March 18th, 2024

Using the Community Park Audit Tool to Teach the Importance of Urban Green Spaces: A Case Study with Teacher Education and Public Health Students

By Katie Bucher and Russell McIntire

Link to the JSE March 2024 General Issue Table of Contents

Bucher McIntire JSE March 2024 General Issue PDF

Abstract: This case study discusses the implementation of a park audit project with undergraduate college students in teacher education and public health programs. With a focus on drawing attention to the importance of urban green spaces in these two professional fields, the design of this project extended course activities into local parks. Students prepared to conduct park audits by engaging with course material focused on the importance of urban green spaces for individual health and children’s development, as well as inequities in access to high quality parks. The capstone of the course project was the audit of parks using the Community Parks Audit Tool (CPAT) in which each student assessed several parks in their local communities and documented their findings. This article discusses the contextual relevance of this project, its value in increasing attention to environmental considerations in the education and public health fields, as well as student responses to the implementation of the project in these specific classes.

Keywords: Urban green spaces, park inequities, experiential learning, teacher education, public health



This article discusses a project focused on engaging college students in auditing urban green spaces and understanding the importance of urban green spaces within the fields of early childhood education and public health.  We conducted this project with two groups of undergraduate students: 1) first- and second-year teacher education students at a community college in a large city and, 2) third- and fourth-year public health students at a four-year university in a small city.  (The two groups of students were Birth-4th Grade Education majors and Population Health majors, respectively. For ease of reading, we will be using the terms “teacher education” and “public health” throughout this paper.) In the two courses in which we implemented this project, we had parallel goals of increasing students’ awareness of local urban green spaces; reflection on green space inequities; and appreciation for the importance of green spaces in their respective professional fields.

The impetus for this project is rooted in a desire to integrate attention to environmentalism and sustainability across college curricular content.  In its 2022 call for institutes of higher education to embrace the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, UNESCO noted that “sustainability education should bring students into contact with real-world problems and immersive experiences” that inspire them to meet the responsibilities of critical societal transformation (pg. 12 in Parr et al., 2022). How- or even whether- institutes of higher education are meeting this call varies greatly, by location/region, type of institution, and disciplinary field of study (Parr et al., 2022).

In the two professional fields students in our courses are entering- teaching and public health- there has been notable increased attention to environmental challenges such as the climate crisis and responsive sustainability in recent years (Hedefalk et al., 2015; Reid, 2019; Kluge et al., 2023).  Nonetheless, there remains considerable room for progress so that educators (Drewes et al., 2018; Reid, 2019) and public health professionals (Hathaway & Maibach, 2018) are aware of how the natural environment and pressing environmental challenges intersect with their work. Through a parallel project in an early childhood education and a public health course, we focused on addressing one aspect of this need.

The Importance of Nature to Early Childhood Education and Public Health

In recent years there has been a proliferation of research documenting the benefits of children’s engagement in and with nature as well as the potential for broader eco-social change when children develop pro-environmental ethics and behaviors (Cheng & Monroe, 2012; Collado & Corraliza, 2015; Collado et al., 2015; Rosa et al., 2018; Hoover, 2021). In their systematic review of the research literature in early childhood environmental education (ECEE), Ardoin and Bowers (2020) summarized the benefits of environmental programming for young children.  The authors concluded:

Our review suggests that ECEE encourages young children affectively, in terms of exploring the environment, bolstering their sense of self-confidence, and making social connections with each other; developing cognitive frameworks for understanding the natural world; and laying the groundwork for skills and dispositions related to taking action to improve and protect the environment (pg. 12-13 in Ardoin & Bowers, 2020).

Findings such as these, coupled with acknowledgement of early childhood as a particularly crucial period for developing environmental literacy as well as pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, have motivated research and the practice of environmental education within early childhood education (Ardoin & Bowers, 2020).  Indeed, a March 2023 publication from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) stated, “when it comes to climate, the environment, and young children, a movement seems to be growing” (para. 2, Lombardi, 2023).

Foundationally, early childhood educators need to be able to take young children into the natural environment so that they learn and benefit from and through nature and, hopefully, develop pro-environmental understandings, attitudes, behaviors (Moore & Wong, 1997; Orr, 2004; Gaylie, 2009; Louv, 2008; Cheng & Monroe, 2012; Collado & Corraliza, 2015; Collado et al., 2015; Rosa et al., 2018; Hoover, 2021).  Many of the benefits of children’s personal experiences with green spaces have implications not just for teachers but for public health professionals as well.  For example, research shows that children who have access to quality green space not only have better educational outcomes (Requia et al., 2022) but also improved health outcomes, (Vanaken & Danckaerts, 2018; McCormick, 2017).  A growing body of literature has identified strong connections between green spaces and children’s mental (Vanaken & Danckaerts, 2018; Wendelboe-Nelson et al., 2029) and physical health (Kondo, et al., 2018).

