More than 1 million children and families with increased access to play and physical activity
In 2017, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and The Walt Disney Company came together through the Meet Me at the Park program to improve access to inclusive play spaces for 1 million children and families in underserved communities. In just its third year, we have surpassed the goal and are now celebrating the impact these projects have made in communities across the country.
Since the inception of the Meet Me at the Park Play Spaces campaign, $2.3 million has been invested in 75 local communities in 39 states. The emotional, cognitive and physical benefits of play are well-known, making the achievement of this milestone a cause for celebration. “These play spaces haven’t just impacted the lives of those who live in these 75 communities, they’ve also provided inspiration to other communities throughout the country,” says Kellie May, vice president of programs at NRPA.
These new play spaces will have improved access to play for more than 1 million children and families. They comprise an urban and rural mix of racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities. The projects themselves integrate play through mobile recreation, trails and walking paths, sports fields and neighborhood park spaces.
Evaluation Shows Increase in Park Use and Other Positive Trends
Through Meet Me at the Park, we have conducted formal evaluations to assess how improved access to play spaces in underserved communities changes the use of and physical activity at the space, especially by youth. These evaluations were conducted using the systematic observations of play and recreation in communities (SOPARC) method and intercept surveys from park attendees.
The SOPARC evaluations found that parks with renovated play areas saw an increase in visitors engaging in moderate-to-vigorous activity.
One project that exemplifies the program is the City of Port Huron Parks and Recreation’s Tike Trak in Michigan. The agency received a 2017 grant to build an area to introduce bicycle safety skills and education to children in the local community. The project also included a “tike town,” which features ADA-accessible raised garden beds, nature exploration sites, art stations and sensory play.
“The hope is to get kids on their bikes at a young age and get them outside in a way that is stimulating and interesting,” says Nancy Winzer, parks and recreation director in Port Huron, Michigan. “When we do that, it encourages them to carry those habits throughout their life.”
Intercept surveys showed that the park renovations had a positive influence on nearby communities and increased the number of respondents who indicated they and their children were exercising and playing more. Improved play spaces led to 80 percent of surveyed park visitors feeling the projects had a positive impact on nearby communities and a 16 percent increase in first-time park visitors.
This impact was also seen in Highland, Illinois’ Rinderer Park, a 2018 grant recipient. The city of Highland constructed a playground that supports children and adults with physical limitations. The playground is designed so that people of all abilities can interact with the play space. The playground features sensory panels, a rock challenge wall, vertical climber, log slice climber and pod climber. “This playground states loud and clear that Highland cares for its residents and values people of all abilities,” says a local resident.
Park department personnel indicated that their involvement in conducting the intercept surveys helped them connect with community members, learn firsthand how the renovations have impacted park use, identify additional park improvements that are wanted by community members and understand how to better communicate with the people who live nearby.
This type of community engagement was also evident in a Play Spaces grant-funded project in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. For many years, the city of Ocean Springs has worked closely with Disability Connection, a local nonprofit dedicated to serving people with disabilities. Before they received the Meet Me at the Park grant, there was no fully accessible play space and options were limited for healthy play. To remedy this, they chose to transform a local park into a state-of-the-art accessible playground, a place where all kids could feel included. A tremendous amount of research went into identifying proper equipment for all abilities. The components not only had to accommodate a range of abilities, but also fit within the framework of the existing park and provide a variety of physical and sensory experiences. Post-renovation, the park continues to have a beneficial impact on the neighborhood and surrounding community.
Results of the evaluations also showed that the play space renovations have had a positive effect on park use and park-based physical activity. The increased exposure to natural settings and improved physical activity can have long-term positive impacts on health outcomes. These large-scale infrastructure improvements are a significant capital investment, but evaluation suggests that this investment is paying off through increased use of these neighborhood play areas and subsequent community engagement.
The Heartland Regional Medical Center Playground was renovated into a space that children and adults of all ability levels from the Southern Illinois and tri-state area can enjoy. The renovations include a fitness area to encourage physical activity. The park’s new improvements will allow people to come together to create new memories and friendships. According to a park volunteer, “The development of this playground will help children understand that it is OK to be different and accept one another for who they are.”
These innovative and transformative projects have provided inspiration to local park agencies across the country to include accessible and welcoming play spaces in their communities. The Meet Me at the Park program continues to demonstrate that by coming together, we can provide kids and families across the country with access to healthier lifestyles, as well as with safe, inclusive and innovative play spaces to enjoy for years to come.
Jennifer Stromberg is a Program Manager at NRPA.