In a state with the fourth-highest rate of youth obesity in the nation, the Baton Rouge parks and recreation agency wanted to lure Louisiana kids away from their screens and into the parks to get moving.
But the low-income youths who needed exercise the most weren’t showing up at the parks. Officials learned that they didn’t have transportation, and their parents were too busy working to take them. So they decided to take the parks to the kids.
With money donated in 2012 by corporate sponsors and a portion of their parish budget, the local parks and recreation agency, known as the Baton Rouge Recreation, or BREC, bought a box delivery truck, painted it with bright colors and filled it with scooters, hula-hoops, balls, slack lines, trampolines, sidewalk chalk and jump ropes.
“The idea came to us one day while we were watching a bunch of kids turn flips on an old mattress someone had discarded near the office,” said Diane Drake, who directs BREC’s playground on wheels. “We realized it wouldn’t take much to get kids moving if we put it right in front of them.”
Naming the mobile playground BREC on the Geaux (a Cajun play on words for the word “go”), the agency in 2013 started what would become a daily program by holding community events at housing complexes, churches, parks and schools in low-income neighborhoods.
If peals of laughter and swarms of activity are any indicator, BREC on the Geaux was an immediate success, Drake said.
“Once word spread, children would come running out of their apartments as soon as we pulled into the parking lot,” Drake said. “It was all we could do to unload the equipment before they grabbed it and ran off.”
A year after it began, BREC officials drove the mobile playground to a meeting of the National Recreation and Park Association in Charlotte.
Since then, BREC has received dozens of emails and phone calls from other cities seeking advice on how to start a similar program, Drake said. Recreation officials in Knoxville, Tenn., said in an interview that they plan to start a copy of BREC’s program next year.
Other imitators include Waynesville, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Mount Pleasant, Mich.; and Alexandria, La.
Transporting the joy and the health benefits of play to kids in underserved neighborhoods isn’t a new idea.
A concept called “Play Streets,” in which local volunteers work with police and health officials in urban neighborhoods to temporarily block traffic so kids can play, has been thriving for decades in places like London, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
But the idea is now starting to take root in small and medium-size cities — and in a handful of rural towns — where low-income children and adults are even more susceptible to obesity than in the nation’s urban centers, according to a June report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We stole the truck idea from Rochester, New York,” Drake said, having researched other cities after their initial idea. “But our concept was different because it was designed to combat obesity.”
Rochester’s “Recreation on the Move” program offers homework help, read-aloud programs, and art and music, in addition to some sports and group games.
The oldest known mobile playground started in Sioux Falls, S.D., more than 70 years ago, and it’s still operating, Drake said: “They temporarily repurposed vehicles used to transport seniors one summer and the rest is history.”
In Winter Park, Fla., a decommissioned firetruck was converted into a playground on wheels in 2012. And in 1997, East Point, Ga., started using an old police SWAT truck to take play equipment to a basketball park for kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to summer camp, Drake said.
BREC started its mobile playground project with $110,000, half from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation and half from the parish budget.
A Play Streets project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported play events in four diverse low-income rural communities last summer — Warrenton, N.C.; Talihina, Okla.; Oakland, Md.; and Cameron, Tex. — on a much smaller budget: $6,000 for a handful of community events.
Instead of shutting down a street, the communities held the events in parks, fields and other public spaces.
Working with a local health department, an agricultural extension service, a church and a tribal health center from the various towns, Robert Wood Johnson researchers found that the Play Streets concept could be cost-effectively adapted for rural communities, said Keshia Pollack Porter, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University who worked on the project.
In addition to providing needed community interaction as rural residents traveled to town centers for the events, bouncy houses and other inflatable play equipment inspired kids and some adults to get moving. Strapping pedometers on kids who volunteered, researchers showed that physical activity among participating children was higher during the three- to five-hour events than it otherwise would have been.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that similar events sponsored by BREC resulted in children getting about 50 percent more physical activity, as measured in Fitbit steps, compared with weekdays and weekends without Play Street events.
“Play Streets are not a magic bullet,” said Jamie Bussel, a pediatric health expert at the Johnson Foundation. But combined with food and nutrition initiatives, and institutionalized by communities, including schools, day-care centers and recreation departments, they can go a long way to tamping the nation’s obesity epidemic, she said.
Nationwide, the childhood obesity rate was nearly 16 percent in 2016-2017, CDC data shows. And obese children are more likely to continue to be obese as adults, which puts them at a higher risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and other conditions.
States vary widely in the rate of obesity among youths ages 10 to 17, according to the most recent National Survey of Children’s Health. Mississippi has the highest rate at 26 percent, and Utah has the lowest rate at 9 percent. The obesity rate in Louisiana is 19 percent.
BREC on the Geaux parks in the Elm Grove community, where children have few play options, once a week. “You can see the kids peeking out of their windows and doors as we pull up,” Drake said. “When they see our truck, they start running.”
Dee Taylor calls herself the grandmother and great-grandmother of the subsidized apartment complex there. “We didn’t have much of anything for the kids on the grounds,” she said. “They stayed in their apartments and watched too much TV or played video games all day in the summer. It was the only thing they knew to do.”
“So, when I heard about BREC on the Geaux, I made a call and they came.”
Taylor put up a notice about the mobile playground’s schedule in the window of her apartment and another one on the door of the building’s management office. She told everyone she knew.
“A child needs that kind of physical activity to grow up in a wholesome way,” she said. “The more we can give them, the better their lives will be.”
Vestal is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.