The partners who earlier this year released a report known as State of Play Western New York were in downtown Buffalo on Thursday, seeking input from community stakeholders as they plan how to advance a project designed to increase youth sports participation and, in turn, improve their health.
In June of this year, the Aspen Institute's Project Play, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation sponsored a study that focused on the level of physical activity among Western New York's youth and offered several recommendations for increasing such activity.
The study suggests only 16 percent of youth in Western New York participate in exercise of other physical activity for at least one hour daily, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
The partners seek to increase healthy living by encouraging more play in youth sports. As promised earlier in the year, the project would seek input from members of the community. Thursday's large group conversation in downtown Buffalo was the final of three such sessions held during the week. The previous meetings were hosted in Ellicottville and Lockport.
"We're asking them for their thoughts, what they're excited about, what are potential barriers and what do they think we can do together to overcome those barriers," said Betsy Constantine, executive vice president of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. "And then, how do we begin? And how do they want to be part of the solution?"
Hundreds of guests watched video presentations highlighting the State of Play report, broke into group discussions and were finally invited to present ideas for goals they feel can be accomplished by the year 2020.
Suggestions included the creation of more safe recreation space and improving access to those spaces.
"They say 92 percent of Erie County has available facilities for our youth to go to. I thought that was a little misleading because even though the building is there or the space is there, that doesn't mean it's adequate for the kids to play there," said James McNeil, Youth Director for the Salvation Army in Buffalo. "I think those things need to be looked at a little bit. Sometimes the kids can't go to the building. There are so many community centers that are closed on the weekend."
Other recommendations offered by the guests include enhanced training for coaches, increasing community group involvement and expanding community schools to give young people a nearby place to play.
One theme promoted heavily by the State of Play report is the encouragement of free play. Advocates of free play say allowing kids more time to play without the pressures and direction of parents and coaches will make their organized sports more enjoyable and increase the likelihood of kids to stay active.
"Many of us remember the days as kids when we were able to run out in the streets and just have fun," Constantine said. "We know the kids are much more likely to stay in sports and stay active when they have fun."
The challenge, Constantine admitted, was trying to determine how to promote free play in a world that feels less safe than when project facilitators were playing as children.
Parents, McNeil suggests, often times need to be encouraged to prod their kids to put down the video games and get outside.
"We want to get them out and get them active so that they'll be more cognitive with what's going on in society," he said. "They'll be better citizens and they'll feel better about themselves because they'll be more healthy."
Project facilitators will gather the feedback from this week's community meetings and, after it is reviewed by the project's advisory board, craft a "next steps" strategy that is expected to be released by late spring 2018.