By Sreetheran Maruthaveeran, 2020 SPGs recipient.

Physical inactivity in children has been identified as a significant and growing public health concern. Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity in children is associated with numerous benefits including improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and lesser symptoms of depression and anxiety (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010). A growing body of research has investigated environmental influences on children’s physical activity. This body of research has highlighted that green space provides an activity and health promoting environment (Ord et al., 2013). Given the opportunity, children have a natural drive to be active and play free. Research on green space has generally found a positive correlation between time spent in green spaces and children’s physical activity (Lachowycz & Jones 2011).

Although children are naturally much more physically active than adults but in present day situation it is much different. Kids of today are often very busy with computer related games or other deskbound works. Therefore, present-day children are consuming approximately 600 kcal per day more than their counterparts 50 years ago (Boreham & Riddoch, 2001). However, little is known about the use, the user patterns and constraint faced by the children in urban green spaces particularly in Malaysia. In addition, excellent availability, and free access to these public open spaces (e.g. parks, playground, pocket parks) does not necessarily mean that people will make use of it. There is currently lack of knowledge on how Malaysian urban children utilize these green spaces and what are the constraints they face when utilizing them. Knowledge about children’s use of green spaces should be of special interest in the context of creating a well-being Malaysian society. This study aims to look at to what extent the children from Malaysia use the urban green spaces and to find what are the constraints the children face from using the green spaces. This study will be conducted in several randomly selected primary schools in the city of Kuala Lumpur. The students will be interviewed using questionnaire and further face-face interview (qualitative) to gain more insights from the students. Knowing the user pattern and the constraints faced by the children in using urban green spaces would benefit particularly to the city hall in designing and planning of green spaces for children. This will of course increase the well-being of the society particularly the children in urban cities like Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding areas.

More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas and by 2050, urban population will be about two-third globally. Urban green spaces, particularly urban parks, provide numerous and multi-dimensional benefits to urban communities in terms of environmental, social, economic and physiological functions (Konijnendijk et al., 2013). Many researchers therefore studied urban park usage from multi-disciplinary perspectives worldwide (e.g., Adinolfi, Suárez-Ćaceres & Cariñanos, 2014; Chen et al 2018; Lee & Kim, 2015; Sreetheran, 2017). Although urban parks are usually playing fields for children, there is a lack of academic research about the use and the perception of urban parks by children users, especially in densely populated cities like Hong Kong and cities in rapidly developing countries e.g. Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. These cities undergoing rapid urbanization or population growth may sacrifice these green spaces for other land uses or combine various recreational uses and facilities in a relatively small park area. Children’s need is often undermined after satisfying adult users.

Creating or preserving more children-friendly parks would be opportunities for children to increase physical activity and emotional development, for example, as discovered in China’s study on the emotional benefits from connecting users with organisms and habitats in parks (Wang & Liu, 2015). Presence of nature also improved language ability and creativity (Sobel, 2008), strengthened children’s confidence and learning skills (Murray & O’Brien, 2005); promoted restorative functions for children (van den Berg & van den Berg, 2011; Kelz, Evans and Röderer, 2013), and enhanced children’s performance in school activities (Dadvand et al., 2015). It is important to emphasize how outdoor spaces and play activities are important to children’s health, learning, development, competences, attitude toward nature and spiritual development (Carr & Luken, 2014).

However, some researchers argued that the use and perceived connection to natural environment by children are less common in their daily life today than decades before (Mjaavantn, 2013; Woolley & Griffen, 2015). Furthermore, most of the previous studies on children’s park usage were more common in a North American or European context (e.g., Brussoni et al., 2018; Lerstrup & van den Bosh, 2017). Very limited studies have investigated an Asian context, except for few in China (Moore et al., 2017) and Japan (Senda, 2015).

In urban green space planning, design and management, children are also an important user group (Inger, 2016). Children and even their parents rarely have a voice when decision-makers come for design and management of green spaces and their settings. Top-down decision making is the norm and usual practice even though stakeholders in communities or neighborhoods might be considered. Possible changes in physical environment of parks are usually the foremost options from the urban planner and green space manager perspective although different socio-demographic groups of the public must have different preferences and needs (Schipperijn et al, 2010). It is therefore vital to study how children and their caretakers perceive and use the green spaces. Furthermore, cross-cultural understanding on children park usage is also important as findings published in the western context may not be directly applied to the Asian context with diversified culture, ethnicity and religion. In fact, for many years, the Western pool of literature has dominated in contextualizing and conceptualizing much of the knowledge base of park usage.

In Malaysia, many studies have investigated childhood obesity and the Malaysian National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) revealed the prevalence of obesity among children aged <18 years old at 11.9% in 2015 (NHMS, 2015). A higher prevalence of overweight was shown among primary school children (7-12 years) (9.9%), especially in males (21.9%) compared to females (18.1%) (Balkish et al. 2010). The rate seems lower among the secondary school students (13 to 17 years old) with prevalence at 11.4% and 8.2%, respectively but the results also showed higher rate in males (10.6%) compared to females (6.0%) with the highest in Malay adolescent (12.9%) compared to the Indians (7.1%) and the Chinese (5.9%) (Rampal et al. 2007).  So far, the primary focus of obesity in childhood research in this country is only on obesity or single lifestyle behaviours, while the relationship between obesity and the usage of urban green spaces has not been studied.

With this, this study aims to look at how children, particularly the primary school children (age 7-11) in Kuala Lumpur use and perceive urban parks in their daily life. This study seeks to fill the present gap in the existing knowledge on green space usage among children particularly from the Malaysian context with the following objectives:

  • to determine the general health status of the primary school children in the Klang Valley;
  • to identify types of activities the primary school children are engaged in urban green spaces in the Klang Valley;
  • to identify the constraints faced by the primary school children from using the urban green spaces in the Klang Valley;
  • to determine the association between the health status and the use of urban green spaces by the children of Klang Valley.

 

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