Fighting Childhood Obesity

Fighting Childhood Obesity

Encouraging play - at parks, play spaces and sports - can be a winning strategy for promoting healthy weight among kids.

It is a beautiful summer day in Manhattan’s lower east side, and at University Settlement, a community organization, a makeshift soccer court on a blacktop playground is teeming with kids playing a wicked game of soccer. More than 1 in 5 of the residents in this neighborhood live below the poverty level, including 31 percent of the children. The kids playing here today are participants in Soccer for Success, a youth development program of the U.S. Soccer Foundation that has received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

“I used to cut school all the time, and then my principal talked me into joining the soccer team,” says seventh-grader Dario during a half-time break. “I feel like it’s the best thing in my life, and I can’t play unless I come to school, so now I come every day.” Though he slyly added a 12-year-old’s qualifier: “Well, almost every day.”

Access to safe play spaces is a crucial but often overlooked element in keeping kids healthy.

No matter. Turnarounds like this are why RWJF supports numerous programs focused on play. As the largest U.S. foundation devoted solely to health, our mission is to build a “Culture of Health” for everyone in America, no matter where they live, work, or learn; no matter the color of their skin or their income. Just 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health is dependent on the health care they receive from doctors, nurses and hospitals – the other 80 percent is inextricably linked to the world we live in outside the clinic, including access to safe places to play. That’s why, over its 44-year history, the Foundation has focused on improving everything that impacts health – from funding the beginnings of the 911 emergency call system, to working for tobacco cessation policies, to developing hospice and end-of-life best practices, to helping identify and train health care providers for our most under-resourced communities.

Be it organized sports, school recess, or running around at a neighborhood park or playground, research consistently shows that physi­cally active children are more likely to be healthy, perform better academically, and have fewer absences. Children who don’t have opportunities for active play are twice as likely to grow up to be obese adults and earn less at work, have higher health care costs, and take more sick days.

The rise in childhood obesity is a principal rationale for RWJF’s focus on physical activity. Currently one in three children in America is overweight or obese — this could be the first generation in America to have shorter lives than their parents. To prevent that from happening, the Foundation has committed a total of $1 billion to help all children in the United States have a healthy weight by 2025. One of the ways we hope to reach this goal is to ensure that every child has the chance to actively play, every day, no matter where they live or their family’s income.

Copyright 2015 E.H. Wallop. Photo courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But healthy weight is only one of the benefits to be derived from play. The Boston-based organization Doc Wayne – one of the 2015 winners of the annual  $5,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award – fuses sports with therapy to help children cope with such deeply traumatic experiences as exposure to violence, addiction, and sexual exploitation. “We’ve seen that sport can be a strong complement to traditional psychotherapy when helping young people heal from trauma,” said Doc Wayne executive director David S. Cohen. A 2009 evaluation of the organization found that participants improved in peer and adult relationships, conflict resolution, self-confidence, healthy coping, and social skills.

School-yard play can lead to a better classroom experience as well, as is proven every day in the schools that are part of the Playworks network. Playworks, which has received almost $36 million in RWJF grants, provides trained coaches to organize structured recess in low-income, urban schools, where play is often given short shrift. The non-profit currently serves more than 1,300 schools and 700,000 students in 23 U.S. cities. Through fun, interactive games that leave no kids on the sidelines, Playworks teaches conflict resolution and social and leadership skills, as well as providing an outlet for the antsy energy that can keep children from sitting still in a classroom. Last year participating schools reported an 85 percent reduction on average in bullying, an 84 percent decrease in disciplinary incidents, and a 96 percent increase in class participation and cooperation in class – all because the kids got to run around and play during recess.

Soccer for Success reports similar results for the approximately 30,000 kids it serves in underserved communities in 34 cities. Almost 90 percent of enrolled children said that they try harder in school since they’ve joined the program, and 85 percent said they try harder to avoid fighting. “One of the good things about soccer is that boys and girls play equally, so you can have one program in an after-school setting,” says Ed Foster-Simeon, president and CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation. “It’s also low cost, because all you need is a little bit of space, and a ball.”

Nevertheless, in many poor communities even a little bit of space can be hard to find. In order for more children, and adults, to engage in physical activity, we need to create more places to play – parks, sports fields, playgrounds, bike paths, recreation centers. Each year, RWJF awards a $25,000 Culture of Health Prize to as many as 10 communities that have improved the health of all their residents, and parks and play spaces are invariably a key component of the winning entrants. Durham County, North Carolina, a 2014 winner, built 32 miles of dedicated bike lanes; 2015 winner Lawrence, Massachusetts, developed a three-mile greenway along a formerly trash-strewn river bank and turned a stretch of defunct railroad into a walking and cycling trail.

Even the U.S. Soccer Foundation recognizes that it can’t recruit kids to play soccer if it first doesn’t help communities build playing fields. In 2013, RWJF awarded the Soccer Foundation a $350,000, two-year grant to support its Safe Places to Play initiative, with plans to create 20 safe play spaces in Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York. It turns out that goal was too modest – the grant resulted in 31 safe places to play, and 15,000 more children enrolled in soccer programs. In addition, those new parks and playgrounds serve as a hub to such linked services as health clinics and farmer’s markets.

To keep the momentum going, in March 2016 RWJF and KaBOOM!, a non-profit that builds playgrounds in underserved neighborhoods, announced a national competition that will award $1 million in prizes to the best city designs that help make play easy, available, and fun. The Play Everywhere Challenge will reward community-driven solutions that integrate play into everyday life and unexpected places – sidewalks, vacant lots, bus stops, open streets, and beyond.

It’s all part of RWJF’s ultimate goal: by making play a daily reality for all children, no matter who they are or where they live, we move closer to building a Culture of Health for all in America. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Catherine Arnst is Senior Communications Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Healthy Weight Through Play