Health & Wellness

‘Play deserts’ common throughout Deep South, Southwest

An abandoned playground with a slide is shown on an overcast day.
New research from the University of Georgia shows hundreds of U.S. counties lack adequate play space for growing children. (Getty Images)

Physical activity plays vital role in children’s health, but much of the U.S. lacks playgrounds, parks

Physical activity is crucial to children’s healthy physical and mental development. But new research from the University of Georgia shows hundreds of U.S. counties are play deserts.

These play deserts are areas where parks and other spots to run around and play are nonexistent, hard to access or in less safe locations that make parents second-guess taking their children to play there.

The study found that about 7% of the country would fit into this category.

Many of the counties lacking access to play areas were clustered in the Southeast and Southwest. Additionally, pockets of play deserts were most common in rural and suburban areas throughout the country.

Map of the U.S. showing play deserts, which comprise about 7% of U.S. counties.

About 7% of the U.S., shown here, qualifies as a play desert, according to a new UGA study. (Submitted)

But in the South, even urban areas lacked adequate play space.

“Parents often consider a park the first place to go for their children to get some exercise and to play,” said Jue Yang, lead author of the study and a doctoral geography student in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Lan Mu

“But even if you have the park near where you live, if the environment is not safe or it’s difficult to access, then people will not use it,” said Lan Mu, corresponding author of the study and a professor of geography in UGA’s Franklin College.

Having parks isn’t enough. Playgrounds should be safe, accessible and affordable

The researchers analyzed five broad measures of access to play areas: accessibility, availability, accommodation, affordability and acceptability.

In the present study, these measures, often referred to as the 5 A’s of access, comprise multiple variables.

The researchers determined the availability of areas where children can be physically active by comparing the number of parks, school and business recreation locations in given areas to the number of children served by those locations. They assessed accessibility by determining walkability of the neighborhood, how busy the roads in the area were and how close the nearest recreation location was to families.

For accommodation, the authors focused on whether the physical environment of the playgrounds and parks meets the needs of children and families, such as the amount of greenspace and air quality. The researchers determined affordability of the play spaces by examining average socioeconomic status, annual income and poverty levels.

Finally, the researchers explored crime rates and vacant lots near parks to determine acceptability.

Policymakers can focus on specific needs of communities using new tool

The researchers used geographic information system and self-organizing mapping, a machine learning technique, to visualize and determine how the U.S. fares separately in each of the five categories and overall. Their hope is that lawmakers can use this information to determine how to address the specific needs in their communities.

For example, the study found that the Southwest is lacking not only in access to play areas but also in whether parents find those areas acceptable and accommodating.

Jue Yang

“In those areas, the quality of the park should be the priority for the policymaker to think about,” Yang said. “In some areas, it’s really hot, for instance, so community leaders need to make accommodations for that. They could build water features into the parks and create shaded areas where children can play but not be in direct sun.”

In the Southeast, the biggest issues were affordability, accessibility and availability. That means building more parks and open spaces where parents can bring their children to play for free or reduced costs, the researchers said.

The researchers plan to make the interactive maps available online in the future to help local, county-level leaders determine how to create more play oases in their communities.

Published in the International Journal of Geo-Information, the study was co-authored by Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Public Health.