As part of its commitment to healthy living, The Walt Disney Company has teamed up with NRPA on Meet Me at the Park — a program that provides opportunities for new, inclusive play spaces that increase physical activity and play for children and families across the country. The collaboration is an opportunity to give back to the places that shape so much of our lives and inspire kids and families to lead active, healthy lifestyles.
The program, which began in 2015, works to provide communities with funds to improve local parks through projects that connect kids to nature, inspire healthy living and improve access to sports. In 2017, the Meet Me at the Park campaign was expanded to include a healthy-living initiative focused on play. The primary goal of this program is to fund innovative and scalable projects that transform parks and improve access to play spaces for kids (ages 3–11) and their families in underserved communities.
Since the play spaces component of the project began in 2017, 50 park renovations have been funded in 36 states. They comprise a mix of urban, rural, racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities and fit into the following categories:
- Mobile play vehicle or pop-up play equipment, for example, that can travel to multiple parks and recreation centers and be placed in a location temporarily.
- Trail and walking-path enhancements that increase visibility and accessibility, add elements of play and/or improve wayfinding that guides and encourages kids to walk the trail.
- Play spaces, nature play spaces, pocket-play spaces and/or inclusive play spaces that bring unique play features to new or revitalized parks.
- Sport field/court enhancements that improve or create unique sports fields or courts that encourage community use, small-sided play and/or creative games in places that lack opportunities for formal sports participation.
As part of the program, NRPA evaluated the impact of these funded renovations to determine if improving access to play spaces in these underserved communities resulted in increased activity at the space and if it led to other benefits, such as increased connection to others and the outdoors. Two primary data activities were conducted. The first data-collection activity involved conducting systematic observations of play and recreation in communities (SOPARC). SOPARC is an observational tool that measures number and demographics of park users and their type and level of physical activity. The second data-collection activity involved conducting intercept surveys from adults regarding their use of the parks.
Through the SOPARC evaluation, we found that parks with renovated play areas saw an increase in visitors engaging in moderate-to-vigorous activity. In addition, park staff believed that the observation tool helped them learn more about peak use times, which, in turn, was used for scheduling programming and events.
The intercept surveys showed that the park renovations had a positive impact on nearby communities and an increase in the number of respondents who indicated they and their children were exercising and playing more. 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 community.
Results of the evaluation show 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 our evaluation suggests that this investment is paying off through increased use of these neighborhood play areas and subsequent community engagement.
The 2019 Meet Me at the Park program will empower communities to provide accessible, inclusive play spaces in 25 markets across the United States through creative, innovative and scalable solutions. Adding to the success of the past two years, the 2019 program is expected to exceed NRPA and Disney’s goal of providing 1 million kids and families with greater access to play.
NRPA is also launching the “Meet Me at the Park this Summer” campaign, which highlights the role parks play in summertime fun and important out-of-school activities. This campaign includes “Ten Ways to Get Out and Play This Summer,” full of ideas and activities that families can participate in at their local parks.
By coming together with the Meet Me at the Park program, Disney and NRPA are providing kids and families with access to healthier lifestyles and safe, inclusive and innovative play spaces to enjoy for years to come.
Sandy Slater, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Concordia University Wisconsin.