For my kids, there was nothing quite like the rush of going down a slide, pumping their legs on the swings or reaching for the monkey bar. They’re older now, and they’ve traded sliding boards for basketball and tennis courts. Still, I distinctly remember the joy of watching them at the park, knowing that their play was setting them up for a healthy future.
Active outdoor play is tremendously valuable for children’s physical health. We've written about the extensive mental health benefits of play and the social benefits of play – but I can't overstate the importance of the physical rewards outdoor play can bring to growing bodies. Research shows that time on the playground helps develop balance and coordination, encourages healthy active habits, and more. When children spend more time at the playground, they spend less time on screens. They’re more likely to stay lean. A Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine article notes that they also tend to sleep better.
The joy (and benefits to well-being) that playgrounds bring should be a universal experience, available to all families.
That’s why Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) employees jump at volunteer opportunities to help build playgrounds in communities across the state. In fact, we just finished building our 16th playground with KABOOM! – a national nonprofit that builds playspaces so children in all neighborhoods have a safe place to romp and explore, no matter their income, ability level or race.
Through our partnership with KABOOM!, Blue Cross NC supports communities that have a vision for expanding or improving playspaces. By serving as a funding and building partner, we help transform vision into reality.
Recently, more than 120 Blue Cross NC employees joined together in Burlington for a special playground build. This one was especially exciting because it was our first ability-inclusive park project. An inclusive playground takes away both the physical and social barriers to inclusion. It’s not just compliant with the American Disabilities Act – it’s specifically designed to ensure children of all abilities can fully take advantage of the benefits of play.
City Park in Burlington has been a landmark, attracting children and families for many years. But the park was showing its age. When the City of Burlington reached out to community members to see what they would want in a revitalized park, they got requests for accessible play equipment like a Sway Fun Glider, a Navigator Reach Panel and other features that create an inclusive environment and provide a variety of opportunities to play. As someone who’s personally fascinated with the ways sound can activate both mind and body, I’m intrigued by the possibilities that the new Ring-a-Bell Reach Panel and the park’s other sensory activities open up.
We know neighborhood parks and sports activities are important for health:
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) research shows that children without easy access to a park are more likely to be inactive. Another NCBI article shows that children face a 20% higher risk of obesity and a 22% higher risk of becoming overweight. They are more likely to indulge in too much screen-time, get too little sleep and to be diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder).
Some might wonder what prevents children and families from having park access. After all, parks are free. But not every neighborhood has a playground within safe walking distance (or even within a short drive). For families without reliable transportation, getting to parks that might seem nearby on a map can be a monumental challenge.
Parks that are in disrepair are an access issue too. After all, a child living next door to a park still can’t play if the park is dangerous or uninviting.
The Burlington build was hard work, but Blue Cross NC and KABOOM! aren’t taking a breather. Now we have our sights set on rebuilding the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastal Plain’s Washington Unit in Washington, North Carolina, in September. This will be our 17th collaboration, and we’ll gather to replace decades-old equipment so that children in this small riverside community have a safe place to play.
For all of us at Blue Cross NC who are dedicated to improving the long-term health of our communities, supporting play is a rewarding and urgent endeavor, as noted in the Designed to Move report (PDF). Developed economies like the US have seen physical activity levels shrink by as much as 32% in fewer than two generations. By 2030, this shift away from movement means Americans will be almost half as active as they were in 1965, notes a NCBI report.
Creating inviting, safe and inclusive spaces for play in all neighborhoods is an important first step toward reversing this trend and needs our support. I hope we can all come together to prioritize not only building these playgrounds, but also creating the time and space in our own family schedules to enjoy them. It’s key to offering all North Carolinians the opportunity to be healthy for years to come.
A healthier North Carolina begins with healthier children.
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