Notably, researchers hypothesize that green space exhibits an equigenic effect on the health of populations- this means that it fosters health equity. In practice, this means that although green spaces benefit the health of all people, they may benefit the health of the most vulnerable populations the greatest (Kondo, et al., 2022). For example, children who experience chronic stress are particularly benefited through green space experiences as “contact with nature can help mitigate the negative effects of stress and can help boost resilience” (para. 2, Delvecchio et al., 2021). This means that the protective or “buffering effects” of green spaces may be strongest for the most vulnerable children (Wells & Evans, 2003).  Although not all studies have confirmed the equigenic hypothesis (Moran, et al., 2021), it is clear that green spaces are key to reducing health disparities and building community resilience to the imminent social and ecological changes resulting from climate change.

Course Projects

With the critical urgency to increase environmental awareness and competencies among professionals in our disciplinary fields, we began this project with an interest in engaging college students in ways that were personally meaningful and locally relevant.  We hoped to draw attention to concerns about urban green spaces, in particular awareness of inequities in access and quality.  But we also hoped to support students’ consideration of community green spaces (even imperfect ones) as important resources for their (future) professional work, in particular the potential for urban green spaces to especially benefit socio-economically disadvantaged populations.  We hoped students would gain insight into the ways they could use green spaces as positive resources in their professional work.

Within the framework of these goals, we started this project with several questions of interest:

  • What perceptions do students have about the importance of quality urban green spaces to child-development and health, respectively?
  • What perceptions do students have about whether and/or how they can use urban green spaces in their (future) work as teachers and public-health professionals?

For the teacher education students at the community college, we developed course content focused on the developmental benefits of nature play and outdoor education for young children.  In particular, students read about and discussed why outdoor activities and nature play are important for children’s healthy development and what types of green spaces support positive engagement in such activities and play. Key readings included Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2008) as well as documentation by NAEYC and child development researchers about the importance of access to nature and nature activities for young children, particularly children from under-resourced communities and children experiencing chronic toxic stress.

For the public health students at the four-year university, the class focused on teaching epidemiologic methods so students could understand how to measure demographic, societal, environmental, behavioral, and health factors that impact the health of populations. Readings focused on how to design research studies to 1) measure the burden of disease, 2) test hypotheses about relationships between health factors, and 3) reduce the impact of bias. Readings also covered topical content such as environmental health, the built-environment, health disparities, and health policy.

In both courses, the centerpiece of the semester project was an experiential learning opportunity in which students conducted audits of parks in their local communities.  For our two courses, we selected the Community Park Audit Tool (CPAT) to guide students’ engagement with local green spaces. While originally developed to reliably audit community parks for their potential to support physical activity (Kaczynki, et al., 2012)- not necessarily our primary interest of focus- we selected the CPAT for several qualities.  Most especially, the CPAT is user-friendly; comprehensive yet accessible and understandable to youth as well as adults; it is well-organized; and can be completed in an hour or less.  The tool contains four sections: park information, access and surrounding neighborhood, park facilities, and park quality and safety.  Together, these four sections are intended to “capture the presence, condition, and usability of important elements within a park and its surrounding community” (pg. 110, Gallerani et al., 2017).  Similar to the developers of the CPAT, we hoped that auditing parks in students’ local communities would “facilitate greater engagement… in considering, evaluating, and advocating for improved parks and overall healthy community design” (pg. 247, Kaczynski, et al., 2012) among future professionals in the fields of early childhood education and public health.

To make the park audit experience relevant for students, we engaged them in a cycle of dialogue about background content; direct engagement through using the CPAT; and reflection (written and dialogic) after their park evaluations.  Throughout the project students were encouraged- and provided extensive opportunities during class- to ask questions, consider connections to course content, and share personal experiences with their peers and the instructor.  We hoped that students would engage with this project as they might as a practicing professional, that is, that the experiential nature of these course activities would bring “real world” challenges and opportunities regarding environmental resources and engagement to the forefront of their development as teacher/public health professionals.

Survey Results

To provide insights into the impact of the course project on students’ perceptions as well as their personal experiences with the project, we conducted (voluntary) pre-surveys at the beginning of the semester and (voluntary) post-surveys after project completion.  In both pre- and post-surveys, we asked questions about students’ understanding of the importance of green spaces for health and child development; personal intentions to use green spaces in their future work as teachers or public health professionals; and their personal intentions to advocate for high quality green spaces. Students responded to each question using a Likert-type scale. We assigned scores reflecting agreement with statements based on the Likert scale: “Strongly Disagree (1), Disagree (2), Agree (3), and Strongly Agree (4).” We calculated and reported the mean score per item.

As shown in the Table below, in both courses students showed a greater awareness of the importance of green spaces to children’s development and individual health and a greater interest and intention to both use and advocate for high quality green spaces after the completion of the course project.

