Tapping in to America’s Great Play Spaces


children hiking

Credit: Steve Hillebrand/US Fish and Wildlife Service

With millions of acres of public lands and thousands of miles of rivers, Americans have access to an amazing outdoor “gym” in which they can pursue a variety of activities. Between the National Park Service  and the Forest Service alone, there are approximately 160,000 miles of trails, 58 national parks, and more than 14,000 recreational sites. This doesn’t include the numerous state and local parks and recreation areas that may be next door to your home, school, or worksite.  Contrary to popular belief, being active outdoors doesn’t have to mean a long car trip, a lot of gear, or special skills.    


While physical activity researchers and public health professionals tackle the challenge of getting more Americans to meet the recommended levels of physical activity, federal land and water management agencies are tackling questions regarding future generations of conservationists and land managers.  Competing interests ranging from organized after school activities to a variety of electronic media and concerns about safety are among the reasons children may not be engaging in outdoor activity as they were 20-30 years ago.  If children don’t know about these great “play” spaces, why will they care about them in 5, 10, or 15 years?


This presents a valuable opportunity for land and water management agencies and health organizations to come together for the common good and to help both sectors achieve their ultimate goals.  Chapter 8 of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends communities engage sectors such as parks and recreation and transportation for their capacity to facilitate or enhance participation in a variety of physical activities.  Since 2002 a Memorandum of Understanding between the federal land management and public health agencies has encouraged cooperation and information sharing in order to promote the benefits of physical activity on public lands for human and environmental health.    


A number of local, state, and national initiatives in the public and private sectors have facilitated communication between the health, park and recreation, and transportation sectors and furthered the reach and scope of initiatives improving health through recreational or nature-based physical activity.  A few examples include “Get Fit Great Falls”, “No Child Left Inside”, the Arkansas River Trail Medical Mile, and the Forest Service’s “More Kids in the Woods” challenge cost share initiative.  Nationwide, Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs improve the ability of primary and middle school students to safely walk and bicycle to school.  Across the country, SRTS programs bring together the very sectors highlighted here in addition to many others.


The President’s Challenge Physical Activity and Fitness Awards Program includes a ready list of outdoor activities users can select to more quickly facilitate tracking those activities on their personal activity tracker.  Whether it’s a lunch-time walk or wheel through a nearby park, a bike-ride home on a rail-trail, or fishing in a national wildlife refuge, our nation’s public lands and waters are invaluable in our quest to help Americans be more physically active. 


How are you working with your local, state, or federal land management agencies?  What opportunities do you have to connect with these agencies to improve the reach of your physical activity programming? 


Description:  Encouraging partnerships between federal, state, and local land and water management agencies and public health experts and physical activity practitioners to improve levels of physical activity, particularly among our nation’s youth.