King County Play Equity Coalition: Centering youth access to the outdoors
By Emi Okikawa
Making the Grade
In 2013, the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program launched the Project Play initiative to promote healthy children and communities through sports engagement and access. Under this initiative, the Institute partnered with the University of Washington and King County Parks to conduct an in-depth analysis of youth sports, free play, and outdoor recreation in Seattle-King County. After a year of research, they published the findings in the State of Play Seattle-King County report in September 2019, which culminated in a grade given to Seattle-King County stakeholders for their work in getting youth physically active.
Seattle-King County scored a D.
Play Equity in Seattle-King County
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children get 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Meeting this threshold is important because research suggests that being active improves grades, school attendance, self-confidence, and resilience; boosts the immune system; and helps children heal from stress and trauma.
The State of Play report found that only 22% of boys and 16% of girls in Seattle-King County met the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day. This was below the national average of 35% of boys and 18% of girls who met that threshold. Further, there were deep stratifications even among children who did meet the requirement. The report found racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities in access to outdoor spaces, sports, and recreation. Girls, Youth of Color, youth with disabilities, and youth who didn’t speak English at home all reported getting fewer minutes of physical activity per day than the average.
The principal investigator of the analysis, Julie McCleery, the Director of Research-Practice Partnerships for the Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington, recalls how she reacted to the findings when the report was released: “At the time of the report, we were the county in the US with the third-highest rate of foreign-born residents. So, that means we have a lot of kids who are immigrants or newcomers to this country. And there are so many gaps in access for them. [It] was surprising to me and concerning because we have so many kids who are not able to access opportunities that they need to be physically active—whether the barriers are cultural, linguistic, geographic, or just all the systems comings together to exclude them.”
After the report was published, the community advisory board that was formed to steer the research and provide a community perspective, decided to become a formal coalition to address the findings and recommendations detailed in the report and to work toward play equity. Thus, the King County Play Equity Coalition was established.
Although the term “play equity” might be unfamiliar to some, to McCleery, it simply means that all kids have opportunities to be active in their own communities, in the ways that they want to be.
“So that could be through sports,” she says. “It could be through free play. It could be through walking with their families. It could be all of those means, but in their communities, on their terms, in ways that make them happy. [That’s] what play equity looks like.”
At its inception, the King County Play Equity Coalition started with only 30 members. Over the course of a year, it attracted over 100 members to its cause. To Bookie Gates, the chair of the coalition, their role is to bring Communities of Color together to shift systemic power to support community land ownership and center physical activity as a key part of youth health and development.
“That is one of our greatest challenges,” Gates says emphatically. “It’s just the inability to pick up a phone and make a call to get direct access to a park that’s only within a block from where most of our participants live. So, we have to commute outside of [our neighborhood] in order to have access to play.”
As the founder of a program called Baseball Beyond Borders, which helps Student-Athletes of Color connect their passion for baseball with their academic futures off the field, Gates knows that play equity goes beyond sports and recreation. With access to play comes the freedom of exploration and potential. It’s creating a sense of belonging—a safe space for an individual to promote their physical, social, and emotional well-being.
“It doesn’t matter whether that be in a competitive landscape or just within a recreational setting,” he says. “What matters most is that they’re embraced, they’re uplifted, they’re empowered, and they have the skills that they need to navigate the terrains of what we consider to be the world.”
Despite the pandemic, the King County Play Equity Coalition has just launched two new action teams: the Youth Action Team and the Gender Equity Shared Learning Action Team. It is also planning to host a pickleball tournament in September to raise funds for the coalition.
The Youth Action Team will be made up of ten youth from around the county who will lead their own projects in the coalition’s activities. The Shared Learning Action Team will comprise ten organizations that will come together to learn from each other about how to better serve girls—in particular, girls from immigrant communities.
[This has] been a desire of the coalition from the very beginning,” says McCleery. “Like our very first meeting was, How can we get youth involved and where is the youth voice? We want youth to lead us. So, this is a first step in that direction.”
For Gates, he’s optimistic about the future of the coalition in charting a path forward for all children to have equal access to play.
“To see individuals and institutions right at the table wanting change…that’s the memory that’s gonna last a lifetime. And I think it still won’t be fitting until we can really accomplish the goals that we have. So, while that memory is short-lived, I think [we’re] really working to create more memories that will see long-lasting change.”