How important is play?

Well, according to the American Heart Association, lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease even for children and adolescents. (The AHA recommends kids participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.) And recent research by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana indicated a link between physical fitness and the actual shape and function of children’s brains.

With that in mind, consider a major community initiative taken on by a number of Junior Leagues over the years – playground construction. Children’s physical activity at school is being chipped away, in many cases, by budget cuts and more test-focused curricula. And at home, digital entertainment increasingly keeps kids inside, often on their own.

That’s why playgrounds are important – because that’s where kids, particularly in the primary grades, go to play. And nowhere is that more important than playgrounds accessible to everyone – a concept called Universally Accessible Playgrounds, or UAP. The key to the concept is simple – don’t just build a play area, build one that can be used by everyone of any ability!

Reacting to the lack of play space in Wood County, WV for the many children in the community with disabilities, the Junior League of Parkersburg designed and built a UAP playground in City Park with specialized equipment that can be used by disabled children as well as their siblings and peers. Called JuLeP Pathways (after Junior League of Parkersburg), the playground is available and accessible to all children in the community.

After three years of fundraising efforts and planning, the Junior League of Reno this year opened the region’s first UAP at the city’s Dick Taylor Park, with generous support by the Harrah’s Foundation and local businesses. The playground, built with donations of $250,000, satisfies American Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and features special equipment that allows all children and family members to play together.

Some Junior Leagues have been ahead of the handicapped-accessible trend.

In 2009, the Junior League of Greenwich, with the support of the United Way of Greenwich, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department and private donors, opened the Boundless Playground in Bruce Park, incorporating a hedge maze, sensory garden, Native American “camp” and “Enchanted Forest” along with more traditional playground attractions. The playground was built with help from Boundless Playgrounds, a national nonprofit developer of playgrounds for all ages and abilities.

And Junior Leagues are still involved in building playgrounds that meet a variety of needs.

In 2011, the Junior League of Long Island completed its fourth signature Project Playground, a safe, appropriate area for infants and toddlers between the ages of six months to two years old, at Long Island Head Start in Patchogue. Previous JLLI Playgrounds have been built at The Hagedorn Little Village School in Seaford, the EOC/Head Start School in Manhasset and the Family Service League in Bay Shore.

The Junior League of New Orleans, working with national nonprofit KaBOOM! and community partners Lakeview Presbyterian Church and Phoenix of New Orleans, designed and built a playground in the Katrina-ravaged Lakeview neighborhood, filling an important community need.

The Junior League of Seattle donated an “Air, Land and Sea” playground to the children of Seattle to commemorate its 75th anniversary. The playground was designed partly by children and built entirely by volunteers at the site of the former Naval Air Station, Seattle Control Tower. The design of the playground includes several features that commemorate the site’s past use as an airfield.

For more than 20 years, the Junior League of the City of New York’s Playground Improvement Project (PIP) has brought League volunteers to work on revitalizing playgrounds throughout Manhattan in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

And speaking of New York, many of its parks and playgrounds, including Mary Harriman Rumsey playfield in Central Park, were established by none other than Mary Harriman, founder of The Junior League and an early advocate for safe play spaces for children.