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Boosting Physical Activity in Rural Communities with Play Streets

Kids in Texas playing on a water slide.
Photo courtesy of Baylor University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We know how important physical activity is for our health—especially for children. It builds strong bones and muscles, reduces the risk of obesity and even improves academic performance. But in rural communities—where there may be fewer resources, sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks—there often are fewer opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of physical activity that keeps them healthy and happy.  

That’s why, in many rural communities across America, streets, parking lots, school grounds, and open fields are being temporarily taken over by bounce houses, hula hoops, and other active games. When communities come together to host Play Streets in these spaces, they provide a way for children and their families to engage in safe physical activity—something that’s especially important for under-resourced communities that lack safe parks and playgrounds, or that have spaces that are not being utilized for play.  

We chatted with Keshia M. Pollack Porter and M. Renée Umstattd Meyer, the authors of a new guide to implementing Play Streets in rural communities, about why Play Streets are so important and how advocates and decision-makers can support them across the country.

What are Play Streets and why are they important—particularly for children living in rural communities?  

In general, Play Streets refer to the temporary closure of streets, parking lots, school grounds, or open fields, basically any public space, for a specified time period—say three to five hours—to create a safe, publicly accessible space for kids and their families to have fun and be active. You might find yard games, sports equipment, or bounce houses with water slides there—anything that can be set up temporarily, and that allows kids to engage in active play in a safe, supervised environment. 

The name “Play Streets” suggests that these play areas need to be on streets, but in a small rural community, it is not always feasible to close what may be the only street! Thus, for some communities, activating public spaces for play is one way to create Play Streets. 

Hosting Play Streets can be a cost-effective way to help kids be active, especially during the summer months when they’re not in school and don’t have regular recess. That’s particularly true in rural communities that lack resources and where residents lack access to transportation, parks, playgrounds, and other safe places to engage in physical activity. People living in rural communities are disproportionately at risk for chronic diseases and conditions that are associated with insufficient physical activity, such as diabetes and obesity. Rural children also have a higher risk for obesity than kids living in cities, and children of color who live in rural communities are at the highest risk.

So, Play Streets can be a great strategy—not just for providing opportunities for kids to play and be active, but for fostering community relationships and connections, which can be challenging in rural areas. Even just the planning process for Play Streets can spark new partnerships, by providing community members with the chance to work together to put on the Play Street.

Why did you create this guide and who is it for?

We created this guide to help rural and small community groups plan and implement Play Streets. We hope that it will help those groups through every step of the process—from planning the day, including selecting a location and getting the word out; to implementing the Play Street, including set-up and clean-up; to what happens after it’s over, including debriefing and getting feedback from participants. 

It also includes plenty of tips and recommendations for community partners and local organizations, such as faith-based institutions, neighborhood associations, community-based organizations, health departments, libraries, schools, and hospitals, as well as residents, advocates, policymakers, and others seeking to promote health and foster relationships within their communities. Community organizations and businesses will find practical strategies for selecting a location, engaging partners, managing risks, staffing, and promoting Play Streets. And advocates and residents can use it to educate decision-makers about the benefits of Play Streets and specific steps they can take to help implement them in their community.

What are three things Play Streets organizers need to know?  

First, while it might seem like Play Streets are a big undertaking, they’re very doable, even for organizations with limited resources. And while having lots of volunteers can help the day run smoothly and encourage people to participate, you can absolutely have a successful event without a large staff.

Second, you might consider coupling Play Streets with another activity going on in your community, like a summer reading event at a local library, a church picnic, or a back-to-school bash or open house. This is a great way to introduce your Play Street to a built-in audience. You might even be able to share resources, staff, and planning.Finally, it’s really important to partner with your community when putting on Play Streets. Doing so will create new relationships, partnerships, and connections with other local organizations, and may even help you boost attendance and secure more resources.

How can local policy- and decision-makers support Play Streets?

There are several ways policy- and decision-makers can support Play Streets in your community, including making sure permits are assigned promptly (particularly for Play Streets occurring on streets); enabling shared use policies for Play Streets that occur in places like school grounds and churches; and supporting policies that support safe active transportation to help people travel to and from Play Streets.

Recruiting policy- and decision-makers to attend and help promote Play Streets can also help build support within the community and attract more partners to lend time, staff, and resources. Consider asking your local elected officials to take part and offering them a role during Play Streets, such as thanking local businesses or community service groups for donating resources or leading a family-friendly activity. 

What’s your most memorable Play Streets experience and why?

I think it’s important to remember that Play Streets aren’t just for kids—they’re for entire families, and part of what makes them great is the way they can help support intergenerational connections. We really saw how this played out at a Play Street sponsored by the Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in the small town of Warrenton, North Carolina. At first, they noticed that parents and guardians who attended were mostly sitting on the sidelines, while kids played basketball and volleyball, jumped rope, and participated in other physical activities. 

So, the Play Streets team came up with a great plan: they added line dancing for their next Play Streets, complete with a sound system and a local church member to lead the activity. And it paid off: not only did the adults participate, but the kids joined in too. Then that led to adults and children interacting together for other activities and games, such as musical chairs. 

This is such a great example of bringing together kids, adults, and families for fun, safe physical activity and creating lasting bonds within rural communities.

Kids running covered in paint.
Photo courtesy of Baylor University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For more information on implementing or supporting Play Streets, check out the guide, which was made possible with funding from the Physical Activity Research Center (PARC).

Published on August 29, 2019


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