Implementing Play Streets in Rural Communities

Play Streets, which are temporary closures of streets or publicly accessible places for play, were originally implemented in urban areas to create a safe place for youth to be active near their homes. Researcher Renée Umstattd Meyer, PhD, MCHES, FAAHB, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Public Health in Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, is writing the playbook for how to transform these place-based interventions to serve underserved rural communities.

March 1, 2024
Baylor University Public Health students pass out T-shirts during a Play Street intervention.

For a minute, consider your neighborhood and take in your environment. Is there a playscape for children? Can you ride your bike to work? Does the crosswalk signal lasts long enough for an older adult to walk across the road? Infrastructure matters a great deal in a community, regardless of if you live in a city, suburb, or rural area. The fewer resources available, the harder it is for people to be physically active and make healthy choices. 

Play Streets, which are temporary closures of streets or publicly accessible places for play, were originally implemented in urban areas to create a safe place for youth to be active near their homes. Play equipment doesn’t need to be established because it can be brought in for a Play Street, which usually lasts about three hours. Each place-based intervention is designed differently to fit a community’s personality and needs, as youth and families can participate in activities such as a bouncy house, bubbles, frisbees, hopscotch, and a water slide—fun opportunities designed to encourage and make available a free opportunity for youth to be physically active.  

Seeing the success of Play Streets in urban communities, Renée Umstattd Meyer, PhD, MCHES, FAAHB, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Public Health in Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, wondered how such interventions could look elsewhere. She has the privilege of working with Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD, MPH, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as they are both particularly focused on underserved communities which often face challenges to promoting physical activity due to lack of resources, distance, parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks. During the summer, rural youth tend to go weeks, if not months, without seeing people outside their immediate family because they live in such remote areas.

“My research focuses specifically on physical activity and active play, and how we make that more accessible for all people,” Umstattd Meyer said. “No one will argue with the statement that all kids deserve the right to play and be active, to not be concerned about safety in that, and to have a place to do it. When we think about our lives across the lifespan, it's a human right that we can be physically active, and that our bodies can be healthy in this way. It's vital to understand all the different factors that influence someone's ability to be physically active and how to reap these benefits—and then, for them to be able to thrive in their own existence.”

As with all public health initiatives, it is important for Umstattd Meyer’s team to understand the residents they were advocating for and to be intentional in the design of this initiative. It wasn’t as simple as using the assumption to simply scale down an urban Play Street to a smaller intervention. Afterall, a rural community isn’t just a smaller version of a city—the infrastructure, the mindset, and healthcare needs are drastically different. For example, closing a rural street could cause an abrupt stop of traffic or a long detour to the next closest road, so rural Play Streets often happen in other publicly accessible places like a parking lot or empty field.

As a professor, Umstattd Meyer believes extending the research opportunity to Baylor Public Health students is an “exciting privilege.” Alongside health departments and community partners in Oklahoma, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas, her team gains first-hand experience in planning, implementing, and evaluating rural Play Streets. To assess their effectiveness, they measure how physically active people are through systematic observations of the spaces they set up, looking at who is active where and who is sitting where. Also, they use monitors such as pedometers to collect steps or accelerometers to capture movement, duration, and intensity. She says Baylor students often bring creative solutions to the table, matched with the experience to help evaluate the data. 

Most recently, the team has focused on how Play Streets spur social connection, and its possible effect on mental health to lend itself to a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Research shows that although Play Street activities are geared toward youth, adults tend to engage, too, which promotes community connections. This is especially beneficial because the United States Surgeon General recently advised that our country is in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. 

Ultimately, the most important piece of her research is understanding how to effectively implement and sustain Play Streets and similar initiatives. How can Play Streets be designed so that more communities do this on their own? Umstattd Meyer is striving to understand which elements answer this question. For example, who should be there, the dynamics of the participating organizations, and how to involve the rest of the community. 

“It’s amazing to be able to learn—from and alongside people—whether it be a community in Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a partnership with a church in North Carolina, or an extension office down here in Texas,” she recalled. “It’s been great to see the excitement. It's invigorating.”

Umstattd Meyer and Pollack Porter’s collaboration resulted in the publication of their Guide to Implementing Play Streets in Rural Communities, which provides guidance and recommendations for each step of the implementation process for a rural community. 

Play Streets—both urban and rural—provide an opportunity where people can come together, in a platform that isn't political. It allows space for youth to be physically active, they can see people that they know, and neighbors can connect. Umstattd Meyer remains passionate in her work to advance health equity and access so everyone can have an opportunity to be physically active and actively play. Long term, she envisions Baylor students carrying Play Streets forward in the future by partnering with individuals and communities they’ve met. 

“Robbins College has a responsibility to lead in this way because we have experts that can be part of the solution,” Umstattd Meyer said. “I think that the importance of access, and being able to make a healthy choice, is something that sometimes we take for granted. We work at this beautiful institution where we can walk anywhere. I like riding my bike and have places to ride my bike most of the times that I want to. But, when I go into a rural community it’s not always the same experience, and in some urban communities as well. I don't want to take for granted this privilege, and I want to make sure we carry this forward.”