Making Places for Play: Researchers and Health Advocates Work to Identify and Eliminate Play Deserts and Promote Active Lifestyles

By Bartram, Samantha | Parks & Recreation, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Making Places for Play: Researchers and Health Advocates Work to Identify and Eliminate Play Deserts and Promote Active Lifestyles


Bartram, Samantha, Parks & Recreation


If Americans have been in denial about their declining health and wellness, today, all signs point to a turning around of that disposition. Messages about healthier eating and getting more exercise abound, from television commercials and posters in children's classroom to campaigns coming direct from the White House. Following decades of reveling in the convenience of processed food and comfort of a sedentary lifestyle, the bodies of many adults and an increasing number of children are showing the effects of too little exercise and poor diets.

An increasing segment of the population is warming to the idea of healthier, more active lifestyles, and by all accounts this is an imperative change of mind. From 2009-2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified almost 36 percent of American adults as obese. Today, 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States are also estimated to be obese. Researchers and health officials universally recommend increased physical activity as a way for adults and children to lose weight and combat preventable illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and the field of parks and recreation plays a big role in facilitating the sort of healthy life-style choices doctors recommend. Access to outdoor recreational opportunities, including playgrounds, parks, community centers and public green spaces, encourages the kind of physical activity that will help people lose weight and establish healthy habits.

Too often, however, communities are left wanting for open green spaces. They exist in what's come to be known as "play deserts," where children simply don't have places to run, teens can't find a space for a pickup basketball game and the local senior center is without space for its outdoor tai chi class. These communities are put at a distinct disadvantage to those that do have ready access to parks and recreational facilities. "More people report being physically active when they live closer to a park than people who live farther from one," says Carmen Harris, an epidemiologist with the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. "We know when people are more active, particularly youths, it has an impact on their adiposity. They have healthier bones, and there is improved mental health and aerobic capacity. [Active] adults have better cardiovascular, diabetes and cancer outcomes," Harris says.

Defining and Identifying Play Deserts

In 2012, NRPA gathered together some of the foremost thinkers on the concepts of active lifestyles, community planning, and health and wellness to discuss precisely how to define play deserts. And while that's a work in progress, the idea can be understood to describe an area where there is a lack of viable, safe places for physical activity, or where existing facilities cannot be accessed or are underutilized. Researchers and health officials posit that if such areas can be identified, steps might be taken to establish a community center, park or other green space; improve areas that have been rendered unusable by dilapidation, crime or other negative impacts; or encourage the surrounding community to visit nearby play areas, thereby improving health outcomes for all residents.

The first step in this process is identifying where play spaces are and are not. KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit ensuring all children get the play they need to thrive, is developing a robust Map of Play that shows where playgrounds do and do not exist throughout much of the country. Several other organizations, including the CDC and NRPA with its PRORAGIS[TM] database, are also attempting to remedy that situation by collecting Geographical Information System information on existing park space, but even that won't tell the whole story. "It takes ground truthing--actually going to look at an area to see where those parks are," says Bill Beckner, NRPA's senior manager of research. "You have to look at all the surrounding data to determine who lives there and take into account the variety of factors to understand the existence or nonexistence of a facility. …

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