In Praise of Play: Activities for Children and Families in Rural Communities

Not all of America’s children are thriving: Approximately 13.7 million children and adolescents — nearly one in five — are classified as obese. Around 4.4 million children have received an anxiety disorder diagnosis, and 1.9 million have diagnosed depression, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Furthermore, Generation Z, the most recently graduated class of children, is the loneliest generation and reported worse health outcomes than older generations, according to a report from Cigna.

Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believe playtime could be the solution to the apparent decline in children’s health. Physical activity and play has been shown to alleviate these concerns, but only 21.6 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 meet the daily recommendations for physical activity set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services.

For children in rural communities, getting enough physical activity can be especially hard, said M. Renee Umstattd Meyer, Ph.D., MCHES, associate professor with Baylor University Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. Rural families are more likely to live in or near poverty, which can mean parents are working multiple jobs. These areas also have fewer transportation options, and kids may have to spend precious daylight hours — prime time for outdoor play — on the bus traveling to and from school.

“The children in those families then lose the resource of how to get to places, and there’s less right outside their front door,” said Umstattd Meyer. “Sometimes, right outside their front door there’s a huge highway.”

Bar chart comparing the percentage of children who live within a 10-minute walk of a park in the 10 most-populated and 10 least-populated Texas cities

Go to a tabular version of “Percentage of Youth Within a 10-Minute Walk of a Park.”

Take Texas, for example: In Dallas, the third-most populated Texas city, 63 percent of children live within a 10-minute walk of a park. But in Victoria, Texas — where the population is 20 times smaller than Dallas — fewer than one-third of children can access a park as easily.

Still, measuring cities may not capture the reality of living in Texas, because much of the state is rural, as population density data indicates. For example, Galveston, the least-populated Texas city, has a population density of 1,158.2 persons per square mile, whereas the average population density of Texas is 96.3 persons per square mile. Those in more rural areas who live farther from each other and from built environments — the developed spaces where people live and work — may have even less access to a nearby park.

How Does Play Benefit Children?

Play sharpens children’s minds, refines their social skills, stokes their imagination, and helps keep their bodies healthy. Through playtime, children develop into resilient, self-reliant adults who can connect, empathize, and live peaceably with one another in community. The AAP encourages healthcare providers to write “playtime prescriptions” for children in the first two years of life, because play benefits children in manifold ways:


Playful activity can promote healthy weight and improve the function of children’s immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems, according to the AAP’s clinical report. Outdoor play, in particular, is associated with decreases in children’s body mass index (BMI) scores.


Through play, children develop a sense of agency over their lives. This inner locus of control can help protect children from developing anxiety and depression.


Playtime can actually help parents manage their children’s behavior, because playing together strengthens the parent/child relationship. A stronger relationship means the child is more likely to be compliant, because they want to please the parent.


Play helps children build social competence and confidence, which benefits them in the classroom and in their future jobs. In play, they learn to master tasks, such as stacking blocks or dressing a doll, and develop a sense of self-esteem.


Children’s brains are not yet developed enough to express their emotions in words. Through play, using the familiar language of hands and bodies, children can learn to express their feelings and the events in their lives, particularly traumatic experiences.


Playtime allows children to be children in a productivity-obsessed world. Play offers what writer and teacher Aaron Ames calls “a sense of freedom from the constraints of performance, from the constraints of constantly needing to produce and perform at such a high level.”

Health and Play in Rural Areas

“Almost everybody can benefit from adding more physical activity and movement to their lives,” Umstattd Meyer said. People with a higher risk of chronic disease and lower quality of life can especially benefit from physical activity. Often, though, these families are the ones with the least access to healthy, active lifestyles. 

Lower-income rural families face similar challenges accessing resources as those in urban areas. However, these challenges are compounded by the geographic dispersion and lack of infrastructure in rural communities. 

“Often there’s less money that comes into infrastructure within those communities,” Umstattd Meyer said. “More money has to go further, and fewer people are there to make things happen.” 

Racial and ethnic health disparities, though not specific to rural communities, tend to be more prominent in those areas, she added.

Umstattd Meyer advises adults to take ownership of their communities and make the most of the available resources, even if few and far between. She has the following recommendations for ways to help you and your family be more active: 

What’s happening at your child’s school?

