We know that kids’ earliest experiences have lasting effects throughout their lives. Well, what about the long term effects of playtime in their early life? Young children learn and begin to understand the world around them through play. The neighborhood playground offers a variety of learning experiences for children at any age. They learn to take turns on the slides and swing sets. Children begin to interact with other kids, making new friends in the sandbox. Additionally they are getting good exercise by climbing up the slide or running around the field playing tag. By having active playtime early in life, children are more likely to continue being active throughout their lives and make more healthy choices.
Unfortunately, a recent policy brief issued by the Alliance for Childhood reports that there has been a steady decline in children’s play over the past forty years:
"Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor activities. Children ages 10 to 16 now spend, on average, only 12.6 minutes per day in vigorous physical activity. Yet they spend an average of 10.4 waking hours each day relatively motionless. A sedentary lifestyle often goes hand in hand with obesity and other health problems. Children used to play for hours each day, burning calories and keeping fit and healthy. At the same time, play helped them socialize with others, develop mental acuity, and reduce stress. With the decline of play, all areas of child development have suffered, but the impact on health and obesity is most alarming" (Alliance for Childhood, 2010).
A decline in children’s play is alarming for multiple reasons. Spending less time playing means that children are developing at slower rates and leading less active lifestyles. This lack of physical activity at such an early age could have lasting negative developmental and health consequences such as childhood and adult obesity.
Obesity rates in the United States have been on the rise for the past twenty years. Even more alarming is the increasingly high rate of childhood obesity (CDC, 2011). A possible contributor to high rates of childhood obesity is the elimination of recess and physical education classes in schools. According to a 2006 School Health Program Report Card, Memphis City Schools did not require a recess period for all elementary classes. Even further, a 2009 Memphis Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that 70% of students did not attend a PE class daily at school, and 17% of youth were obese (CDC, 2009). Not only are kids not playing at home, but also they are losing playtime and physical activity classes in school.
In response to the high instance of childhood obesity, President Obama created the Whitehouse Task Force on Childhood Obesity, whose first task was to create a report on the state of childhood obesity in the United States. The taskforce is charged with creating an interagency plan to end childhood obesity. As part of this initiative, Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move Campaign. The program targets children at all ages from zero to 18 and uses a multi-pronged approach to combating childhood obesity by emphasizing regular exercise and healthy eating habits to children and their caregivers. The Campaign also works to provide healthy and affordable foods in the schools and their neighborhoods (Let’s Move, 2011).
In response to striking rates of childhood obesity and the loss of time for physical activity in the schools, the City of Memphis is beginning to target neighborhood safety so that kids and families can feel safe playing outside in their neighborhoods. The Let’s Move Memphis Chapter, in partnership with Mayor Wharton and the Memphis Police Department, has begun to establish “safe zones” around city parks during peak physical activity hours, 5:30AM-7:30AM and 4:30PM-6:30PM. These “safe zones” will have a higher concentration of police officers during peak hours, which will allow residents to feel more comfortable exercising or playing outside. The program was launched in mid June and will initially focus on the Hickory Hill Community Center, Frayser Park, Alcy Samuels Park near the airport, Southside Park in South Memphis, and several parks in Whitehaven.
THE TAKE AWAY: Memphis children of all ages are losing playtime at home and at school. Kids used to play outside for hours. Now they are spending more time inside playing on the computer or watching television. A recess period is not required of all elementary classrooms, and 70% of Memphis students are not required a daily PE class. This loss of play has negative consequences both for child development and health. Limited physical activity, when combined with poor nutrition, has led to an alarmingly high rate of childhood obesity in Memphis at 17%. In response to this high rate, the Memphis Chapter of the Let’s Move Campaign has worked with the city to establish safe zones around city parks during peak activity hours so that families can once again feel safe playing outside.