers of the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Western Michigan University, developed and implemented an objective analysis of the Play On! Program.  Dr. Liu, the chair and professor of Research, Measurement, and Evaluation, received his Ph.D and M.P. E from the University of British Columbia. His department has a long, proud history of outstanding achievements across an array of academic fields related to human performance and health education. Dr Ayers, who received her Ph.D from the University of South Carolina, is a professor of physical education, and a Presidential Youth Fitness Program Master Trainer, who has presented and published her work on test development, fitness, and assessment in state, national, international meetings and journals. She has also been recognized as a SHAPE America Research Consortium Fellow. They conducted a national study to evaluate the program that provided specific information about the correlation between the program and physical activity benefits. Fourteen schools were selected through a national Beta Site selection process through SHAPE America, in which schools submitted an application to volunteer to participate in the research. Approximately 6,000 children from 14 beta sites in 5 states participated from February to May 2009. Research included a series of pre– and post– intervention surveys completed by the teacher, children, parents, as well as two focus groups at one of the Beta Sites to qualitatively measure physical activity and skill development.

Because of the careful program development and thorough and objective analysis of the Play On! program, youth fitness playgrounds developed in alignment with PlayOn! are eligible for National Demonstration Site status.


Teachers who will use the program in the future


Teachers who rated the program 4-5 on a 5 point scale


Teachers who reported Play On! motivated students to participate


Students who reported having fun in the activities



The Society of Health and Physical Educators, doing business as SHAPE America, is headquartered in Reston, VA, 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. Its vision is “Healthy People – Physically Educated and Physically Active!” SHAPE America is the largest organization of professionals involved in physical education, physical activity, dance, school health and sport—all specialties related to achieving an active, healthy lifestyle. Its mission is to advance professional practice and promote research related to health and physical education, physical activity, dance and sport by providing its members with a comprehensive and coordinated array of resources, support and programs to help practitioners improve their skills to further the health and well-being of the American public.

Through SHAPE America’s partnership with PlayCore, we stay abreast of best practices to promote healthy lifestyles and a lifelong love of fitness through play and recreation.

Our Scholar Partners

Marybeth Lima, PhD

Professor, Louisiana State University

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