New coalition to address lack of access, resources for youth physical activity in King County

September 10, 2019

In a region known for outdoor recreation, barely one in five youth in King County gets the recommended hour of physical activity each day, while some neighborhoods lack the parks and programs to serve them. A report released today — the product of research led by the University of Washington — gives Seattle and King County a “D” in getting youth active through sport, play and outdoor recreation.

That report, "State of Play: Seattle-King County," not only reveals the need for greater access to and resources for youth sports and recreation, but also launches the King County Play Equity Coalition to leverage local leadership and increase youth physical activity. The new report is a comprehensive landscape analysis of regional trends, barriers and opportunities, released in conjunction with community partners that include the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Children’s Hospital, YMCA of Greater Seattle, Bezos Family Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and evo.

Researchers in the UW Center for Leadership in Athletics, part of the College of Education, conducted the eight-month study, which involved more than 1,600 local adults and children and teens in kindergarten through 12th grades in interviews, focus groups and surveys. The research also was guided by an advisory board of local youth-recreation leaders and representatives who provided insights, expertise and feedback.

"State of Play: Seattle-King County" followed a national framework created by the Aspen Institute, which has issued similar reports on five other communities nationwide. The report consists of eight strategies, or “plays,” designed to increase healthy, developmentally-appropriate participation in sport and physical activity. 

“Seattle and King County have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of youth through sports, broadly defined,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. “Few if any areas in the country have a richer combination of natural and human resources to draw on. I can say that as a former resident. Our Project Play team hopes this report is used as a tool to mobilize stakeholders from across sectors, as has happened in other communities where we have worked.” 

The benefits of living in a region known for being at the forefront in health and wellness are not trickling down to the area’s youth. In the study, UW researchers found:

  • King County youth are less active than youth nationally. Fewer than one in five youth (19%) meets the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s physical activity guidelines (60 minutes of moderate activity, seven days per week). Not only is this rate declining over time from 22% in 2016, but it also is lower than the national average of 26%. 
  • While King County has abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, it is not meeting the demand to support equitable access to physical activity. Youth in South King County have fewer playfields and parks in their neighborhoods, and access to them is more limited than in the rest of the region. Youth of color and youth who do not speak English at home spend less time at the parks near them than their white or English-speaking peers.
  • Access to physical activity opportunities is limited by race, language, affluence and ability. Youth of color are less likely than white youth to participate in organized physical activity, and those who do participate play a narrower range of sports. Youth from less-wealthy families are also less active and less likely to have ever participated in organized physical activity than more affluent youth.

Next steps: The King County Play Equity Coalition

"State of Play: Seattle-King County" is intended as a catalyst for collective action. Over 30 local organizations in a variety of sectors have been involved in the project thus far. In the coming months, the group will turn its efforts toward the creation of the King County Play Equity Coalition. The coalition aims to increase the rate of King County youth meeting the CDC’s physical activity guidelines through policies, programs, research and information-sharing so that all youth have access to the benefits of movement on mental, emotional and physical well-being.

“In the report, we prioritized the voices of youth and families most disenfranchised from physical activity in our region,” said Julie McCleery, research associate at the UWCLA and the report’s principal investigator. “Now we have to collectively commit to taking that data seriously. It’s time for King County to recognize the vital role that physical activity plays in community health and educational outcomes and do something bold to address the inequities in who plays sports, who has recess, and who has access to outdoor play spaces.”

The King County Play Equity Coalition will focus its efforts on strategies outlined in the report, including empowering schools to be hubs for community physical activity, launching a public health education campaign, and providing program staff and policymakers with an equity toolkit to help them increase access to physical activity.

King County Parks will use findings in "State of Play: Seattle-King County" to inform strategic upstream investments of the county’s Youth Sports Grants, which support fit and healthy communities by investing in programs and capital projects that increase youth access to physical activity. The county recently expanded that effort, providing $2.5 million for programs and capital projects through a competitive process, along with $1 million in discretionary grants awarded by King County Council members.

 “King County has once again partnered with the University of Washington on an initiative to improve the quality of life in our region,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “We are leading a united effort with the public and private sectors to make it possible for more young people to be physically active, which contributes to their health and well-being. We are excited to be a part of the next steps of this effort.”

“All children deserve to have the mental and physical benefits that come from play,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “As this report shows, we have important work to do as a community to ensure that every child has access and opportunity to the playtime and physical activities that help them grow and thrive.”

Learn more about the "State of Play: Seattle King County" report and UW Center for Leadership in Athletics.

Media Resources


Julie McCleery, Research Associate, UW Center for Leadership in Athletics

Jon Solomon, Editorial Director, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program