Defining Play Deserts – We are Getting Close


by Zarnaaz Bashir | Posted on March 22, 2013

On March 7th and 8th, 2013, I joined about 1,000 other attendees in Washington, D.C., to attend the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Building a Healthier Future Summit. The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) is a nonprofit organization, developed in conjunction with Let's Move!, devoted to engaging the private sector and bringing together public, private, and non-profit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and strategies to end childhood obesity. I looked forward to attending, partly because PHA had convened a successful summit in November 2011 with First Lady Michelle Obama as a keynote speaker addressing the issue of childhood obesity. But I had other reasons to be excited—NRPA had been invited to speak on our work addressing play deserts.

Zarnaaz at PHA

NRPA's Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH Presenting at the 2013 PHA Summit


So you might be asking yourself, “What exactly is a ‘play desert’?” 



Well, we can’t really answer that right now because there is no clear definition – but we are working on it!



What we do know is that there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the U.S. and rates remain high. We also know that adults and children are not achieving the recommended levels of physical activity a day, and that a lack of opportunities for physical activity is a huge part of the reason. And, of course, we know that the availability of park and recreation facilities and the conditions of those facilities are positively associated with higher physical activity levels. So imagine a neighborhood that lacks spaces available and accessible for use by youth for physical activity and active play. You have to walk miles just to get to the nearest park. That is a play desert.



A little over a year ago, we met with staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss our health priorities and the value that parks and recreation bring to public health. “Play deserts” was highlighted as an area needing further investigation, and there was clearly interest from CDC staff to not only understand what a play desert is, but how to measure and map deserts in an effort to create solutions. And from there, a strong relationship was born. Weekly phone conversations with Carmen Harris (Epidemiologist, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, CDC) and Dee Merriam (Community Planner, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC) took place to figure out where to begin, what has already been done, who to involve, and where we’d like to end up.



So, how do you create a definition



Recognizing that there are a number of researchers and non-profit organizations looking at the play desert issue, we began by convening a “virtual panel of experts” to create synergy around the term ‘play desert’ and develop a definition that is measurable, feasible, and actionable. We wanted to capture as much feedback as possible, and decided to take drafts of the definition on the road to get feedback at conferences such as NRPA’s Annual Congress in 2012 and the Active Living Research Conference, and then at the PHA Summit just this month. What we learned through these discussions are the following: 


1. Play deserts is not just about whether a park exists or not, but about the quality of the park, how accessible the park is, and whether the park is being used; 

2. Most people are comfortable with the term “play desert” but “play” does not necessarily equate to physical activity; 

3. The definition will not only be useful to local park and recreation professionals, but to researchers, planners, and community organizations; and 

4. We must engage local communities to validate the definition!



When Carmen Harris and I presented at the PHA session, we were extremely pleased to see the response from the audience. Attendees representing non-profit organizations, foundations, and advocacy groups were eager to share their perspectives on play deserts and the various solutions they’re implementing to address them. It is our hope that once the definition becomes available in the coming months, local park and recreation professionals will use it in ways that are helpful to them, whether it be to advocate for additional funding or to demonstrate the value of parks and recreation. It is also an opportunity to reinforce how parks and recreation provides solutions through the provision of health and wellness and by providing access to those opportunities for all people – two of NRPA’s core Three Pillars. 



By drawing attention to this important issue of play deserts and highlighting solutions through parks and recreation, we get one step closer to building healthy, active communities.



How would you define a play desert? What are some solutions your agency has put into place to combat play deserts? 



Written by Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH, Director of Health Initiatives for NRPA, 



The issue of childhood obesity is finally becoming an important topic within our country. The unhealthy dietary habits, physical inactivity (both in home and in school), and the lack of awareness/education on the issue are just some of the reasons as to how and why this issue has become an over-whelming epidemic. The article mentioned the Lets Move! campaign, which I think is a great movement toward the fight against childhood obesity. I work for an organization called, Light of Chance. Light of Chance is a non-profit organization that serves youth and the community through innovative arts and wellness programs. We’ve recently started up a program called, Get Set Go. This program is a health initiative that encourages youth (K-8) to become more active and healthy through nutrition and physical activity. Our goal is to increase youth physical activity and show them how to make healthier eating choices in their existing environment. It will take the continuing of proactive efforts such as identifying and eliminating “play deserts”, teaming up with other health and wellness committed groups/organizations, and the continuous push of awareness; But I believe that with great efforts through small organizations such as Lets Move! and Light of Chance the message about childhood obesity will grow and begin to show evidence of its impact. by R. on 04/14/2013


5 Tips for a Healthier Holiday Season

Allison Colman | November 18, 2016

Physical (In)Activity and the School Day

Melissa May | September 12, 2016

Leave a comment

Blog comments are moderated and will be posted once approved.

Enter the code shown above:

Follow Us

Recent Posts

Popular Posts


22377 Belmont Ridge Road    Ashburn, Va 20148-4501    800.626.NRPA (6772)    © NRPA, All Rights Reserved