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How (And Why) City Mayors Should Promote Play

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Play is under attack, and its enemies are wide-ranging. The good news is that the fight to save play can be advanced on many fronts, from federal programs like Let's Move to neighborhood initiatives like the 78th street play street in Queens, NY.

Some of the most innovative and effective undertakings come from towns and cities, which are uniquely positioned to bridge grassroots and government action. With a committed mayor, a robust Park and Recreation department, and mobilized residents, it's amazing what cities can accomplish when it comes to promoting active lifestyles, increasing outdoor play opportunities, and strengthening neighborhoods.

Here's just a sampling:

  • Takoma Park Play Committee: In early 2009, tennis coach Pat Rumbaugh decided she wanted to do more to promote play in the city of Takoma Park, Md. She formed a Play Committee and invited Mayor Bruce Williams to join, who readily agreed. Among many things, the Play Committee has organized Traveling Playgroups, a program that hosts community events at playgrounds across the city. The events, which include local music, arts and crafts, and unstructured supervised play opportunities, have each brought 40-100 neighbors together to meet one another, socialize, and of course, play.

  • Operation Free Palms: A playground was part of Orlando, Fla. Mayor Buddy Dyer's initiative to prevent crime in the Windsor Cove Apartment community (formerly known as The Palms), which suffered from drugs and violence, and even saw a triple-killing in July 2008. Mayor Dyer recognized that crime must be attacked from many angles, and that a safe, child-centered community gathering space was crucial to improving residents' sense of well-being.
  • Joint-Use Agreements: Because playgrounds are expensive, Orlando is also taking advantage of joint-use agreements with the local school districts to increase the quantity of playspaces. Many other cities are doing the same, including Tucson, Ariz., which has one of the nation's lowest rankings when it comes to available park land. Mayor Robert E. Walkup has worked with other elected officials, parks department staff, and the Tucson Unified School District to open playgrounds at 12 school sites to the general public during non-school hours.
  • Fitness and Nutrition Challenge: Las Cruces, N.M. Mayor Ken Miyagishima launched the "5-2-1-0 Fitness and Nutrition Challenge" for local third graders, part of the city's larger "Healthy Las Cruces, Healthy Kids" initiative. The challenge required five servings of fruits or vegetables, no more than two hours of screen time, one hour of physical activity (for instance, outdoor play), and zero sodas per day. Parents signed a daily support form, and children who stuck with the challenge for 21 days received a special coin and a recognition letter from the mayor.
  • As these initiatives illustrate, increasing play opportunities serves a city in more ways than one. It's not just about happier children. Play can unite neighbors, prevent crime, improve public health, and even boost real estate. Mayors across the country are recognizing that play is instrumental in fostering livable, safe, healthy communities. In fact, the national recognition program Playful Cities USA just honored 118 cities in 36 states that have taken action for play. Takoma Park, Orlando, Tucson, and Las Cruces are just a few of them. See the full list here.

    Did your city make the cut? How does your hometown promote play?