These are my rough notes from Day 2 of the conference. This session was nothing short of incredible for its appeal to my wonkish sensibilities. The notes might be cleaned up in a few days’ time.
9:45 – 11:00 AM
Marice Ashe, Executive Director, ChangeLab Solutions
Carmen Harris, Epidemiologist, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Tom Harrington Jr., Director of Marketing, Applied Geographics, Inc.
Zarnaaz Bashir, Director of Health Initiatives, National Recreation and Park Association
The breakout session did not have as many folks, so took on an intimate setting where everyone introduced themselves. Many folks from the parks community and the policy community where present in the audience.
What is a play desert? There is a huge debate going on as to whether this is a good term or not? When you visualize a play desert, what do you see? Marice builds a tactile sense of what the term entails, so that when we see the data and learn what the CDC is trying to do about this, we get a sense of what real people are going through.
Brief introductions: ChangeLab Solutions is a group of lawyers, urban planners and educators who work on childhood obesity, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Carmen Harris has been at CDC since 2004, with a background in mathematics and physical activity, combining the two by way of epidemiology. Zarnaaz Bashir has been at the National Recreation and Park Association since 2009.
Zarnaaz begins by speaking about the NRPA. The three pillars of the NRPA include conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. She then asks “What is a play desert?” With briefly restating the statistics that define the obesity epidemic, she notes that one problem is that most are not reaching the recommended level of physical activity per day. NRPA began talking to the CDC about play deserts a year ago.
Why they got involved in this effort: We know that there are benefits of physical activity—prevents the development of T2D, lowers your blood pressure, reduces obesity, and so on. Living close to parks is consistently linked to higher levels of physical activity. Adolescents with easy access to recreation areas are more likely to use them. Research verifies all of these claims. Park distribution and access and conditions and attributes varies across different populations and communities. These factors can determine the frequency of park use and physical activity levels.
The meeting between CDC and NRPA initially sought to create synergy by setting a definition of play deserts that is measurable, feasible and actionable. So they:
- Identified and prioritized key constructs that should be considered in developing a definition that is useful for national, state and community-level data collection.
- Identified the available resources and gaps in resources needed to measure and map play deserts on a national, state and community level.
- Identified key elements to be included in a play desert research agenda.
They then asked what’s the public health impact of including or excluding a construct from the definition? Is the construct measurable on different scales?
The expert panels were convened in August and September 2012. It used the Delphi Method between and after calls to engage panelists, prioritize, and build consensus. The method entails surveys, subgroup activity. Finally they engaged other stakeholders through open forums, some of which included local parks officials. Thankfully, they got a positive reaction—they would not negatively react if their community was called a play desert. At the Active Living Research Conference last week they got still more inputs on the nuances between play and physical activity.
What they heard:
- Consider a name everyone understands. Play Deserts is a popular term.
- Important to consider a continuum of constructs inclusive of access, quality and use
- Data availability & feasibility should be considered. Make sure it’s something we can collect data easily on.
- Multiple audiences uses, implications for the definition. They know it’s going to drive policy decisions and media interest.
- Important to develop an intentional research agenda. How can they capture what communities are doing to support their work with the construct?
They’re moving forward with a manuscript. In so doing, they will be engaging and extending collaborations with NPOs and private sector groups. Under consideration is a database or repository of resources or data on play deserts.
Related efforts: Alexandria, VA is responding to childhood obesity by doing a study with funding from KP to investigate the reality of play and physical activity in relation to various factors. Using GIS they were able to map the location of play spaces and the characteristics of play among children. The Darden Foundations and Longhorn Steakhouse is working to improve trails. REI is working also on trails and park cleanup. NPRA has developed PRORAGIS to map and benchmark park and recreation agencies.
Carmen Harris begins by saying that every story has a beginning, middle and end. Her own story of play begins with soccer. She had increased access that led to opportunities for play. But her increased access came from educated, privileged, and attentive parents. Not all the youth in her community had that opportunity. Her hometown of Powell, TN is very much a play desert. The question this begs is, Do all youth in your community deserve access to play? If they do, how can we define and measure the opportunity for active play?
The panel included:
- Breece Robinson, Trust for Public Lands
- Candace Rutt, CDC
- Brian Saelens, Seattle Children’s Hospital and University of Washington.
They came up with four criteria
- Availability—is it there?
- Ex. of variables: parks, rec facilities, green spaces, joint-use agreements
- Geo-measures include national, state and community
- Other factors: Are there urban and rural differences? If not youth live there, can it be considered a play desert?
- Environmental access—can you get to it?
- Quality—is it up to par?
- Use—are people using it?
For each criteria they asked:
- What do we know about the variable?
- How can we measure it?
- What geographical measures are available?
- What other factors must we consider?
Proposed definition: A geographical area that does not have a play space such as an outdoor parks, public recreation center, green space present and accessible for play by youth and active play.
Each component comprising this definition was operationalized with a more in-depth explanation. For example, “present” means “the presence or absence of the play spaces within walking distance from the youth’s residence.”
But there’s something that goes deeper—one definition does not fit all. They also talked about additional play space destination data. There are many things that could follow the part of the definition that begins “such as.” They also talked about the multivariate metrics to define and track the quality and safety of the play space for communities. Play spaces not in use for active play was a heated point of debate among the panelists. They will be continuing to explore this point. Rural community considerations including walking differences across landscape. A high prevalence of obesity also helps contextualize the data, so it should be included if available. There was consideration of including objectively crowd-sourced data.
Refining the definition:
- What do we do with public and private spaces?
- Schools as play spaces
- Walking and biking
- Collecting data over time
- Are we excluding toddlers?
- Where do organized sports fit into the definition?
With funding, they hope for face-to-face meetings with experts. They want to further refine and rewrite the definition, as well as engage partners and stakeholders for informal feedback. With all this done, they want to write a manuscript.
Unlike the decentralized and democratic development of the definition of food deserts, they want to capture the definition before it hits the public discourse. With a cohesive definition that many can engage and collaboratively develop, the construct can be mobilized for policy, programs, and communications in the service of community well-being.
You can partner with them by contacting:
C: (Susan from Sunday Streets of SF) They took the model of the temporary space and know that there are robust benefits for the people who attend them. They do one neighborhood for 8 months out of the year, but they’re developing technical support that will help communities to do this themselves. Like Portland, they connect their Play Streets to routes, and they’re working with Green Connection in SF to provide transportation alternatives. Finally, they’re looking into making temporary spaces into permanent ones.
Q: How do we engage the private sector?
C (from biking organization): Open streets and temporary measures are the beginning of the story, connecting to parks is the middle of story. What’s most important about Open Streets is that it gets people to imagine how things could be different.
Q: Have you talked to kids?
A: Not yet, we’re at baby steps right now. If you have an idea for engaging youth they want to know.
C (Jim from Kaboom, playground company): They give away four million in grants each year to eliminate play deserts. To him, the definition signifies the minimum level of consensus about which they can move forward. Using web apps, they’re also soliciting crowd-sourced data from parents in the community that rate play spaces. On the private funding front, they have support from Mattel and Disney Foundations.
C: It’s important for parents and children to play together. You can’t just have kids playing while they’re parents are in lawn chairs. Parents are also how you achieve user input from their children.
C (from CEO of NRPA): Planners have the power—they’re looking at the space eight years down the road. The private sector can be engaged on the livability factor, they want their workers to live in good communities.