About the Issue
Being physically active can help children grow up at a healthy weight. Yet finding a place to play or be active can be a challenge if a community does not have safe and convenient facilities available. Research shows that people who have parks or recreational facilities nearby exercise 38 percent more than those who do not have easy access.
Recreational facilities are often not evenly distributed in communities, especially across low-income and communities of color. However, schools generally are. School facilities can be an excellent resource within neighborhoods because they offer safe play spaces that already exist, are known to the people who live nearby, and are well-equipped for activity. Many schools are willing to open their doors and gates after hours, offering “shared use” (also referred to as “joint use” by some organizations) of playgrounds, fields, running tracks, pools, gymnasiums, fitness rooms, and other spaces. In fact, studies show that as many as 93 percent of school districts engage in some kind of shared use. Maximizing shared use of school facilities after school hours and offering activities can address both students’ and the community’s needs for recreational activity spaces.
Yet, in many cases, schools may engage in just a limited level of shared use and may not have the resources to explore more comprehensive shared use practices. Research shows that less than half of the shared use agreements into which schools enter specify that both indoor and outdoor facilities be available for public use. In some cases, schools do not participate in shared use at all. This may be because they are unaware of how shared use can work, or are concerned about possible problems that could arise. With a greater understanding, strengthened agreements, and enhanced incentives (outlined below), schools would have the support to not only open their gymnasium doors, but also the gates to their tracks, fields, and playgrounds.
Formal shared use policies are generally passed by the school board, and may outline the district’s commitment to shared use, describe when and where shared use can occur, and specify other requirements or conditions of use. Shared use agreements are contracts between the district and another party—such as the local parks department, a community-based organization, or youth-serving organization—that clarify important issues such as liability, proper use of school facilities, and sharing costs for maintenance and supervision. With encouragement from parents, advocates, or local government partners, many schools are happy to put a shared use policy in place or expand on an existing agreement.
This toolkit addresses two ways of increasing the availability of schools for shared use: encouraging shared use policies and agreements at the school district level and incentivizing districts to engage in shared use through state law.
Encouraging Local Policies
The best way to expand shared use in local communities is to generate enthusiasm and obtain strong support from parents, school administrators, and school board members. Share with them the many benefits shared use has for schools—from building strong community goodwill, to supporting healthier and more successful students, to allowing shared costs for maintenance and new facilities. It’s even more convincing to show that shared use is already having a positive impact. Schools often start by informally opening their doors for community use, slowly offering limited facilities to select groups, such as those that are school-sponsored or school-affiliated. But when school districts begin to see the merits of shared use, they can take steps to ensure that the practice becomes standard throughout their district, so that schools can expand their offerings to the community.
Helping Incentivize a Statewide Approach
Because local advocates and school administrators are often stretched very thin and may not have resources to fully explore shared use, another effective strategy is to pass state legislation that provides incentives for implementing or expanding shared use. School districts struggle with limited budgets, scarce resources, changing standards and expectations, and a challenging mission. Even though districts care about student health and community well-being, sometimes these concerns cannot compete with the daily demands of educating children.
By providing districts with incentives to support shared use, a state law can help overcome the hurdles of competing priorities and limited resources. A state law can set up a process through which districts receive key benefits for supporting shared use; they can also increase the effectiveness of shared use programs, especially in communities with fewer resources. The benefits may include programmatic grants, capital money for shared use projects, additional staff or technical assistance resources to organize shared use logistics, or even just recognition for advancing shared use. In exchange, the law may require districts to meet certain conditions such as signing shared use agreements or passing more explicit shared use policies that clearly define which facilities may be used, by whom, and when. State shared use laws should also include monitoring and reporting, which help to increase understanding of the shared use opportunities that are available around the state and any barriers that schools may be facing that prevent shared use programs that must be overcome.
With the support of local decision makers, community groups, and individuals, schools can be empowered to unlock the doors™ and help keep children healthy.
Sourced from Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2013 Update: A Report from the American Heart Association. Circulation 127 (2013); Designed for Active Living Among Adults. Active Living Research. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2008. Available at: http://www.activelivingresearch.org/files/Active_Adults.pdf; Contribution of public parks to physical activity. American Journal of Public Health 97.3, 2007; Creating Opportunities for Physical Activity. Bridging the Gap: 2012; Joint-Use Facilities Where Everybody Benefits. Building Design + Construction: 2010. Available at: http://www.bdcnetwork.com/joint-use-facilities-where-everybody-benefits.