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Occupy the Playground

When Heather Carson and her family moved to Starkville, Miss., a few years ago, she discovered the playgrounds at the town’s two elementary schools were in desperate need of a makeover. 

This was especially true at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary which, aside from a few sad-looking basketball hoops and some weird ladder-looking things, lacked the equipment to keep students active. A former teacher, Carson knew such a playground could hamper students’ classroom performance, as studies show youngsters do better in school when they are active. 

She certainly knew it wouldn’t help lower Mississippi’s staggering obesity rates (the state is the most obese in the nation).

But above all, Carson knew that students deserved better.
So she created the GoPlay Initiative. Rather than a formal organization, GoPlay functions as a community-wide campaign that rallies parents, school officials, businesspeople and city leaders to encourage play. 
GoPlay’s first effort focused on giving the playground at Henderson Ward Stewart a boost, and led to the school district allocating $200,000 to construct a new playground.

“It’s building relationships, having a common mission,” Carson says of GoPlay. “For us, I just felt the need for improving access to play. It just makes your life more joyful, and it helps children learn.”

GoPlay didn’t stop there. As the playground was under construction, Carson and her GoPlay allies began working on providing “outdoor learning spaces,” including a shady area that allows teachers to bring their classes outside for lessons. 

The team also worked to construct gardens on-site, and even arranged for a local farmer to come to the school and teach students some agriculture basics. At the end of the school year, GoPlay held a summer camp to keep kids active year-round.

“There’s a huge need. Culturally, there are just a lot of challenges down here for people being active in the first place,” Carson says, pointing to Mississippi’s long, humid summers. “Climate has a huge impact on behavior.”
The campaign is headed to the town’s other elementary school, where plans are well underway to build a brand new playground that keeps all students engaged. It’s especially important there, because the campus also serves children with special needs.
But GoPlay isn’t just focused on schools—Carson got the entire town involved. Starkville formed a Play Task Force, bringing together city leaders, the parks commission, school district officials, local businesses and others to set goals designed to encourage play. Their work paid off, as the national organization KaBoom! recently named Starkville a “2011 Playful City USA.”
Carson notes that most communities can make similar changes in their towns to encourage play. The key is getting people on board, she says.

“I think it really starts with conversation. Where it really has to begin is [by] going to individuals who really do have control and impact in that community,” Carson says, pointing to school district members or parent-teacher associations. 

“People are not necessarily focused on the same mission,” she adds. “But making play the mission, it ties into everything else.”