HARVIN COLUMN: Turn off the electronics and go out and play

The James Island Youth Soccer Club’s Gunners Academy team traveled to Myrtle Beach recently and brought home championship honors in the Coast Spring Classic. For more Youth Sports, see Thursday’s sports section or follow us online. If you would like to submit a photo, send it to youthsports@postandcourier.com.

Turn off the TV and go play! It was our mothers’ favorite line when all the neighborhood kids had been cooped up in the house too long vegging out in someone’s living room.

Usually with a groan, we all did it, and it wasn’t long before we were looking for a tire swing, riding bikes and hanging out of trees.

It was great fun to go to an actual park that had equipment for us to spin on and climb and secret spaces for make-believe games. Play is part of the simple joy of childhood.

So when I read that North Charleston has been designated as a “Playful City USA” for the second year in a row, I wondered what was important about the designation.

It turns out, quite a lot. It seems that our children are developing a “play deficit,” which means they don’t get out of the house and play in large part because there are not enough playgrounds close to where they live.

In April 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only one out of five children in the U.S. lives within a half-mile of a park or playground, and the availability of places to play looms far worse in low-income neighborhoods. That creates “play deserts.”

According to KaBOOM!, the national nonprofit that awarded the Playful City designation, there is a direct correlation between play deserts and childhood obesity: four out of five children without a playground nearby are more likely to be obese than those who can get out and play.

The organization is dedicated to saving play and helping cities build playgrounds in areas without resources.

Who knew play could be so important? According to experts, those games of playing Follow the Leader taught us to negotiate with others, and making forts of stuff lying around teaches creativity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org) writes, “Play is critical to healthy brain development. It allows children to use their creativity while simultaneously developing imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.”

And guess what? Technology may allow us access to terabytes of information, but it is having a direct impact on creative play.

Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova write on Scholastic.com that “many children do not have enough play opportunities at home because of TV, videos, and the computer. They interact with toys that are not conducive to building imagination and interesting dramatic play themes.”

KaBOOM! was formed 15 years ago by social entreprener Darell Hammond to combat that trend by map- ping the play deserts in the U.S. and helping build playgrounds where needed.

In 2009, North Charleston worked with KaBOOM!, which donated and assisted in building a state-of-the-art, handicap-accessible playground on Brookside Drive.

The city was designated a Playful City in 2010 and again this year.

There were 213 cities and towns across the country that received the designation this year, of which only six were recognized from South Carolina. The other places in the state are Camden, Greenville, Marion, Rock Hill and Spartanburg.

Since its inception, KaBOOM! has mapped more than 85,000 places to play, built more than 2,000 playgrounds and advocated for play policies in hundreds of cities. It has online tools at kaboom.org to teach fundraising and mapping for your neighborhood.

Mayor Keith Summey said of the award: “We take great pride in providing our citizens with play areas and programming that rival the best in the nation.”

It seems like a great example for other cities to follow.

Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557 or sharvin@postandcourier.com.

Editor, writer, photographer. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter - sharvin101