By Chris Adams

When kids don’t exercise, they pack on the pounds, leading to unhealthy levels of obesity in areas around the nation – rural and urban alike.

What if there are no places to play? What can local officials do to create them, and to get children to use them?

Experts call it the “built environment,” and it has a major impact on health, Keshia Pollack of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told National Press Foundation fellows. Pollack, an associate professor at the school, is working under a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to research the policies and practices that promote physical activity for children and their families.

Pollack described one component of that project, a program called “Play Streets” that is being tried in four rural areas in the nation. The program is part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Physical Activity Research Center, which aims to ensure all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight and that physical activity is part of their daily lives.

The program has been tried in cities such as Chicago, where officials closed streets to traffic to encourage play. The current project is testing the concept in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas; in those areas, it’s interacting with four demographic groups: African-Americans, Native Americans, whites and Hispanics.

The project will measure baseline health factors among participants, track them during the project and work with local officials to keep the Play Streets going once the research project is over.

“The goal is create sustainable change,” Pollack said. “How do you do that – and get policymakers on board?”