News & Success Stories

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Engaging Playgrounds Improve Mental and Physical Health

Post Date:05/09/2023 12:46 PM

May News County Playground Stencils 3x1


Beatrice Lomer, Community Health Worker, County of San Diego and Erica Cardona, CalFresh Healthy Living Specialist, County of San Diego 


For optimal long-term health, children need to adopt healthy eating patterns at a young age by following a diet filled with vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products. In addition to focusing on nutrition, children ages 6 to 17 also need to engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.  

These two health behaviors work together to support a healthy lifestyle and longevity while preventing chronic diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Within the North Central region of San Diego County, more than one in five children spends five or more hours in sedentary activities on typical weekend days, and 58.6% ate fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to the Community Health Statistics data in 2020 for the County of San Diego.  

In schools, many students see only barren playgrounds. However, through environmental changes, it is possible to create surroundings that encourage healthy living with the goal of improving mental and physical health, while reducing obesity and other associated chronic diseases.  

Playground stencils can be used to paint shapes and designs on paved playground surfaces. Colorful stencil designs are inviting, fun and great for sites with limited space or playground equipment. When children interact and play with the stencil designs, they experience improved motor skills and neurological development, they can practice literacy and learn more about healthy eating habits. Playground stencils are a quick, easy way of modifying environments to increase physical activity.  

Stencil Project Shows the Way 

Since 2017, the County of San Diego has worked with the San Diego Unified School District to identify school sites to implement and install interactive stencils on a school’s playground with the purpose of helping young children learn to eat healthy foods and be active. In August 2021, Carson Elementary STEAM Magnet School was approved for the project and, employing the help of a Nutrition and Obesity Prevention Educator and a Community Health Worker Liaison, the County set out to install the stencil designs at the school by Spring 2023.  This project was also in alignment with the North Central Community Leadership Team's goals under behavioral health.

For the installation of stencils, the first step was to meet with Principal Ciudad Real to gauge the level of interest in the stencil designs and figure out a plan for undertaking this environmental change. Upon the visit, the principal was delighted to have any type of addition to the playground. The playground consisted of four-square courts, hop scotches, and other types of playground items, but they were not very colorful and did not have the added benefit of helping the children to learn while they played and interacted on the playground. That is where the County team came in, working with school staff, like Dennis Gildehaus, a physical education teacher with the District, to get the kids to be more active.  

After meeting with the principal, the team selected eight physical activity, yoga, and color stencil designs for the playground, including one to teach students about the five food groups. 

By March 2023, the playground stencil makeovers were complete!

MyPlate Stencil:

Children are shown how much they need to eat from each food group to build healthy eating habits.

Hopscotch Stencils: 

Children learn to name a fruit, vegetable, grain, protein and dairy product using the alphabet.  

Physical Activity and Yoga Activity: 

Stencils feature callisthenic exercises such as jumping jacks, sit-ups, squats, and lunges in addition to yoga poses to promote balance and flexibility. Children are encouraged with these stencils to engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. 

After installing the stencils, the team established and prepared activity rules and guidelines for their use, applying age-appropriate information and input from school staff to help train activity leads in classrooms.  The addition of the new stencil activities helped increase the total number of outdoor playground activities available to students. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests that the playground stencils increased the number of healthy eating discussions held among the kids and teachers.  

Sustaining Success 

The team’s short-term goals are to train more staff and students at the site about how to use the new stencils and work with more schools in the North Central region. In the long term, the aim is to implement these physical activity and nutrition stencils in all schools in San Diego County. If you are interested in implementing these changes at your local school, please contact the County's Office of Equitable Communities at

 MyPlate Playground Stencil at Carson Elementary  Playground Stencil at Carson Elementary
 HSEC Team working with Carson Elementary Staff to install playground stencils  HSEC Team Installing Playground stencils at Carson Elementary


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