Why Low-Income Kids Miss Out On Play

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Remember playtime, when you would use your imagination to create a world of your own, with little structure or guidance? That kind of activity, called “free play,” helps boost childhood development and leads to better behavior in schools. But a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found low-income children in cities have limited opportunities to play.

It would seem that free play would be quite accessible, given that you don’t need expensive lessons or toys to participate. But there are a number of socioeconomic factors preventing low-income children from playing. Here are three:

Low-income kids are more likely to see recess cut from their school day.

Increasing the focus on academics and allotting less time for physical activity is a national trend. But the AAP report found that low-income school districts face greater cuts to recess and physical education because they are under pressure to reduce academic disparities. Nationwide, recess has been cut from one-third of schools with the highest poverty rates. Even after-school programs are shifting focus from creative and physical activities to homework help, often making them just an extension of the school day.

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010, made physical education mandatory in D.C.’s public schools. Gym classes have to spend at least 50 percent of their time on actual physical activity. During the first year of the act, students had to spend at least 30 to 45 minutes a week in physical education classes. By the 2013-2014 school year, the time spent on physical education has to be 150 to 225 minutes a week.

There are fewer playgrounds in low-income, urban communities, or they may be underused because of a fear of violence

Cities have less green space than the suburbs, so playgrounds are one of the only places where children can roam around freely and play. Obviously, if there aren’t many around, you don’t have as many chances to play.

D.C. has 101 playgrounds, which averages out to 1.7 per every 10,000 residents. The city spends more money per resident parks and recreation than any other major city. But just having playgrounds in low-income communities isn’t enough; people are less likely to take advantage of such resources if they live in communities where there’s a fear of violence. Parents tend to restrict their kids’ outdoor playtime if they’re worried they could be victims of crime, according to a Kaiser Permanente and the Prevention Institute study.

Parents are busy insuring their families’ day-to-day survival.

If playgrounds and public spaces aren’t deemed safe for children, shouldn’t parents carve out time to accompany their kids so they do get adequate playtime?

“Although lower-income parents have the same desires for their children to succeed and reach their full potential as do parents with greater economic and social assets,” the report notes, “they must focus primarily on the family’s day-to-day survival.” Making sure your kids get outdoor playtime may not be your priority if you’re working multiple jobs or constantly stressed about bills, housing and food.

  • Shereen Alavian

    Thank you for this article!  As a pediatric resident I tell the families of my patients ( most of whom are low-income) all the time!  Playing with a few blocks or an empty box is better for their brains than TV will ever be.  If only we could get more free play at school and in neighborhoods… 

  • http://twitter.com/carolinearmijo Caroline Armijo

    Great post! I am part of a group who has been searching for space for a playground in Downtown DC. (http://downtowndckids.org) Many people have asked about the playgrounds located north of the convention center area. Some are well used, but others appear to be underutilized. I have wondered if those families feel unsafe in these playgrounds, especially those off the beaten path.

    Certainly my hope is that a playground in Downtown DC would serve all children in the area, including a large number of children who live in the neighborhoods north of Downtown. There is a huge population that frequents MLK Library. I expect that we would serve the same population.

    As for my child, I know that I have to make play a priority for her, so that she will get enough exercise and go to bed. I find it frustrating. When life gets really busy, her play slips through the cracks. So I totally understand how play can completely fall off the radar screen for low-income families or families dealing with stressful situations. Play opportunities should be made available so that it is an integral part of everyday life and not something you have to put so much effort in to provide for your child.

  • Thomas Herman

    I think this article and the research of the AAP raises important points about the disparities in environmental quality that negatively impact resident experiences and reproduce disadvantage in low-income communities.  I strongly agree that public resources should be used to aggressively reduce environmental and other disparities that  undermine health and well-being.

    I have to say, though, that the title of this article made me feel I had to comment on the limited view of play represented by the AAP statement.  My own research on childhood in one disadvantaged community led me to understand that low-income in “bad neighborhoods” kids may actually have better opportunities for free play than their middle- and upper middle-class counterparts.  The reasons for this revolve around the cultures of childhood and parenting that cause many parents to use the resources they have to shelter and isolate kids from everyday neighborhood environments, other people in their community, and spaces and situations that lend themselves to unsupervised and unstructured play.  Children in low income neighborhoods, whether out of necessity or thoughtful parenting,are allowed to navigate to school and store on their own, to develop and practice self-supervision, to occupy themselves in play without the aid of electronic aids that provide a plot and structure, and even to be active participants in meaningful household and community activities that don’t look like play to us but are good, developmentally appropriate play for kids.  If we understand that play is imaginative and creative, and not only (or even necessarily) physically active, then we should be  concerned about the lack of play happening in many neighborhoods replete with beautiful playgrounds just as much as we are concerned about the dangers of mobility and the failure to allocate open space for kids in low-income neighborhoods.

    Thanks for the great reporting and for allowing comments!