Evidence supporting the health benefits of Community Facilities 

Authors: Dr Karen Villanueva, Dr Hayley Christian, Julianna Rozek, Dr Lucy Gunn, Dr Melanie Davern, Professor Billie Giles-Corti. 

  • Physical activity researchers have looked at associations between school access, distance to school and characteristics of the routes to school with children’s levels of walking, cycling and physical activity. 
  • Studies have also looked at the provision and design of school playgrounds and open spaces with students’ physical activity levels during the school day. 
  • A small number of studies have explored the benefits of community and school gardens on healthy eating and social outcomes. 

Scope of evidence

Evidence is predominantly from Europe, the USA and Australia. In recent years, there has been more research from countries such as Turkey, Iran, India and Nigeria. The majority of evidence comes from studies of urban and suburban areas.   

There is evidence to suggest that community facilities such as schools and sport and recreation centres, and the co-location of these, have positive impacts on the health of the community.

In this section you will learn more about: 

Click here to view a summary of the above evidence


Children and adolescents spend most daylight hours at school. Hence, the design of schools can impact their health and wellbeing.  The school building and site should provide for a variety of different social activities, suited to student interests and group sizes.  [9] Their design, including the amount of and type of green space and playground equipment, influence children’s physical activity.  [4, 10-12] [3-6, 13] The inclusion of varied play opportunities is critical for encouraging school-based physical activity.  [7, 14] 

School grounds and playgrounds accessible outside of school hours can also provide benefits to the wider community with some planning policies such as Liveable Neighbourhoods in Western Australia, actively discouraging high fencing around schools.  [9] 

School playgrounds 

Throughout the school day, physical education classes and playtime (i.e., recess breaks) represent two important opportunities for children to be physically active whilst at school.  [3, 13] A recent review found that the contribution of recess to total daily physical activity ranges from 5% to 40% for boys and 5% to 31% for girls. [4] Indeed, the provision of playground and sports equipment and facilities is positively associated with children’s recess physical activity.  [3, 4]  

Larger shaded and unshaded grassed areas, sports equipment, and sheltered play equipment and social spaces increase the amount of both class-time and recess physical activity.  [4] Indeed, Martin and colleagues found that for each additional 100m2 of grassed surface per child, children undertook 1.2 minutes of class-time moderate-vigorous physical activity  [15] and 4.5 minutes of recess moderate to vigorous physical activity.  [16] 

Painting playground surfaces with lines for recreation games or murals encourages children to be physically active during daily recess.  [3, 5, 6] In one study, children spent more than 50% of recess engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity after the markings were painted, compared with 38% before the intervention.  [5] In another study, the increased level of physical activity persisted for six months among both boys and girls.  [6] It has been shown that children in schools with activity zones featuring painting, markings and equipment took around 200 to 300 more steps in a 20-minute recess period compared with control schools.  [10] 

Children prefer school yards that are spacious enough not to feel crowded, and have a range of landscape features including seating, playgrounds and green space.  [17] Small, cluttered school yards with lots of landscaped playground features are disliked by children, discourage play and are associated with higher body mass index.  [17] For more information about the design of playgrounds, please refer to Public Open Space

Active transport and routes to schools 

Schools are an important community facility and daily destination to which children and adolescents may walk.  [18, 19] Active commuting to school can contribute to children achieving recommended physical activity levels.  [2, 20-23] A number of studies have found that children who walk to school are likely to engage in more physical activity overall  [20, 21] and are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than children who travel by motorised travel.  [2] Participation in active transport to school has the potential to improve health through its contribution to overall physical activity levels and fitness.  [24, 25] 

Providing good walking and cycling routes around schools encourages children to walk and cycle, and has a positive effect on their physical activity and health with the two most important factors being distance to school and features of the built environment - including pedestrian infrastructure, traffic and perceptions of safety.  [26] Children attending ‘walkable’ schools i.e., with connected street networks and lower levels of traffic are more likely to walk and cycle.  [25, 27, 28] For more information, please see the Movement Networks design feature. 

Shared use of community recreation facilities 

Traditionally, sport and recreation facilities have been planned, designed and built for separate sections of the community - such as schools, colleges, private enterprises, state sporting association or community groups.  

Community facilities are therefore often duplicated and under-utilised, and/or not available for all members of a community.  [29] For example, an area may have several tennis courts located within schools, however these are only accessible to school students. In a resource-constrained environment, joint provision and shared use of sport and recreation facilities avoids this costly duplication, and ensures equitable access for all members of a community.  [29] 

Shared use can be formal, for example a school renting space in a local gym for afterschool care, or informal, for example allowing children and/or the general community to use school playgrounds after-hours.  [30] 

School grounds 

Schools are often centrally located within a community and have a variety of facilities and spaces, such as gymnasiums, playgrounds, sports fields and courts. Making these available for community use outside of school hours provides local residents with opportunities to be physically active.  [29] This can be particularly valuable in areas that lack public or private recreation facilities. 

