South Dakota

Trailblazing Play in Pierre


This September, citizen advocates, non-profit organizations, foundations, businesses, and thought leaders from across the country convened in Baltimore, Md., to take part in the inaugural Playful City USA Leaders’ Summit, sponsored by the Humana Foundation. Over two days, these leaders discussed the policies and practices they incorporate to make their cities more playful places for kids, families, and communities to stay healthy and active together. One fun and unique innovation that emerged during the summit discussions was presented by Mayor Laurie Gill of Pierre, S.D., where the city has been working to install play pods along the local trail system.

One of the most alarming health problems facing the city of Pierre, South Dakota is childhood obesity; nearly two-thirds of children are either overweight or obese and similar trends can be observed in the city’s adult population.  Identified as a food desert, the city has undertaken efforts to address the lack of access to fresh, healthy food by ensuring its availability in local markets and through encouraging a culture shift in local eating habits.

Recognized as a Playful City USA community since 2012, Pierre also values the role of play in fighting childhood obesity. To that end, the city is working to eliminate play deserts, so that children have access to the play opportunities they need to grow into healthy, happy, and productive adults.

In 2009, Pierre received a grant from the Center for Disease Control and National Recreation and Park Association’s ACHIEVE (Action Communities for Health, Innovation, and EnVironmental change) initiative, which allowed  the city to concentrate on improving nutrition in schools and promoting physical activity through parks and trails.

Beginning with the idea of encouraging trail use and transportation around town for bikers and walkers, the city set out to improve existing infrastructure by installing mile markers and garbage bins along paths. The city is also seeking to advance a policy that requires new development to create walking and bike paths. Adding to these efforts, Pierre has decided to incorporate the concept of Play Trails into their efforts to improve community health and wellness. 

According to Mindy Cheap, the recreation superintendant for the Pierre Parks and Recreation Department, the idea of creating play trails caught on because of a desire to get kids and families to use local trails. While Pierre has an extensive system of over 50 miles of trails, most users have tended to be adult bikers and joggers. “Pocket parks,” says Cheap, “have the ability to get whole families out and moving together.”

The city plans to place play pods (or pocket parks) along the 4th Street Trail where, says Cheap, residents of that part of the city do not have access to many options for play. While original ACHIEVE funding financed three play pods,  an additional $30,000 grant from Avera Health is allowing the city to create a total of five pocket parks along the trail.

With nature themes such as spiders, rocks, prairie pot holes, butterflies, and pond life, the mini-playgrounds will incorporate the natural beauty of Pierre’s scenic landscape while creating a fun and engaging outdoor experience for kids. With plans to have the Play Trail complete by the end of summer, the city is also working to create a curriculum for teachers so that students can enjoy an active, outdoor learning experience. In all, by creating the Play Trail, which links to Pierre’s other neighborhoods, the city is showing its dedication to ensuring the access to play, learning, and physical activity its youngest residents need and deserve.

Pierre’s concept of a Play Trail is just one idea to come out of the Playful City USA Leaders’ Summit that other communities can borrow to infuse play into their local landscapes, whether on a long trail or a walking path to school. Stay posted for more innovative ideas from the summit and our many Playful City USA communities.


Out of the box


When you look at a cardboard box, what do you see? Many adults simply see garbage or a storage item. If you ask a child, they might see a fort, a rocket ship, a kitchen, a musical instrument or a new pet. The ability to look at an object or space and turn it into something fun is a skill kids excel at. Growing older, sometimes it is easy to forget the power of “out of the box” thinking. Sometimes, building a playground requires a whole lot of creativity. One Playful City USA community embraced the power of creative thinking to open a play space that is one of a kind!

The community of Spearfish, South Dakota, was faced with an abandoned big-box store. A former shopping center for residents of Spearfish, the abandoned store had turned into an unsightly facility with an uncertain future. Abandoned big-box stores or “ghost-boxes” can leave cities struggling to find ways to bring life back and use back into the shell of a building. Law Professor Sarah Schindler, from the University of Maine, warns that an abandoned building of such a large size can cause reduced property values, loss of tax revenue, environmental problems and a decrease in social capital for the city.

Rather than demolish the building, city officials from Spearfish decided to take action. After careful planning and brainstorming, the Rec & Aquatics Center was built inside the abandoned store. The facility now gives residents of all ages access to six lanes of indoor walking/jogging lanes, two multi-use courts for basketball, volleyball, tennis and soccer; group fitness and cycling area, cardio and strength training equipment, batting cages, indoor archery and golf, roller skating, and youth play area for age 6 months to 7 years! The outdoor water park includes three waterslides, a lazy river, zero-depth pool with spray features, a splash pad, lap pool, deep pool, rock wall and adventure walk. The entire waterpark facility is ADA compliant. This one of a kind facility now gives over 10,000 residents access to play.

This Playful City USA community put play first and now proudly operates a facility that encourages personal growth, physical fitness and social development in a safe and friendly environment. All cities can benefit from taking Spearfish’s initiative and start thinking more like a kid!

Photos courtesy of Spearfish Rec & Aquatics Center


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