Health Beyond Health Care: Expanding Physical Activity Opportunities in Every Neighborhood

Jul 16, 2014, 3:19 PM


More than half of youths in the United States have access to parks or playground areas; recreation centers; boys’ and girls’ clubs; and walking paths or sidewalks in their neighborhoods, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), State Indicator Report on Physical Activity, 2014.

While that information might conjure up images of newly built, dedicated playgrounds, the reality is different...and less expensive. Thousands of communities have created physical activity opportunities by developing shared use agreements with schools to allow the use of facilities after school hours and on weekends.

In 2011, for example, the nonprofit Partners for Active Living (PAL), in Spartanburg, S.C., met with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and learned that while the city did have access to defunct school facilities, it had no shared use agreements that would let PAL use school facilities for exercise. With help from a board member (who was  also a member of the city council) and online resources for shared use agreements, PAL was able to move the concept forward by showing that:

  • Under South Carolina law, school districts and third parties would be protected under the recreational user statute.
  • The South Carolina Tort Claims Act imposes the same liabilities and protections both during and after the school day.
  • The school district may be liable for negligent supervision of a student only if a duty is executed in a grossly negligent manner.

After about a year of discussions with parents, activists, policymakers, school officials and others, agreements were worked out in 2012 for school soccer fields, basketball courts, trails, playgrounds and football fields to remain open to the community on weekends and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on non-school days and after school until 6 p.m. on school days, with supervision by the Parks and Recreation Department to deal with damage, vandalism and other concerns. The agreement is automatically renewed every five years unless amended. To promote the continued usage of school playgrounds, the department will offer regularly scheduled programming at each site and PAL will be tracking usage.

The online resources PAL relied on were developed by ChangeLab Solutions in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit which helps provide model laws and resources for policy reform.

“We know that it’s difficult to find safe places for children and their families to exercise and play,” said Robert Ogilvie, PhD, vice president for strategic engagement at ChangeLab. “Although schools and other facilities might have a variety of recreational amenities, they are often inaccessible to the community, especially during non-school hours. Over the years, our efforts have helped open up recreational spaces across the country.”

Since the early 2000s, ChangeLab Solutions has developed toolkits, fact sheets and model agreements covering all aspects of shared use. In 2008, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ChangeLab Solutions produced a 50-state analysis of the liability laws and rules applying to community use of school property. These analyses provided state-specific guidance to advocates across the nation and showed that schools had no additional liability for opening up their property to community use during non-school hours. This research also led to the development of four model agreements that could be adopted by school districts to open up their facilities to create new, safe spaces for play and recreation.

Ben Winig, a senior staff attorney at ChangeLab, said that the organization is also finding that “as cities realize the cost of developing a new or renovating an existing recreational space, they know that it’s very expensive. And in this day and age of budget shortfalls, partnering with the neighboring school district to open up those facilities...gets more access to community members to spaces to engage in physical activity, and it allows those spaces that are otherwise unused after school hours, weekends, before school hours, etc., to be used by the public, who are paying for it anyway.”

Late last year, the American Heart Association published a policy statement on shared use agreements, stating that “School districts can increase physical activity among children and young adults by opening playgrounds, gyms and fields to the community outside of school hours, especially in low-income areas.” The policy statement recommends that school districts enter shared use agreements with community organizations to allow supervised and unsupervised playing on school grounds.

>>Bonus Links:

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.