Keshia M. Pollack Porter, PhD, MPH Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
M. Renée Umstattd Meyer, PhD, MCHES, FAAHB,Professor, Baylor University, Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences
Do you remember growing up with summer days that seemed to last a lifetime? We do, where from sunrise to sunset we were outside running, playing, dancing, or riding our bikes until we were called in for dinner. Unfortunately, many kids today do not have this experience. Many kids today don’t have safe places to actively play, and kids who are African American, Latinx, and American Indian, as well as those from low-income neighborhoods and communities, usually have even fewer safe options. This is the case for urban, suburban, and rural communities across America, with data showing that kids are less active during summer months compared to when school is in session.
Play Streets are one solution being implemented in many American communities to provide free and safe opportunities for kids to actively play in summer months. Play Streets are the temporary closure and activation of public spaces for a specified time period (3-5 hours) to create a safe, publicly accessible space for kids and families to actively play and have fun by providing multiple activity areas with loose equipment like hula hoops, jump ropes, and sports equipment, active games, inflatables, and other temporary activities. Public spaces that can be used for Play Streets include streets, parking lots, school grounds, open fields, or possibly even parks or playgrounds going unused. And, while the name Play Streets suggests that these play areas need to be on streets, in many communities, especially in rural areas, it is more feasible and accessible to activate a public space versus closing a street.
How Play Streets Advance Health Equity:
Play Streets are one solution to help advance health equity by providing no-cost opportunities for children and youth to come together in their communities to play and be physically active. Play Streets are usually offered during summer months when there are fewer opportunities for kids to actively play and can be held in any public space. In addition, Play Streets create opportunities for safe play in communities that lack access to safe parks, playgrounds, and outdoor spaces to be physically active. Locating Play Streets near homes or at a centrally accessible location in a town familiar to families, like school grounds, a nearby street or park, or the parking lot of or field next to a local church or library, allows for more families and kids to participate. Offering Play Streets alongside existing community events and during times that work for all families to attend also increases accessibility to more families.
As part of the Physical Activity Research Center, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health and Baylor University team focused on understanding if and how Play Streets could be implemented in rural communities, which informed the creation of the “Guide to Implementing Play Streets in Rural Communities” (www.baylor.edu/publichealth/ru...). In this work we partnered with organizations in four diverse rural communities to learn from their expertise and see what really works (or doesn’t) in a rural context, and we learned a lot!
What We Learned:
Play Streets are impactful and provide meaningful opportunities for all kids from rural communities to actively play and see friends in the summer months! Kids were active and connected with other kids while at Play Streets hosted in rural communities!
Play Streets in rural areas are more feasible for implementers and more accessible for families that might have to travel notable distances to attend when resources are pooled by “coupling” Play Streets with a community event (e.g., summer meals program, back-to-school bash, National Night Out).
Play Streets are doable with minimal financial resources by partnering with organizations that have access to play and physical activity equipment within your community (e.g., Extension Office, libraries, health departments, schools, churches, camps); although all of the communities we partnered with included at least one inflatable (either rented or purchased), which was the most commonly used activity space at all Play Streets by boys, girls, children, and teens.
Play Streets do require time and the involvement of people passionate about bringing their community together, programming for kids, and/or health to successfully plan and implement.
Most Play Streets activities are unstructured with minimal supervision; however, kids enjoyed playing with older kids and adults, and activity areas with guided instruction or more organized activities were also enjoyed.
Partnerships among various community organizations strengthens the Play Street by providing additional resources and connections for families that attend.
Parents and kids were thankful to have free and safe opportunities to actively play in their communities during summer months! The efforts to implement Play Streets in these communities were greatly appreciated and acknowledged by community members.
Are Play Streets Possible During COVID-19?
YES! As long as they are set up in a way that promotes physical distancing (keeping people at least 6 feet away from one another)! Here are some things to consider:
- Play at each activity area can be unstructured, but movement between activity areas would need to be directed to encourage physical distancing, which is very difficult for kids.
- Consider incorporating more structured activities, like group led exercise classes, sports drills, or dance keeping kids at least 6 feet apart.
- Any play equipment will need to be cleaned between use by different kids.
- Play activities that don’t require equipment should be included (e.g., hopscotch).
- Kids could be encouraged to bring and play with their own equipment (e.g., balls, jump ropes).
- automatic hand washing station and hand sanitizer available with signs and reminders for all participants to wash their hands frequently.
- Encourage kids and families to bike to the Play Streets, when they can do so safely, so that kids can use their bikes while at the Play Streets also.
- Take advantage of any local Safe Streets or other initiatives in your community. Plan to host a Play Street on streets that have already been or will be closed to traffic to make room for people to remain at least 6 feet apart.
What Can We Do to Increase Safe Active Play Opportunities in the Midst of COVID-19?
- Work with neighbors and community organizations to put on a Play Street in your community!
- Support efforts across the country to promote Open Streets and consider including a dedicated area for a Play Street.
- Identify community groups or organizations that have active play resources that could be borrowed or “checked-out” by community members for their use or for use during a Play Streets! Email or call them and ask if they are interested in partnering in this way!
- If you are a community group or organization with active play resources or equipment, consider setting up a “check-out” system so that families and community organizations can borrow these resources! Make certain you also create a protocol for cleaning all items upon return and between uses.
- Get creative and invite others to do the same, while remembering to plan for and encourage physical distancing, mask wearing, equipment cleaning, and hand washing.