Especially true in urban areas, it’s difficult to find places to play. But small spaces can yield big results with creative thinking and innovative programming.
Challenge //   Not enough place to play
State-of-the-art youth sports facilities are big, sprawling complexes with dozens of fields and courts at destination sites that cater to national tournaments. But growing access to play spaces for most children starts with the small — simple, smart moves that thought leaders at Project Play events and other experts in the field say hold great promise.
In urban areas, this may mean finding small spaces to develop quarter-sized courts for small-sided play, as what the U.S. Soccer Foundation has done with local partners in several cities. Those parcels are easier to find, and fields can be installed for as little as $15,000, a fraction of the cost of a full-sized turf field, which can run as much as $1 million.(28) In downstate Illinois, a parks district has grown its sport offerings with a small staff, through a partnership with a facility developer that shares resources.(29)
Other smaller-scale efforts can yield big results. Researchers know that kids are far more active during recess after shapes, grids, and games are painted on the ground.(30) In addition to building playgrounds, KaBOOM! is helping cities integrate play into routine spaces like sidewalks and bus stops. When schools agree to share their playing fields and facilities, it gives families and kids, especially those in underserved communities, more places to play in the evenings, on weekends, and during summer.(31)
FIELDS OF DREAMS ARE GREAT — BUT INNOVATE, AND THEY WILL COME
We didn’t always have to think small. In 1965, the federal government created the Land & Water Conservation Fund, with dedicated revenues from oil leases on federal lands, to build recreation facilities. Cities and states used the matching funds to develop 41,000 projects in every U.S. county. But much of that activity was before Congress began to divert most of the fund’s revenues in the 1980s. In 2013, the matching grants program received only 13 percent of the $305 million flowing into the fund. Also, a separate program for urban parks has dried up.(32)
The good news: Community Development Block Grants still provide up to $100 million annually in support. States and cities also received a one-time hit with the 2009 economic stimulus package, providing funds for parks, gyms, and playgrounds, as well as the creation of “complete streets” that include bike lanes.(33) Transportation to parks and school sites is vital, especially in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, which often have fewer nearby recreation facilities than other areas.(34) That’s significant, because people living within a mile of a park are four times more likely to use it than those who live farther away.(35)
Funding enables, but so do small gestures of other types of support. Which is another way of saying: be creative.
More Fun With Less Space
How to engage an entire P.E. class with one tennis court
The U.S. Tennis Association’s youth tennis initiative divides a 78-foot court into four playing spaces and uses the surrounding area for tennis-related games. Smaller racquets and lower-bouncing balls make it all possible and help kids find success.
The Aspen Institute recognizes select organizations that take new, specific, meaningful action aligned with each play. Apply to be a Project Play Champion.
At the annual Project Play Summit, we advance the conversation on each play, identifying new opportunities. Learn about them by watching the sessions below.
2015 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Think Small: an introduction
Moderator: Laurence Chalip, Professor and Department Head, College of Applied Health Sciences, Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, Universty of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Panelists: Abigail Golden-Vazquez, Executive Director, Latinos & Society Program, Aspen Institute; Darell Hammond, CEO and Founder, KaBOOM!; Dev Pathik, Founder and CEO, Sports Facilities Advisory; J.O. Spengler, Professor, Department of Tourism, Recreation & Sport Management, University of Florida; Barbara Tulipane, CEO and President, National Recreation and Park Association
2016 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Think Small: Can We Systematize Creativity in Play Spaces?
Moderator: Kevin Martinez, VP, Corporate Citizenship, ESPN
Panelists: Corliss Allen Solomon, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Charlotte: Chip Patterson, Executive Director, The First Tee of Greater New Orleans; James Siegal, CEO, KaBOOM!; Erin Smith, Director of Education and Training, US Lacrosse.
2017 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Think Small: Bringing Play Spaces to Kids (Not the Other Way Around)
Moderator: Mark Hyman, Author, Until it Hurt’s America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids
Panelists: Theresa Lou Bowick, Executive Director, Conkey Cruisers; Ed Foster-Simeon, President/CEO, U.S. Soccer Federation; Mike Lanza, Author, Playboyhood: Turn Neighborhood into a Place for Play; Kevin O’Hara, Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs, National Recreation and Park Association.
2018 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
THINK SMALL: BIG IDEAS FROM SMALL COUNTRIES
Moderator: Laurence Chalip, Professor, Sports Recreation Studies and Sports Management, George Mason University
Panelists: Inge Andersen, Former Secretary General, Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport (Norway); Patrick Massey, Project Manager, Portas Consulting (UK); Matt Young, Founder, 60 Minute Kids Club (Canada)
“Saying to a kid, ‘Go play soccer’, when there’s no safe playing field to play on, is kind of challenging.”
Ed Foster-Simeon, CEO, U.S. Soccer Foundation
A shared-use agreement is a contract between two entities setting forth the terms and conditions for use of public property or facilities, such as school fields or gyms. They have helped grow after-school programs on school sites and can help boost kids’ physical activity levels.(40) U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has highlighted their potential to be used more broadly by youth sports organizations, to open up more gyms and fields during non-school hours. To streamline the process, ChangeLab Solutions created a series of templates that local groups can use to customize their own agreements.(41)