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  • October 15, 2018

Social Capital: Bridging Social Networks for Community Vitality

In a perfect world, all would recognize the validity of Article 31 of the United Nations Rights of the Child, which states that "every child has the right to rest and leisure, to  engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts." However, many are surprised to discover such a statement needs to exist, as, clearly, we tend to take play for granted. We recall our youth experiences, we become complacent with the sights and sounds of children playing merrily in schoolyards and local parks, and we assume that all children share the ability to play. However, play is not an affordance realized by many children, for a variety of reasons, in fact it has become a topic of social justice.

There are many different definitions of social justice, but it is in its purest sense," a sociological concept of the connections that occur within and between social networks." The value of social relations between friends, family, and neighbors physically knit communities together through shared lifestyle experiences. For children, this not only encompasses the very act of play, but also defines the play space that provides them with reasonable accommodation to play.

Play offers children a unique opportunity to face issues of social justice head on, while also providing them space to work through their own issues - resolving conflict, learning cooperative skills, and developing meaningful relationships with one another. Well-designed parks and playgrounds are a primary attraction for families using neighborhood and community parks and can lead to sustained repeat visits, a relaxed and playful social atmosphere, and growth of community social capital. Parks can provide critical vehicles for inclusion, stimulating positive interaction among park users of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.

As beautiful, peaceful islands of greenery, parks can help reduce stress and promote mental health. And the more facilities that are layered on to a park, the more use it can get from people with different interests and skills.

Play is necessary. As early as 1910, play advocates were connecting the acts of play and social development by observing that giving children the opportunity to build character on the playground would benefit society as were observed as outgrowths of recreation and play. At the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1910, Lee Hamner stated, "The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow. If you want twenty years hence a nation of strong, efficient men and women, a nation in which there shall be justice and square dealing, work it out today with the boys and girls on the playground. However, a general lack of play spaces poses a challenge for these social developments, and are exacerbated by the inequity of location, especially in underserved communities.

Play matters in the community because it is where children spend most of their time growing up, learning, exploring. interacting, discovering the world around them. As communities build social capital, they create the sense of a healthier place to live, work, and play, while promoting cooperation between individuals and groups, increasing civic engagement, and bringing awareness to the value of play. It is also important to remember to design a play and recreation space to meet the perceptions of user groups to ensure use. Residents of more affluent communities, where danger and personal safety are not overwhelming concerns may prefer leafy, natural parks.

In more underserved communities, forested areas may be shunned in favor of open areas with lots of activity. There, enlivening parks is a high priority. Play can be the bridge to connecting neighbors and actively engaging community members of all backgrounds to shape the destiny of their community, resulting in neighborhoods that are safer, healthier, and more vital.

A walkable community provides residents with easy access to parks, playgrounds, restaurants, and other meaningful destinations, which have been linked to neighborhood trust, as well as increased participation in community events, resulting in a higher quality of life. To truly promote social justice, we must work as a society to promote the knowledge that children and families need and deserve access to play spaces regardless of their ability, age, race, gender, ethnicity, culture and socioeconomic status.

"Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children's lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant."
-Dr. Patricia G. Ramsey

This article was written for Words on Play®: A treatise on its value by leading play scholars™ by John Sutterby, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Texas at Brownsville

Dr. Louis Bowers is a co-author of the Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds published by ACEI. His other research interests include professional development of early childhood educators, family involvement for Latino families and bilingual teacher development. He is a past and future president of The Association for the Study of Play. He is also series editor for Advances in Early Education and Day Care, published by Emerald publications.

Sources for this article can be found on pages 26-27 in Words on Play®.

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