The shared use of existing school sport and recreational facilities is a cost-effective way of providing larger areas of open space and playing fields within a community that supports physical activity among residents of all ages.  [30] 

An emerging body of evidence demonstrates that children and adolescents with access to existing school recreational facilities outside of regular school hours are more likely to be active.  [29] 

Facilitating shared use 

However, many schools either do not share their recreational facilities or limit the types of facilities that are available to the public during non-school hours.  [29] A review by the US-based Active Living Research group  [29] found that concerns about liability, insurance, safety, cost, staffing and maintenance were commonly cited as reasons for not opening their facilities to the community outside of school hours.  [31] Overcoming these major concerns is therefore a priority.   

Partnerships between schools and local community agencies to share facilities may overcome barriers to use.  [30] Schools, recreation facilities, community groups and local governments can enter into joint use agreements to address real and perceived barriers to sharing recreational facilities and programs, particularly in communities that lack public or private recreation facilities.  [29] These agreements should address issues such as liability, maintenance, vandalism, crime and other safety issues and scheduling and conditions of use.  [29] 

A study on the use of middle school facilities found that policies that permit the use of school facilities increased participation in after-school programs.  [30] 

Farmers’ markets 

The use of school or community facility grounds or car parks for farmers markets provides opportunities for community interactions, and in poorly served areas, access to fresh-food options in communities where healthy, affordable food choices may not previously have existed.  [32] 

For more information about the benefits of farmers markets, please see the Healthy Food design feature. 

Early childhood education and care services 

Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services are an important community facility that provides essential care and education for young children and families. Most young children attend an ECEC service before starting full-time school. Almost three quarters of children aged two to three years attend formal or informal childcare, and almost 90% of children aged four to five years attend a preschool or a preschool program in an ECEC service.  [33] 

Young children spend a significant amount of time at ECEC services, and thus they are an important behaviour setting influencing children’s physical activity, health and development in the early years.  [33] 

Less than one in five Australian pre-school (3-5 years) children meet the Australian physical activity guidelines of three hours of physical activity per day.  [34] ECEC services play an essential role in providing environments, programs and policies that encourage and support young children’s physical activity.   

Play environment  

It is vital that children have many opportunities to play outdoors because the single most important modifiable factor for increasing young children’s physical activity and reducing their sedentary behaviour is time spent outdoors.  [35]  

In addition, larger outdoor (and indoor) play spaces are associated with children being more physically active whilst attending ECEC services.  [36] There is some evidence that other attributes of the ECEC outdoor environment facilitate increased opportunities for young children to be active. These attributes include natural features, portable and fixed play equipment, path presence and design and different surfaces and gradients.  [35]  

Studies in older school-aged children show that children who play in natural areas engage in more physically demanding play compared with traditional playgrounds. The evidence to date indicates that high quality spacious outdoor ECEC environments with a variety of stimulating features to encourage young children to move freely, play and be active are required.  

For more information about the design of playgrounds, refer to Public Open Space

Regulation and policy frameworks 

Nonetheless the ECEC regulatory environment must also be considered. The Australian National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care provides a set of minimal standards that all ECEC services must meet.  [37] 

The framework requires that physical activity is promoted and embedded in centre programs  [23, 37] but does not specify how to promote physical activity. The provision of environments, programs and policies that encourage young children’s physical activity whilst attending ECEC should be done in line with the National Quality Framework as well as the Australian National Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF).  [38]  

The EYLF is an early childhood curriculum framework to guide early childhood educators in developing quality early childhood education programs with a strong emphasis on play-based learning.

Summary of evidence

Schools are often centrally located within a community and have a variety of facilities and spaces, such as gymnasiums, playgrounds, sports fields and courts. If these spaces are made available for community use outside of school hours they provide opportunities for residents to be physically and socially active, particularly in communities that lack public or private recreation or community facilities. [2] 
An emerging body of evidence illustrates that children and adolescents with access to existing school recreational facilities outside of regular school hours are more likely to be active.  [2] 
Playgrounds and sports equipment and facilities are positively associated with children’s recess physical activity. [3, 4] 
Playgrounds provide opportunities for children to play which promotes learning vital social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, negotiation and leadership, as well as physical activity. [3-7] 
Painting school playground surfaces with lines for recreation games or murals encourages children to be physically active during daily recess. [3, 5, 6]  

The use of school or community facilities, grounds or car parks for farmers’ markets foster social interactions and in poorly served areas can provide fresh food options in communities where healthy, affordable food choices may not previously have existed.