Playing Smart: A New Guide to Help Communities Open the Schoolyards

Written by

Manel Kappagoda
Manel Kappagoda Manel Kappagoda is deputy director of the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) housed at Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP) in Oakland, California. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPLAN provides legal and policy technical assistance on obesity prevention strategies to communities nationwide. Since its inception in 2007, the program has responded to thousands of technical assistance requests on healthy eating and active living strategies.

We’ve never needed safe play spaces in our communities more than we do now. Nearly a third of kids and adolescents in America – and two-thirds of adults – are overweight or obese.Many are urged to get more exercise but can’t follow this advice very easily where they live. Walking and bicycling are dangerous on roads designed for cars. Safe parks and playgrounds can be few and far between, especially in low-income communities.

Schools, meanwhile, have all kinds of exercise facilities – indoor gyms, soccer fields, tracks, basketball courts, even playgrounds and swimming pools. But when the school day ends, these spaces are often locked to students and the rest of the neighborhood. School districts have reasons for keeping these spaces closed after hours. They’re concerned about security. They’re afraid of getting sued if someone gets hurt. They can’t afford to pay for extra maintenance.

But communities around the country are resolving these issues through what’s known as a joint use agreement: a written contract between a school district and, usually, a city agency, spelling out a formal arrangement that lets the two share the costs and responsibilities.

Joint use agreements are making an impact all over the country:

  • In Boston – where many schoolyards were paved over in the 1950s when city leaders realized it would save maintenance costs – joint use agreements have helped reclaim more than 130 acres of asphalt, transforming schoolyards into vibrant new spaces for play and learning.
  • In Niagara Falls, NY, joint use agreements were essential in creating a state-of-the-art basketball park and incorporating valuable community programming, including a nationally recognized mentorship program for kids.
  • In Mississippi – recently named the most obese state in the nation – a new statewide joint use program has provided school districts with resources for play equipment and other improvements while helping to ease school administrators’ reservations about liability and vandalism.

Although many communities informally agree to share facilities, a well-crafted joint use agreement can help things go smoothly – from coordinating scheduling and staffing to handling maintenance and the possibility of injury.

That’s where Playing Smart comes in. This new toolkit was developed by KaBOOM! and the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Children Obesity to help school staff and other community leaders craft and implement joint use agreements, whether they’re new to the prospect of joint use or looking to institutionalize an informal arrangement long under way.

Playing Smart is a nuts-and-bolts guide to opening school property to the public, complete with model agreement language and success stories from communities around the country. It also provides a comprehensive overview of the most common ways to finance these arrangements, and guidance on how to overcome obstacles that may arise in negotiating and enforcing a joint use agreement.

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