Why Has Michelle Obama Given Up on Free Play in Neighborhoods?

Thanks for hanging with us, Mrs. Obama. Can we play by ourselves now? Or is your 'hood too unsafe?

First Lady Michelle Obama is engaged in a vigorous campaign called “Let’s Move” to help children in America. Her primary target is childhood obesity, and for solutions, she’s advocating better diets and more exercise for children.

So, does she advocate free play for children? On this topic, she’s been silent. Check out the Let’s Move page on “physical activity.” Everything there is about adult-supervised exercise.

The Alliance for Childhood issued a press release entitled, “Free Play is the Missing Link in Anti-Obesity Campaign.”  Other pro-play groups concur that this omission is notable and disappointing.

Worse yet, she made a statement today at a news conference that indicates that she’s given up on neighborhoods as a place for many kids to play. She said, “And no matter what you say, in some neighborhoods you can’t tell parents, ‘Just let your kids go out and play,’ because it isn’t safe.”Certainly, many neighborhoods are very unsafe, but that’s no reason to give up on them. Even in a neighborhood in the South Bronx, arguably the poorest and least safe place in America, a dedicated citizen named Hetty Fox has worked very hard for the last 33 years to provide kids a safe and fun place to play every day in the summer.

Aside from the poorest, most unsafe neighborhoods, crime statistics show that the majority of neighborhoods in America are safer than they were decades ago.

Does Michelle Obama advocate that the majority of American kids who live in these neighborhoods play outside? Nope. Nada.

By advocating that kids “Move” without advocating that they do it freely, in their neighborhoods, she’s done a disservice to the movement for neighborhood play. This is tremendously disappointing. It’s a big opportunity lost.

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12 Responses to Why Has Michelle Obama Given Up on Free Play in Neighborhoods?

  1. Daniel says:

    I don’t know if it’s fair to say she’s “given up” on neighborhoods at all, really – for instance, part of the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign are federal initiatives to make walking routes to school safer, improve things like the lighting accessibility of public places, etc.

    Put simply – and this has been my major bone of contention with most of the criticism directed at Michelle and the campaign – this ‘Let’s Move’ campaign is first and foremost a *federal* initiative. It chiefly addresses those things that government can do (which is to say, amend and improve policies, coordinate existing programs, and address infrastructure problems), and stays far away from telling people what they should or shouldn’t do (some would say rightly so, too). There are things like the Presidential Active Lifestyle Challenge (nothing new; been around forever, and is mainly a token initiative) and the forthcoming “start up toolkits” that the campaign intends to distribute to families – and yes, it would be lovely to see the campaign address issue like play right alongside healthy eating and exercise in these token promotional bits and toolkits. But based on my analysis of the actual individual parts the campaign, the bulk of the campaign’s meaning and impact will actually come from the infrastructure and policy changes it will implement, as well as the overall coordination between governmental departments.

    In short, the campaign is doing exactly what a government campaign has the power to do, and it’s not attempting to do anything more. It’s staying away from direct advocacy work.

    There are indeed a few nice hat-tips within the campaign (http://www.letsmove.gov/activity/index.html)) to organizations like KaBOOM! and the Nat’l Center for Safe Routes to School that do do direct advocacy work for play and neighborhood activity, but really, what more can government do to support free neighborhood play? This seems more a cultural issue, best addressed by the type of advocacy work that the Alliance and others like yourself do.

    Just because the ‘Let’s Move’ doesn’t address these cultural matters, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t sympathetic to the cause of play. Certainly, Michelle Obama personally could be more supportive publicly of it, and sure, it’d be great to have a few more mentions of play on the ‘Let’s Play’ website – and maybe even some sort of coordination with external advocacy groups. Heck, I’d also love to see the federal government do more in-depth work (if they aren’t already) with the Project for Public Spaces, to better influence neighborhood design and planning. But I think if we’re looking for the federal government to launch a crusade for play, we’re going to have to keep waiting – because it simply isn’t within the functions or role of government to do that type of advocacy work.