If the bus ride to school takes hours and your child gets home when it’s too dark to play outside, after-school programming or team sports may be more convenient options. Ask about summer programs, too.

Are there churches nearby with playgrounds or programming for children?

Churches often host after-school programming that can give your child opportunities to socialize and play outside in a safe environment with other kids. 

Where are the parks, and are the parks safe?

“Rural areas have great natural resources that often, quite frankly, are overlooked,” Umstattd Meyer said. Provided these areas are safe, they can be good options for hikes, walks, and bike rides. 

How can we add fun and play to the activities we’re already planning?

Think about the events coming up in your community — whether it’s a potluck, festival, or cookout — and consider adding in physical activity. If you’re hosting a festival, can you add some activity stations? If you’re going to a cookout, can you bring jump ropes and hula hoops?

8 Ideas for Creative Play

School programs and organized events are great ways to help children stay active, but healthy play can also happen at home and in children’s own neighborhoods.

Below, find eight ideas for creative play that do not require a playground or expensive toys –– only materials you probably already have in your home. These activities are appropriate for children more than 18 months old.

Pillow and blanket fort

Supplies needed: blanket or sheet, pillows, books, snacks, and lights

Build a fort frame with pieces of furniture. Stretch a blanket or sheet across the top, and stock the fort with pillows, books, and snacks. String up twinkle lights inside and give your children a lantern to read by.


Supplies needed: seeds, yard space, gardening tools

Choose seeds that will produce items that are pick-able or edible for little children: sweet-smelling flowers, green beans, cherry tomatoes. Show your children the different kinds of seeds and plant them together. Consider planting a “butterfly bush” that attracts the colorful flying insects to your garden.

Pretend Restaurant

Supplies needed: optional props

Help your children create a restaurant plan, including choosing a name and the type of foods served. Designate a waiter and provide a notepad for taking orders. Serve plastic or imaginary food. Pretend to be a food critic tasting every dish.


Supplies needed: old camera

Find an old digital camera in your closet or at a thrift store. Have children photograph moments in your family’s day-to-day life and report back on what they find. Host a photoshoot of friends and family or dolls and stuffed animals.

Design a world

Supplies needed: paper, drawing utensils

Have your children reimagine the rooms of your house based on a certain theme: under the sea, jungle, outer space, or Paris. Have them draw and decorate maps, giving each room a new name and imagining what happens there. For instance, in a Parisian-themed home, the kitchen could become a cafe and the front door, l’Arc de Triomphe. Or, break down old cardboard boxes into painting-size pieces. On nice days, set up an easel and paints outside in the yard or on a deck to create landscapes.

Readers theater

Supplies needed: books, a “stage,” optional props

Choose books with fun stories and dialogue. Set up a “stage” using a sheet or blanket or have children sit in a circle. Have one child practice reading aloud while others act out the story, using props and costumes as desired.

Fashion designer

Supplies needed: old fabric scraps, scissors, safety pins, “models”

Instruct your children to choose stuffed animals, dolls, or figures to be models. With the fabric scraps, kids can design and create custom-fit costumes for their models. Host a fashion show once finished.

Science center

Supplies needed: books, nature collections, science supplies

Stock your “science center” with books about insects and wildlife; collections of seashells, stones, and fossils; butterfly nets; live-bug boxes; and magnifying glasses. If you have old science materials, such as a microscope or beakers, include these, too. You can switch out the contents to align with their school’s curriculum.

While not a panacea, a healthy amount of play can help children grow up into well-rounded adults. Caregivers, teachers, babysitters, coaches, and mentors can support their healthy development by making sure children have time and space to play. You can provide the structure and supplies that allow them to choose their own adventures and make their own discoveries.

The following section contains tabular data from the graphic in this post.

10 Most-Populated Texas Cities 

CityPopulation (est. as of 2017)Percentage of youth within 10-minute walk to a park
San Antonio
Fort Worth
El Paso
Corpus Christi
National Average in U.S.

Return to graphic.

10 Least-Populated Texas Cities

CityPopulation (est. as of 2017)Percent of youth within 10-minute walk to a park
San Marcos
Port Arthur
National Average in U.S.

Return to graphic.

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Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.