New Ways to Increase Physical Activity and Play: Using What’s Already in Our Backyards

“We are under exercised as a nation. We look instead of play. We ride instead of walk. Our existence deprives us of the minimum of physical activity essential for healthy living.” – John F. Kennedy

After a somewhat long transition between seasons, spring has finally arrived here in the mid-Atlantic. With every turn, evidence of the warmer weather abounds. On one particularly warm day, I had the brilliant idea that it would be the perfect opportunity to spend some time at a nearby park. As I waited to turn into the parking lot adjacent to the park, it became all too clear that everyone else in the area was equally inspired to get outdoors that day. In total I had to wait 10 minutes to get in to the parking lot and another 10 just to find a parking space. While I am always delighted to see people making use of public parks and playgrounds, it also made me question why everyone flocked to this particular destination park.

My experience was not that uncommon from what happens in communities across the U.S. each day. For individuals fortunate enough to have access to a car, what is it that makes us pack up our things, load the kids or perhaps the family dog and head out across town instead of heading to a local playground we could reach on foot?

There are people who will trade a brisk walk for a car ride because of an affinity for a particular park. However, the reality for far more Americans is that they would be willing to make that walk if they had access to a park or playground within walking distance from their homes. At present only 1 out of 5 children in the United States lives within a half mile of a park (1,2); the deficit is often worse in low-income neighborhoods. A recent study completed by City Project highlights the fact that “Nearly two-thirds of the children in Los Angeles County—almost all of them kids of color living in low-income neighborhoods—have no park or playground near their homes”(3), these findings are mirrored nationally with 69 percent of low-income parents reporting that there is no playground in their neighborhood (4).

As we consider the vast array of physical activity initiatives that encourage us to start by taking small steps in the right direction, we must also consider the environmental factors that promote or prevent our ability to successfully make these changes. I am a strong proponent of creating and improving community playspaces, but I am also an advocate for acknowledging the already present resources in communities.

For many communities, schools represent the ultimate resource in promoting physical activity and providing a great place for children to play. They are often equipped with playgrounds, basketball courts, baseball fields, gymnasiums and more. Their very design begs to be raced, jumped, and played upon. Yet, as the 3 p.m. school bell rings, many of these sites are closed off to students and the larger community in an effort to maintain school grounds, ward off vandalism and avoid the issue of liability. Fortunately, there is an emerging trend of restoring access to these community hubs through the development of joint-use agreements.

To better support these initiatives, organizations such as the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN) have taken up the charge. NPLAN works to reduce the obesity epidemic in the United States by providing community leaders with best practices and legal resources they can utilize to implement local change. NPLAN has focused its energy on promoting healthy foods, schools, kids, and communities through a variety of initiatives, including joint-use agreements. A joint-use agreement is defined as “a formal agreement between two separate government entities–often a school and a city or county–setting forth the terms and conditions for shared use of public property or facilities.”(5)

Critics have often argued against joint-use agreements, fearing the liability involved with injuries occurring after hours. While overlooking the fact that children and families have been ducking under or climbing over fences for years to use playgrounds, tracks, and practice fields. When well executed, joint-use agreements can make a significant impact on the number of locations available for local community members to engage in physical activity and play, while protecting the interests of school districts and other city agencies.

Numerous joint-use agreements have been executed across the United States, and the specifics are as varied as the cities implementing the agreements. A few examples are highlighted here.

Yuma, Arizona

The City of Yuma began partnering with school districts over 40 years ago to provide a broad spectrum of quality facilities to its citizens.  Together, these partnerships or Inter-governmental Agreements have provided millions of dollars for land, facility construction, and ongoing maintenance.  The city and high school district partnered on the construction and operation of an $8.8 million aquatic center centrally located to attract diverse participants.

Cerritos, California

The City of Cerritos has entered into a comprehensive joint-usage agreement with the ABC Unified School District.  The agreement calls for increased use of gymnasiums at three local high schools for City of Cerritos Recreation Services Division programming, while local high schools gain access to softball, baseball, and soccer fields for practices and competitions.

Durham, North Carolina

Durham Parks and Recreation opened a recreation center that is housed in an old middle school building owned and operated by Durham Public Schools.  The building is used primarily as a vocational education facility with the gymnasium and auditorium being operated by Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) as a full-service recreation center with programs for children, youth, adults, and mature adults.  In addition to the facility, DPR also maintains a full-size athletic field on the school grounds.  The center located in Northeast Central Durham, has been challenged by high crime rates, high unemployment rates and high school dropout rates.  This renovated facility now serves as a safe location for community members to gather, learn, play and meet.  In addition to this recreation center DPR and Durham Public Schools work together, when possible, to develop mixed-use facilities for schools and parks.

In this day and age of dwindling budgets and reduced staffing, the need for ingenuity and careful analysis of all available resources is greater than ever. As we continue to empower communities in becoming healthier through programs and environmental changes, it is worth looking at the challenge through a new lens. The National Center for Educational Statistics reported a total of 98,706 public schools in the United States in the 2008-09 school year and, from my rose-colored glasses, that amounts to an enormous opportunity to increase the health of our communities. Instead of letting the fear of liability drive the status quo, there is no time like the present to educate ourselves on the strengths of joint-use agreements.


  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). State indicator report on physical activity, 2010. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Roemmich, J. N., Epstein, L. H., Raja, S., Yin, L., Robinson, J., & Winiewicz, D. (2006). Association of access to parks and recreational facilities with the physical activity of young children. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 43(6), 437–441.
  • The City Project. The City Project. Retrieved April 18, 2011, from
  • KaBOOM!  (2009). Harris interactive survey. Retrieved April 18, 2011, from
  • National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. NPLAN – National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Retrieved April 18, 2011, from


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Director of Community Engagement, KaBOOM!