By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
After several years of community effort to provide more opportunities for play for local children, Starkville was named a 2011 Playful City USA.
Starkville is one of only 151 cities in the country — and one of only five in Mississippi, including Hernando, Horn Lake, Senatobia and Petal — to receive this honor. The recognition was granted to the city by KaBoom!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play in an effort to protect children’s health, achievement levels and overall well-being.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, play time is vital to healthy brain development and allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. Children spend less time playing outside than any other previous generation, partly because only 20 percent live within walking distance of a park or playground.
“The play deficit continues to harm our children and stifle their mental and physical development, while directly facilitating the ongoing childhood obesity crisis,” said Darell Hammond, KaBOOM! Founder and CEO. “These 151 Playful City USA communities have joined KaBOOM! in making a collective statement that we will no longer accept the misconception that play is a luxury when the reality is that play is an absolute necessity for children. Starkville is committed to the well-being of children and serves as an outstanding role model for the rest of America as we continue to strive toward the KaBOOM! vision of a great place to play within walking distance of every child.”
A number of community members, including Mayor Parker Wiseman, SSD Assistant Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin, Greater Starkville Development Partnership President Jon Maynard, Parks and Recreation Director Matthew Rye and GoPlay founder Heather Carson, formed a Play Task Force before applying for the recognition. The GoPlay initiative played a large part in earning the title. The program was started by Carson in 2009 after she saw a need for a new playground equipment at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary. With the support of parents, the school district and the community, GoPlay was able to provide the school with a playground that encouraged outdoor play, exploration and fun. The space now features a garden, outdoor classrooms and a student art mural.
“I’m very excited about this project because I think it helps the community at large. Any time we can provide more play space for our children so they don’t have to ride across town, but can just walk to a playground in their community — that’s a great thing,” Gonsoulin said.
Having access to public parks and play areas had a positive impact on him as a child and he hoped it would do the same for Starkville children, Gonsoulin said.
“Quality play spaces improve the health and well-being of our community,” Wiseman said. “With obesity rates soaring, it is increasingly important for us to focus on making it as easy as possible for our citizens to exercise regularly. Play spaces make exercise more accessible and make exercising a fun and engaging activity.”
The title not only validates all of the hard work the community has done to promote play, but it also qualifies the city for a number of grants that can be used toward improving and expanding playgrounds and other play activities. One of the first grants the task force plans to apply for is one that will go toward constructing a creative play space at the Henderson Ward Stewart complex.
As a part of the application, the task force submitted a plan of projects that will span over the next six to eight months. Some of the projects will simply be a partnership between two or more community organizations to develop relationships that will help promote play and physical activity in the future.
“We really felt that we needed to provide a broad range of action plans,” Carson said.
By spring, a Starkville Parks Foundation will be established, which will allow citizens to make tax deductible donations to Parks and Recreation for the purpose of improving quality, quantity and access to public parks.
The task force also plans to collaborate with the city and school district to put up signs all around the city to inform the public of the location of playgrounds and parks.
The city will have to reapply for the recognition every year, but Carson said plans for next year are already in the works.
“We’ve set up a pretty ambitious action plan for our first year. We have some pretty supportive community leaders who are willing to collaborate on this,” she said.
The main goal of Playful City USA is to encourage cities to share creative ideas and programs in an effort to increase play opportunities for children. Gonsoulin said the group will work to collaborate with other groups and organizations in the community to provide access to play areas to as many children and families as possible.
As they apply for grants, Carson said they hope to expand the major projects out from the school system and into the community.
“We are looking to do a community build, similar to what the Junior Auxiliary had done in donating their time and money to creating a play space at the Sportsplex,” Carson said. “We are looking for a place in our city where we can take an existing playground and transform it into something better than it is.”
For more information on the 2011 Playful City USA and the Starkville Play Task Force, visit http://www.goplaykids.org .