Play With Purpose: Building Healthy Communities Through Local Engagement

Jessica Stroope, Holston, Denise, Sims, Joy K, Losavio, Ruthie

Jessica Stroope, Ruthie Losavio, Joy K. Sims and Denise Holston

Louisiana consistently has some of the highest rates of obesity and physical inactivity in the nation. Physical inactivity and obesity are linked to increased risk of developing health problems such as Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. These health risks are especially high for limited resource communities, residents of rural parishes and communities with a greater proportion of racial and ethnic minority populations.

Being physically active not only reduces health risks, but also supports overall well-being, including improving brain function, reducing stress and improving sleep quality. To improve Louisiana’s health outcomes, it is essential to recognize that both physical inactivity and obesity have causes beyond individual choices. Access to walkable neighborhoods, safe and inviting parks and community opportunities for physical activity are all critical for thriving, active communities. That’s why the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities initiative focuses on making towns healthier places to live, work, learn and play by inviting Louisiana residents to identify key issues and come up with possible solutions. Two increasingly popular strategies for boosting physical activity and gathering community input are Play Streets and StoryWalks.

Play Streets are popup play events that provide safe places for families to get moving. Equipment such as obstacle courses, kickballs, long jump mats, parachutes, inflatable human hamster wheels, bubble machines and music are set up to promote active play, particularly in communities with limited access to parks and safe places to exercise. StoryWalks are outdoor reading experiences where pages from a children’s book are set up along a walking route. Both Play Streets and StoryWalks create safe, publicly accessible spaces for children and adults to engage in active play. At the same time, using these community resources at events also provides an ideal opportunity to gather ideas from community members on how to make their town a healthier place.

“Play Streets and StoryWalks are great events to draw rural residents out into the community and provide an opportunity to get feedback on ongoing projects, present findings from recent research conducted locally and invite people to participate in other projects happening in the parish,” said Denise Holston, LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities program director and LSU School of Nutrition and Food Sciences assistant professor.

At Play Street events, LSU AgCenter Extension staff partner with organizations like the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) to set up idea boards with sticky notes and maps of the town and invite adults and youth alike to point out concerns and brainstorm solutions. For StoryWalks, extension agents partner with local libraries to provide picture books to families who complete an evaluation survey, which prompts participants to suggest new books and locations for future StoryWalks.

“In the past, we mainly used community forums to get input from residents. But the people who come to community forums aren’t always the ones most impacted by lack of walkability, bikeability and access to physical activity,” said Jamila Freightman, program manager for the CDC High Obesity Program at the LSU AgCenter. “Play Streets are a great addition to fun, family-friendly events that allow us to get more equitable input from the community without making it feel like a chore for residents.”

“Hosting Play Street events in the past has proven to be engaging for all members of the community,” said Joy Sims, assistant nutrition agent for the LSU AgCenter in Madison and Tensas Parish. “At our St. Joseph pop-up Park event last year, participation came from stakeholders at all levels of the community. Participating city leaders got to see exactly what their residents identified as barriers to their health and as a result have supported interventions with Healthy Communities to update not just Seventh Street Park, but the entire Complete Streets* plan we’ve worked to build with them over the years. We’ve even partnered with the same entities to enhance the current StoryWalks trail in the City of St. Joseph. But the most unique part was that we may not have gotten such valuable input without the attention that Play Streets brought to the event. That’s why we plan to keep using this method of engagement.”

Play Streets and StoryWalks are powerful tools for community engagement and health promotion, especially in underserved rural areas of the state. The LSU AgCenter is committed to promoting health equity and engaging community members in problem solving to increase physical activity. Want to help bring a Play Street event or StoryWalks to your community? Contact your LSU AgCenter parish office or email for more details.

*The Complete Streets plan prioritizes the needs of all road users and improves safety outcomes for everyone, whether traveling by car, foot, wheelchair or bicycle.

Ruthie Losavio is the communications coordinator for LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities. Jessica Stroope is the physical activity specialist for LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities. Joy K. Sims is an LSU AgCenter assistant nutrition extension agent in Madison and Tensas parishes. Denise Holston is an assistant professor in the LSU School of Nutrition and Food Sciences and is program director of LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities.

(This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

A lies in a large inflatable tube and smiles.

A MadHYPE (Madison Healthy Young People Empowerment) youth coalition member poses in an inflatable hamster ball during a Play Street at a community crawl in Tallulah. Photo by Ruthie Losavio

A woman races a girl through an obstacle course.

LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities physical activity specialist Jessica Stroope races a young participant through an obstacle course at a Play Street in St. Joseph. Photo by Ruthie Losavio

Group of people in a field with tents and play equipment.

Community members gathered for a pop-up park event featuring a Play Street in St. Joseph. Photo by Jamila Freightman

6/21/2022 10:04:37 PM
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