To Close the Equity Gap, More Kids Need Access to Play

A broad coalition in Seattle-King County leads the way toward systemic change.

 

"Physical activity is an integral part of education," says Julie McCleery, director of research-practice partnerships at the UW Center for Leadership in Athletics. "Gaps in who has access to physical activity opportunities become gaps in other areas in both academics, and life-long physical and mental health." 

A collaboration between the University of Washington's Center for Leadership in Athletics, King County Parks and the Aspen Institute (who launched Project Play in 2013), sought to address this issue starting with research. McCleery led the landscape analysis for the 2019 King County State of Play report that details the county's level of youth involvement in sports, physical activity and outdoor recreation. 

According to the report, fewer than 22% of boys and 16% of girls in the county are getting the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Below the national average, these results are notable, and more so in a city known for its recreational opportunities and ranked as one of the healthiest and most livable in the U.S. Broken further down by income, race, ability and ethnicity, the results show that because of systemic inequities and barriers some young people have less access to opportunities like after-school sports and recreation activities than others, including more limited access to indoor and outdoor facilities at school and in their neighborhoods.

"In the study, immigrant youth are the most at risk for not having access for a whole number of reasons," says McCleery. "It's important for policymakers and funders to understand that these students are at the intersection of so many exclusionary systems. Underfunded schools may not have enough space at recess or no after-school bus, or the sports programs near them don't feel welcoming or aren't in their language. Because of the language barrier, even if there is a scholarship, they may not have the ability to access it."

Engaging Community Leaders

Addressing this issue is complicated. The landscape of play crosses many diverse organizational groups, from school districts to parks departments, leagues to after school programs. Solving the problem also requires involvement and leadership from the communities whose children are furthest from educational justice and most impacted by the limited access. Fortunately, the King County Play Equity Coalition (KCPEC) includes the many stakeholders needed to find solutions. 

"This is a great example of a research to practice story," says McCleery. "A community advisory board of 25 people from across the county helped design the study and read and analyzed the results. Afterward, they wanted to do something, and it became a springboard to action to become a coalition to address the findings." 

Representing the many groups involved in sports, play and outdoor recreation in King County, the coalition began to organize in the year following the report's release. In November, they had their first meeting convening 40 members. The coalition website launched in January of 2020. By February, they had determined their leadership structure. By March, they had voted in a leadership team. Later that spring, they formed action teams and began providing COVID-related resources. 

"One of the things that struck me about this coalition that sets it apart from others is the authenticity and the transparency in its development," says coalition leadership team member Bilan Aden, associate director of African Community Housing and Development. "To work with leaders who are diverse and represent the communities most impacted is energizing. To also prioritize the time and effort it takes to get BIPOC leaders to the table and compensating them for their work keeps us more engaged and wanting to keep building and inviting more community members." 

Acting on the Data

With seed funding from King County Parks and Recreation and pro bono staffing from the UW’s Center for Leadership Athletics, the coalition spent its first year building its organizational infrastructure and serving as a resource for information dissemination and collaboration. Efforts focused on advancing play equity and systemic change, including addressing COVID-related losses and/or centering BIPOC organizations supporting youth with the most barriers to access. Specific efforts, among others, involved creating soccer programming for Congolese immigrants, supporting middle school students in Highline Public Schools with a federal grant for youth engagement in physical activity, working on the Actokids app to help families find sports and physical activity opportunities, and play kits distributed at school lunch pickup sites during the pandemic. 

Now with more than 100 members, KCPEC efforts continue to gain momentum. A key finding in the State of Play report cites the importance of youth input to get and keep kids involved. The report also emphasizes the critical role of schools as equitable access points, making them a prime catalyst and hub for increasing physical activity for young people. Two upcoming projects seek to make inroads in both these areas. A recent Seattle Mariners Grant supports the development of a Youth Action Team to amplify young people's voices and leadership. In addition, starting in the 2022-23 school year, new federal relief funding at the state level through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) will support physical activity coordinators in the public schools. These employees will help address learning gaps and set up structures to ensure that kids get the CDC recommended amount of physical activity throughout their day, including before and after school. 

Along the same lines, coalition member Lori S. Dunn, the Pre-K-12 Physical Education and Health Literacy program manager for Seattle Public Schools, has been working for years to increase the consistency and quality of physical education across the district. This includes growing partnerships with community organizations to offer more opportunities to students. "The advocacy piece for me is focusing on physical educators as part of a Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child CDC model," says Dunn. "If our students don't know how to do something, they aren't going to continue with it. It won't be fun or joyful. Foundationally, good teaching is good teaching, and physical education is part of that."

A partnership with Cascade Bicycle Club equips every child who needs one with a bike and a pedestrian safety curriculum starting in the third grade. It's since expanded to middle schools. "We are the only district in the country with a partnership like this, reducing the number of students hit in crosswalks, improving the skills and awareness of future drivers," says Dunn. She also worked with the Pocock Foundation to ensure that more kids experience rowing through a program called Erg Ed. "Every school is within five miles of water," she says. "We also infuse a water safety component." Collaborative relationships with urban golf courses give every student in grade 3-5 exposure and instructions in golf with First Tee of Greater Seattle. With limited dollars, Dunn has come up with some creative ideas. Fees collected when people run a red light help to fund the bike program.

Dunn's work to create partnerships exemplifies what the coalition is hoping to do: to build capacity and increase opportunities for play by building a network of organizations committed to addressing the play equity gap. 

Taking Play Seriously

One of the challenges of this work is getting people to take play more seriously so that efforts to increase play equity get the policy and funding support they need. 

"The coalition has a lot of work to do to educate our community and legislators, and anyone who can influence the systems to prioritize investments in play," says Aden. "When kids are moving, active and healthy, it contributes to their social and emotional well-being, and they grow into healthy and thriving human beings."

According to the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, if all county youth increase their physical activity to recommended levels, it would make an enormous difference. King County would have 65,000 fewer overweight and obese citizens. Community members would experience 70,000 more years of life. The community would also see more than $2 billion saved in medical costs and increases in economic contributions. Impressive on their own, these numbers don't include the many additional benefits such as better cognitive functioning, improved mental health and an increased sense of wellbeing because of time spent out of doors. 

"I'm so glad there is a place like the coalition for these brilliant minds to come together and impact systems," says Aden. "There's a lot of potential in having a united front and voice in making the changes we need."