Table 1: Pre- and Post-activity survey responses among students in teacher education (n = 15) and epidemiology classes (n = 7)

In addition, we solicited qualitative responses from students to gain insight into the value and impact of this course project on their perceptions and professional intentions.  In response to the question, “Has the community parks assignment changed your perspective about parks? If yes, how?”, most students responded that conducting the park audit increased their perception of the importance of parks for children’s development and/or individual health (1). Some students noted that the project supported their general understanding that parks promote health and/or well-being, examples included; “the benefits of having outdoor green spaces for physical and mental health,” “the importance of having a safe, inviting park for children,” and “the health benefits to accessing safe and quality green spaces.” One student also responded more specifically that “the assignment really let me see parks as a way for kids to have a community.  Instead of being online all day, kids can meet new peers at (the) park and I feel like it’s the safest way to make new friends.”  Some students also commented on their increased attention to equitable access to high quality urban green spaces.  For example, one student noted, “now I’m looking for the amount of trash cans, the safety of the park, etc.” while another student commented, “I noticed not a lot of parks in the (location) area are accessible for children,” and another commented that “it was eye opening to see… that some places are worse than I initially thought.”

Lastly, in the post-survey we asked students to describe what the community parks assignment was like for them as a personal experience.  In response to this question, some students noted how the project connected them more to green spaces in their home community.  For example, one student noted, “I really enjoyed observing the parks I chose.  Since visiting those parks, I have a different outlook on parks in my neighborhood.”  Other students commented on how they enjoyed the applications to their professional field.  For example, one student wrote, “I really enjoyed this assignment because it gave us opportunities to apply our knowledge with real fieldwork.  I especially enjoyed going out and auditing the parks,” while another student wrote that “It was very hands-on in terms of using the CPAT as well as running statistical analysis…to get a better understanding of how park indicators impact neighborhood health outcomes.”   In addition, some students commented that they enjoyed the park audit simply for the activity itself.  For example, one student commented, “it gave me a chance to go to a park and walk and sit, enjoy the view and fresh air.  I don’t get a chance to go to a park alone and just enjoy me time and relax.”


In designing this course project, we hoped to increase students’ awareness of urban green spaces; both the inequities in quality of green spaces in their surrounding communities and the possibilities for using urban green spaces in their work as teachers and public health professionals.  This goal was rooted in the foundational importance of environmental considerations in the early childhood education and public health fields and the relatively limited exposure that most students have to such content in their undergraduate training.
In particular, given the benefits to children’s healthy development and broader societal goals towards sustainability, it is critical that pre-service teachers engage with the concepts of environmental education for their future classroom work (Nousheen, et al., 2020; Merritt, et al., 2018; Warren, et al., 2014) and, more specifically, to consider green spaces as integral to high quality programming for young children (Sugar, 2021; Vidal & Seixas, 2022; Russo & Andreucci, 2023).  Unfortunately, most pre-service and practicing teachers are not required to take a course on environmental education or education for sustainability and are largely not prepared to integrate this content and these approaches into their teaching (Merritt et al., 2018; Will, 2022).  This means that teachers are often not aware of something as foundational as the importance of green space to children’s development or the specific benefits green spaces provide less advantaged children (Children & Nature Network, 2020).

Similarly, while traditional undergraduate public health programs do require courses in environmental health (Gebo, 2008) and many offer majors or have departments of environmental health (Resnick, et al., 2018), students in health practitioner training programs may not get any environmental education. Studies reporting the content of medical education show that environmental health is largely omitted (Gehle, 2011).  Further, changes to public health accreditation requirements have contributed to fewer environmental health classes offered in Master of Public Health programs. In 2016, the Council on Education for Public Health, the main US accrediting body for schools and programs of public health, replaced the requirement that programs provide classes in the five public health core areas (biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, health services administration, and social and behavioral sciences) with competency-based requirements. In subsequent years, fewer environmental health concentrations and classes were offered (Levy et al., 2022). It is not surprising, therefore, that while healthcare and public health workers acknowledge the importance of the environment to health and support environmental policy changes, confidence in talking about environmental health issues is low, especially among practitioners (Brown, et al., 2019). Clearly, there is a need for expanded environmental education among healthcare and public health professionals in order to more effectively protect the health of populations from emerging environmental threats (Kreslake, 2018).


In a small and specific way, the course project discussed in this case study aimed to meet UNESCO’s call for a focus on sustainability in higher education by engaging students in a community park audit project.  Students in both courses were enrolled in college programs tied to particular professions in education and public health, both fields where the detrimental impacts of global climate change play out at the personal and societal levels but, also, where there is considerable space for the dissemination of information and advocacy towards positive change.  In particular, in both courses we framed current environmental challenges through the lens of equity, drawing attention to the ways that environmental crises impact different communities in disparate ways and, conversely, the immense potential for access to quality green spaces to especially benefit the most vulnerable populations. Through use of the Community Parks Audit Tool and related course readings and discussion, this project engaged students to see the real-world environmental challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities in their future professional endeavors.


End Note

(1)   The exception to this was one teacher education student who noted “already” understanding the importance of green spaces for children’s development, so the project did not change this student’s perceptions related to this question.



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