What Are Play Deserts and How Can We Develop Them?


Throughout the American South and Southwest are stretches of “play deserts,” or areas without access to parks, playgrounds, and other spaces for children to play. It’s obvious that children need these spaces for social and physical development, but why do these play deserts exist in the first place?

And what can we do to solve this problem?

The Problem of Play Deserts

According to Matt Allison of Actively Play, “Parks and playgrounds play a vital role in our communities, serving as hubs that bring people together and offering children a space to grow through play. Having a park nearby is a huge benefit whenever possible.”

Unfortunately, not all neighborhoods have this access.

It’s estimated that roughly 100 million people – and 28 million children – don’t have access to parks. And 1 in 3 people in the United States don’t have a park or green space within a 10-minute walk from their home. The problem is even worse in the South and Southwest, where large rural sprawls of land separate people from each other and from the resources they need to thrive.

Collectively, 7 percent of the country falls into the category of a “play desert.” This may seem like a small figure, but it affects millions of people – and could have devastating consequences for them, well into the future.

So what can we do about this?

The Push for More Playgrounds

The obvious solution is to build more playgrounds. But building playgrounds isn’t always easy or straightforward. Playgrounds can be planned and constructed by both public and private entities, but most of the burden rests on lawmakers. 

Lawmakers and community leaders are typically the ones working to carve out space for playgrounds, fund the construction of those playgrounds, and make sure those playgrounds are fully functional.

One solution, therefore, is making a bigger push to force those representatives to erect more playgrounds in a given area. If you live in a play desert, or know someone who does, consider reaching out to local representatives and demanding new solutions. Failing that, you can wait for the next election cycle and vote for someone who has playgrounds as a top priority.

Individually, your voice isn’t going to make much of an impact. Collectively organizing allows you to amplify your voice with others, so consider reaching out to friends, neighbors, and other community members to raise awareness and make more of an impression.

Of course, if you don’t like the idea of waiting around for government officials to do the work, you could also push for your own kind of initiative. If you find a wealthy donor, or organize fleets of smaller donors, you might be able to design and build a playground entirely independently. This is an exhaustive and complicated undertaking, but it’s the only one that puts the control in your hands.

More Isn’t Always Better

There’s one more complicating variable to all this: building more playgrounds is a good thing, but it may not be enough to fully solve the problem. That’s because playgrounds need to meet certain criteria before they can function adequately as resources for physical and social development.

Experts recommend that playgrounds meet the five “A’s.”

·       Accessibility. Merely erecting a playground in a central location within a play desert is typically enough to solve the accessibility part of the equation. Playgrounds need to be easily and conveniently reachable by local populations. The ideal range is within 10 minutes of walking – but a slightly further option is better than no option.

·       Availability. Those playgrounds also need to be available. In other words, they need to remain open with plenty of space for visitors. If the playground is only open during limited hours, if it’s too small, or if it’s always overcrowded, it may fail this test.

·       Accommodation. Good playgrounds are accommodating. They offer an abundance of features for many types of children (and parents) and cater to specific needs or requirements within their geographic area. For example, playgrounds in the scorchingly hot Southwest should have access to shade and running water.

·       Affordability. Naturally, playgrounds should also be affordable – and preferably free. If there are financial barriers to using the playground, certain segments of the population will be functionally locked out of it.

·       Acceptability. Finally, playgrounds should be deemed “acceptable” to families. This is a somewhat subjective factor, but researchers explore factors like available parking and nearby crime rates to estimate overall acceptability.

Play deserts are devastating for local populations, but they don’t have to persist forever. If you’re willing to take the initiative to push representatives and/or organize donation efforts, you can make a massive impact in your local community. Just make sure any playgrounds under consideration for development meet the necessary criteria to support children’s development.

Related To This Story

Latest NEWS