What is a Play Desert?

Neighborhoods that have many children and no place to play outside are play deserts. In April 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported that only one out of five children in the United States lives within a half-mile of a park or playground, and the availability of places to play looms far worse in low-income neighborhoods. It is of real national importance to map the locations and scale of the Play Deficit it we are to solve it.

What is a playspace?
Why map play deserts?
How is the play deficit harming our children?


The base factors which create a play desert

To map these child-rich, playspace-poor neighborhoods, a play desert map, at minimum, needs to show the following:

  1. Where the children are—lack of playspaces is clearly a greater problem in neighborhoods where there are more children
  2. Where the places to play are (and therefore aren’t). What is a playspace?
  3. Then we need to show the area around each playspace which is in walking distance
    1. Half a mile is the maximum distance that should be considered walking distance
    2. Barriers such as major roadways or lack of sidewalks and crosswalks can make a playspace that is half or mile or less in distance from a child inaccessible, so any play desert map also needs to account for these barriers.

At KaBOOM! we'll keep on celebrating each playground that exists, but our true mission is to find the spaces in-between. You can help us by identifying and assessing your neighborhood playgrounds on our Map of Play.

Additional factors which create a play desert

But the mere presence of a playspace within walking distance does not mean that  it is a viable place where children of the neighborhood can play. A map of play deserts should also visualize the following additional factors:

  1. The quality of the playspace. Places that have play equipment that are in poor condition, with boring, poorly-maintained or minimal play equipment, or that are are unlikely to be utilized. A poor-quality playground should not carry the same weight as a good-quality playground.
  2. Crime rates can turn an otherwise engaging playspace into a play desert. A playground or park in a neighborhood with high levels of crime—in particular personal crime—should not carry the same weight as a playground or park in an area with little or no crime.
  3. Availability to residents is critical. Many school playgrounds and fields are closed to non-students at all times and under lock and key after hours, on weekends and during the summer. In these cases, a school play space should not count except during school hours and should not carry the same weight as a playspace that is open to all residents.

Other critical factors in a play desert map

From a policy perspective, a play desert map allows a map user to examine the following:

  1. HHI income will allow policy makers to explore linkages between poverty and lack of access to playspaces.
  2. Race/ethnicity data will allow exploration of the linkages between race and ethnicity and the availability of places to play.
  3. Rates of childhood obesity are linked to play deserts. According to researchers from the Department of Health and Human Services, there is a stark correlation between the Play Deficit and childhood obesity: In neighborhoods without a park or playground, the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29%. In fact, children with a park or playground within half-a-mile are almost five times more likely to be a healthy weight than children without playgrounds or parks nearby.