The preschool that children attend has been shown to be a significant but variable predictor of physical activity of 3- to 5-yr-olds, whereas the time outdoors has been found to be a strong correlate of physical activity. Researchers speculate that variations in preschool physical activity may be attributed to variations in preschool policies and practices, including the form and content of outdoor physical environments. However, assessment methods linking them to physical activity are limited. Improved understanding of links between environment and activity could be used to influence childcare policy, which is highly regulated, usually at state level, to create outdoor environments more conducive to children's informal play and physical activity. The purpose of this article was to introduce behavior mapping as a direct observation method on the basis of the theories of behavior setting and affordance and to demonstrate its sensitivity to gathering physical activity and associated environmental data at a sufficiently detailed level to affect built environment design policy.
Methods: Behavior mapping data, including outdoor environmental characteristics and children's physical activity levels, were obtained in two preschool centers at the Research Triangle region, NC.
Results: Physical activity levels at the two centers varied across different types of behavior settings, including pathways, play structures, and open areas. The same type of setting with different attributes, such as circular versus straight pathways, and open areas with different ground surfaces, such as asphalt, compacted soil, woodchips, and sand, attracted different levels of physical activity.
Conclusions: Behavior mapping provides a promising method for objectively measuring relationships between physical behavior settings and directly associated activity levels.