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Six Ways that Play Can Help Solve Childhood Obesity (As Reported by the White House Task Force)

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The action plan released today by the Childhood Obesity Task Force is optimistically entitled, "Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation." At 120 pages, it's a far-reaching document, covering everything from prenatal care to quality school meals to after-school activities.

As someone who was consulted by the task force during the creation of this action plan and who has dedicated the better part of my career to mobilizing communities, particularly in low-income areas, around creating safe outdoor neighborhood playspaces, I paid particularly close attention to the section on increasing physical activity. We all know how much children love to run around when let loose outside--or so we hope! Increasing access to playspaces and opportunities for play is paramount to ensuring that kids are getting the physical activity they need to stay healthy.

Here are six things the White House would like to see more of:

  1. Regularly scheduled recess periods. This is in addition to, not as a replacement for, PE classes. The report emphasizes that recess helps kids improve their skills in "decision-making, cooperation, conflict resolution, and continued motor skill development" while improving "attentiveness, concentration and time-on-task in the classroom." A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of children surveyed are currently deprived of recess in their school day.
  2. Outdoor recreation. According to the White House report, lack of outdoor recreation in natural environments has contributed in part to "obesity-related illnesses, attention deficit-hyperactivity, vitamin D deficiency, and myopia." A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children now spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen. Meanwhile, just 10-15 minutes of sunshine a day can prevent vitamin D deficiency, according to Pediatrics.
  3. Access to nature play. Playing in natural settings offers children unique benefits that are harder and harder for urban children to come by. The Children's Play Council in the UK points out that nature play develops skills in "control and mastery, construction of special spaces, [and] manipulating loose parts." It also helps children "recognize their independence alongside an interdependence and connectedness with the ecological worlds." Studies show that contact with nature in childhood directly correlates with tendencies toward environmental stewardship later on in life.
  4. Safe and accessible parks and playgrounds, particularly in underserved and low-income communities. A Harris Interactive Poll conducted by KaBOOM! found that 59% of families don't have access to a community playground, and that percentage increases to 69% in low-income communities. As First Lady Michelle Obama has said, "... playgrounds for kids within walking distance of their homes will ... help children live healthier lives."
  5. Joint-use agreements between local governments and community sites for indoor and outdoor recreation. Playspaces at schools are often locked up on evenings and weekends, inaccessible to neighborhood children who have nowhere else to play. The KaBOOM! 2009 "Play Matters" report explored joint-use agreements in Tucson, AZ, St. Petersburg, FL, and Greenbelt, MD, which significantly expanded recreation opportunities for children. The best part? It's cheap, and there's no construction required!
  6. Technology to engage children in physical activity. Technology is often demonized as a deterrent to outdoor play, but it doesn't have to be. With more and more mobile devices, utilizing technology is no longer an inherently sedentary activity. Take geocaching, for instance, a "high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices." If we can combine the thrill of technology with the stimulation of outdoor activity, we get the best of both worlds.

As the task force's action plan recognizes, tackling childhood obesity requires a multi-pronged approach. Too often, the focus is placed exclusively on nutrition--and let's face it, spinach will only do so much if children still spend most of their free time sitting around inside. I'm glad to see that the White House seems to understand that along with healthy school lunches, kids also need unstructured time outside, and of course, a safe, accessible place to spend it in.

That said, an ideal strategy would give equal weight to play, physical activity, and nutrition. Play is inherently active, yes, but lumping it in with "physical activity" positions it as an intervention, not as long-term, preventative measure. Yes, we need to get overweight and obese children moving (through both structured and unstructured activities), but we also need to restore a "culture of play" so that future generations of children don't fall prone to unhealthy, sedentary habits.

There is also the lingering question of who will pay. The White House task force recommends that businesses considering "adopting" (building and/or helping to maintain) parks and playgrounds in their communities--a solid recommendation, to be sure, but the capital required goes far beyond the capabilities of local businesses. Where the rest of the money will come from, if we are going to aggressively increase access to parks and playgrounds, is a question the report leaves unanswered.

Do you think we can actually solve childhood obesity within a generation? What would your recommendations be?

Read the full report here.

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