Getting Kids Outside to Play: Easier Said Than Done
It’s well-known that today’s kids don’t get enough exercise. And it’s a common assumption that this problem exists, in part, because children spend their time watching TV or playing video games or chatting with friends. They just need to get off their phones and tablets and go outside and play, right? Well, it’s not always that simple.
Outdoor recreation might be easy for some youth in suburban areas who have access to parks filled with playgrounds, soccer fields, and other amenities. But for children who live in urban neighborhoods, even in cities like New York with large parks, there is often a lack of public spaces near residential neighborhoods or schools. Due to this lack of access and proximity, children in urban areas are left to find places to play wherever they can find a space. It might be an asphalt lot lined with dumpsters or an alley between buildings; these accessible places aren’t always safe.
Research shows that children living in underserved communities are more than four times as likely to lack recreational facilities. This is significant when you consider that 71 percent of youth don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, and that one in five school-aged children has obesity. The lack of safe places to play is an added barrier to living a healthy lifestyle for these children.
The solution isn’t as easy as telling our youth they need to go outside and play. We need to help bring safe play spaces—and programming—to the areas where our kids live and go to school.
Our Solution: The “Mini-Pitch”
At the U.S Soccer Foundation we aim to bring quality soccer programming and play spaces to more kids. To further expand our after-school soccer program, Soccer for Success, we knew we needed more quality spaces to play the game, especially in urban areas.
Our solution: build small-sized fields, which we dubbed ‘mini-pitches,’ in abandoned or underutilized spaces. For one of our first projects we built a small pitch, using Sport Court’s futsal surface product, between two housing developments in New York City.
We knew this space would be used for our soccer program. But what we didn’t expect was another result. Even when the program wasn’t being run, the brightly colored pitch attracted both youth and adults to play on the field. During daylight hours, you will almost always see people utilizing the pitch.
As we started to build more of these pitches, we saw more of the same results. We also began to use other materials to build these mini-pitches, often resurfacing lots with an acrylic coating that also provides a quality surface on which to play soccer. We designed the pitches in bright colors, which not only attracted people to use them, but also transformed the look and feel of the neighborhood. We found that for both structured and unstructured play, people were utilizing these spaces often.
Replication through public-private partnerships
After building many of these mini-pitches, we were confident we had a solution that worked. But even though these mini-pitches were economical, and significantly less expensive than full-sized grass or synthetic turf fields, they weren’t free. We started to question how we could implement these projects on a larger scale and bring mini-pitches to more neighborhoods. We found that building public-private partnerships was the key.
A great example of the power of this type of partnership is found in New York City. Last summer, the U.S Soccer Foundation announced that it would partner with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, adidas, and the New York City Football Club (NYCFC) to build 50 mini-pitches across all five boroughs over the next five years.
The Mayor’s Fund and other city departments embraced these mini-pitches because they addressed inequalities in access to and use of parks and outdoors spaces. NYCFC and adidas liked the idea of joining with the Foundation to bring soccer to more kids who might not otherwise have access to the sport. A bonus is that the pitches would include the organizations’ logos, an excellent branding opportunity that got them in front of potential fans and customers. Together, all partners committed to raising the funds to build 50 mini-pitches throughout the city and provide free programming for residents.
Lessons learned from our first major partnership
1. Strong community partners drive the effort.
For the project to be successful you need a local champion who knows all the partners at the table and can help drive the effort on the ground.
2. Generate cross-sector buy-in.
Engaging non-traditional partners is key. Soccer was a great hook. But we ultimately got partners on board because of the many benefits that come from access to play—including the positive impact on the health outcomes of the entire community.
3. Offer quality programming.
The Foundation’s programming has proven health and social outcomes for participants. Having evidence of this made all in the difference in seeing this project through to the finish line.
The bottom is line is that these mini-pitches address barriers that impede people from being physically active by expanding access to play. In fact, more than 8,000 youth and adults have access to each pitch, on average, in densely populated areas. That translates to hundreds of thousands of people across our cities that have somewhere to exercise and play soccer right in their neighborhoods.
We still have work to do. But pitch by pitch, we are making it a little easier for all our children, no matter where they live, to ‘go outside and play’.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Planners, engineers, and public health professionals all speak different languages. They may even use different terms to express similar ideas: for example, a planner may recommend tactical urbanism to improve neighborhood walkability, whereas an engineer may ascribe experimental countermeasure terminology to the same scenario, and a public health professional may view the solution in terms of an intervention. And community members may find all these terms unintelligible. In our focus groups, we heard that practitioners need to “get people on the same page” because of the differences we carry in our heads about transportation concepts.
As communities and municipalities around America are grappling with extreme weather events, it is even more vital to incorporate smart urban tree canopy and green infrastructure planning into all resiliency and climate change planning. Assessing your community’s current green infrastructure assets and deficits provides immediate information for maximizing your quality of living but also sets out the road map for how prepared your community may be for extreme weather events – from flooding to hurricanes to drought. Take advantage of the Vibrant Cities Lab site and any of the tools in this urban forestry “starter pack” or wade in by reaching out to the experts at the USDA Forest Service.
Foundations are notorious for creating their own funding strategy without any guidance from the communities they seek to support, imposing their strategy on grantees, and expecting them to achieve pre-determined outcomes that support those strategies. Within the Collaborative, we ask that funders listen to and trust the grassroots leaders and organizations, who we know are best positioned to propose the most effective solutions for their communities.