  2. Daniel says:

    Um, and I should probably say that I don’t necessarily agree with all that I just said or would do things the same way; merely playing the Devil’s Advocate a bit, and highlighting the truly multi-dimensional nature of social change.

    There are roles for all of us to play in this, and I simply feel that the federal government is largely playing just exactly the roles they can play in it all. Now it’s up to everybody else to round out the whole picture.

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Daniel – This initiative is, for all intents and purposes, an advocacy initiative. By far, the most important thing it accomplishes is public awareness of children’s problems and Michelle Obama’s recommended solutions.

    As advocacy, it fails, in my opinion, because it fails to mention what for me is the most important problem in American childhood today – the lack of neighborhood play.

  4. haha says:

    Just got a new pediatrician; he’s an old school guy. He took one look at my 6-year-old son and said, “He plays outside a lot doesn’t he?” I told him that we seldom let him in until about 5:00. He said that he hardly ever sees a kid with muscle tone at his age anymore and that my kid was the probably the healthiest kid he’d see all day. He also commented that a day or two a week of soccer practice does not make a child fit… a young child needs to be out every day that the weather is decent and be playing…not practicing some sport for the benefit adults. He said free playing, particularly for young boys, usually involves a lot more activity than sports practice.

    My boy and his kindergarten/first friends all play outside on most days for a couple of hours after school on the school field and playground… sometimes at our houses.. .but there’s a lot of them so it works better in the larger area that the school site offers. It often resembles Lord of the Flies with all of the politics, alliances, “clubs,” occasional fights, etc… but boy do they run and yell a lot. We moms/dads try to stay out of their politics unless someone is really hurt.

    We are lucky to have a true neighborhood school that is tolerant of kids playing on their property after class dismisses.

  5. Daniel says:

    Haha – that’s fantastic to hear. Your neighborhood rocks.

    Mike – Yup, when considered as advocacy for raising public awareness, I do think the initiative fails at painting a complete picture for solutions. And sure, absolutely, I think a significant part of it *is* de facto advocacy. But I would still hesitate to say that’s *all*, or even mainly, what the initiative is. In fact, I’d position it as just a small part of (what will hopefully manifest as) a larger, more complete social movement.

    Michelle Obama wasn’t the first to bring attention to the issue of childhood obesity. It’s been a popular topic for more than 15 years, with many others contributing to the conversation through those years. The best role the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign can play is not to encapsulate all of these contributions into one complete vision, but to offer coordination and sustainment for these contributions, to spur the larger collective action – while providing the necessary legislative legs to make it all work.

    For this reason, I personally don’t put a lot of responsibility on the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign or on Michelle Obama to offer all the solutions. The problem and solutions are already being talked about, all around us. This is simply the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the larger Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

  6. Daniel says:

    Just to provide explanation for what motivates my thinking (not that any of this matters, really):

    Whenever I look at the actual substance and the proposals of what the ‘Let’s Move’ initiative is made of, the vast majority of it – three out of its four pillars, if you were to borrow the campaign’s early language – is all focused on the systematic contributors to childhood obesity: school lunches, federal food subsidies, the lack of availability of fresh food at supermarkets in some areas (i.e. ‘food deserts’), poor labelling on food products, and little coordination between existing governmental policies and programs as well as the larger arena of businesses, non-profits and local governments. ‘Let’s Move’ focuses on addressing all of these issues.

    (For reference: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/all-we-can-eat/food-politics/obama-its-time-for-a-wakeupcal.html , http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2010/02/08/LI2010020801956.html )

    At the same time, the initiative hardly touches the social or cultural contributors when compared to what it’s doing to fix the systematic problems involved. For all the talk of ‘Let’s Move’s’ focus on “encouraging physical activity,” that particular facet of the initiative seems fairly superficial when compared to these other systematic changes that it’s implementing.

    Sure, what Mrs. Obama herself is doing is akin to advocacy work – and absolutely, I’d love to see her openly encourage and advocate for more unstructured play (though she has already I should say, on a few occasions that have slipped under the media radar) – but it’s hardly the bulk of the ‘Let’s Move’ initiative. Still plenty of room for the rest of us to stand up and do our own advocacy work to complement it.

  7. haha says:

    I think that so many adults just don’t get the free play concept. We are building a new school for 4th and 5th graders. The principal was dead set against putting in a playground at the new school. She said that children do not play on the equipment properly so they sometimes get hurt (a couple of broken arms over about the last 4 years).

    She wanted to just have a field and have organized sports for recess… with …get this.. a recess coach!

    Well, kids get hurt! It’s sad and should be avoided when possible, but it’s just what they do! Yes, they get hurt on play equipment.. but they also get hurt playing sports for crying out loud.

    Our school leadership team raised Cain about it … as did the PTA and several other parents who are plugged into what’s going on. Some kids love organized sports (mine actually like soccer a lot – in moderation), but others like to just hang from the monkey bars for their half hour outside…. without all that competition. These types really need some time to make their own world without some adult telling them how to do it.

    Fortunately, they redesigned the school to allow for more green space, including a dedicated playground area next to the field. That way, the sports kids can play ball while the ones who just like to swing can do that. My biggest hope is that our district can afford that awesome Kompan stuff. It’s pricey, but it’s really cool!

  8. Russell says:

    We could be talking about one of the big hurdles that government and not-for-profit organizations face when it comes to encouraging healthy kids.

    I can’t help but wonder if the need for measurable results keeps them in a place of problem/solution thinking. Kids are overweight so lets get healthier food in them and get them to do exercise. That can be measured. It makes good TV when we see kids eating vegetables and playing soccer.

    But the issues that people like you and Kari at activekidsclub.com talk about are softer. You guys are trying to fundamentally change they way we look at how to raise healthy active children. We need to think more like kids and less adult solutions we come up with to make them healthier. Perhaps play just doesn’t sound like a serious solution. If a child is outside everyday playing, well, that is not going to help, that is just play. Right?

    We know that it isn’t just “playtime”. There is a lot more going on underneath the laughter, yelling and tree climbing; it is just disguised as fun. Teams don’t win, scores are not made and grades are not given. But like the doctor of one of the comment posters pointed out, the kids are healthier. How did that happen? Do they work out at the gym? Of course not…

    4 years ago there was hardly a peep about this issue and certainly almost nothing on the Internet. We have a good start going with the raised awareness we just have to keep reminding people that play has always been the foundation of a healthy childhood. Play is serious stuff.

  9. Ashley_Renz_FB says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I stumbled across your blog this morning and it has given me the boot in the butt that I needed to start a petition about our neighborhood’s defunct tennis court being renovated into a playground! I love that you are such an advocate for outdoor play. I remember when I was a kid and all we did was go outside and have a great time with our neighborhood friends – and I’m only 25. I hold out hope that it’s not too late for my children to feel safe in their own neighborhood as well. I am a stay at home mom of two and I appreciate what you are trying to do here! You are an inspiration. Keep on fighting the good fight – ours is just about to start here in Charleston, SC!

  10. Mike Lanza says:

    Ashley – Go for it!!! We need more people like you fighting for their neighborhoods!

  11. katercst says:

    Hello! We are designing play and nature as a part of our neighborhood, and it is hard to get awareness up about it. The man who designed the neighborhood, Bob Hauser of Stonehaus Inc, here in Charlottesville told me he wanted to design a neighborhood that would lure kids outside to have a childhood like the one he had. His inspiration is his own children. He said he was quite concerned about the way he saw childhood going. We are trying hard to make this design come true. Our play is all over. I find that the alley ways are awesome play spaces, along with the trails and parks. You can see the neighborhood at http://www.belvedereneighborhood.com.

    Kate White

  12. lr_khaimovich says:

    From the AP’s coverage of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day at the White House (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100422/ap_on_re_us/us_michelle_obama):

    “The children asked Mrs. Obama about life in the White House, her campaign against childhood obesity, the White House garden – and whether she could make school recesses longer. She dodged that last one.”

    Interesting that a reporter picked on that!