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‘PlayStreets’ Offers Safe Place for Children to Play Outside

It’s not something one would expect to see in Chicago: children playing in the street, as their parents, grandparents, and neighbors watch approvingly.

That is what has been happening in six South and West Side neighborhoods since August under the Chicago Department of Public Health’s PlayStreets program.

As part of the Healthy Chicago initiative, local community organizations, like Gads Hill Center in Pilsen, have partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, which is funding the $317,000 program, that blocks off streets for three hours at a time, creating safe places for children to take part in fitness activities.

Laura Allen, program coordinator for Gads Hill Center said: “We really loved the idea to close off streets in a neighborhood where kids can’t typically play in the streets.”

Besides Pilsen, North Lawndale, Brighton Park, Woodlawn, Chicago Lawn and Little Village also are included in the program.

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said the public health board asked its community partners to identify neighborhoods that don’t have enough playgrounds or green space, or have a high crime rate.

Dr. Choucair estimates that 70 to 80 children and parents participated in the one PlayStreets event he attended and said these monthly PlayStreets events are a great way to help children stay fit.

“This is one of our top priorities [childhood obesity],” Dr. Choucair said.

Pilsen’s Gads Hill Center will be hosting 21 of the 68 PlayStreets events that will last until late November, weather permitting. Of those events, 11 will be hosted in Pilsen off Cullerton Street between Damen and Wolcott Avenues, and the other 10 will be divided among the North Lawndale and Brighton Park communities.

Allen, who coordinates after school programs for middle school children at the center, said the more people who learn about PlayStreets, the more community members will get excited and involved. Some of the fitness activities her organization will provide for PlayStreets include zumba, basketball, soccer, aerobics and hula-hoop competitions.

Dr. Jason Miller, a physician volunteer for the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the original idea for PlayStreets came from a volunteer medical student who thought helping Chicago children combat obesity would be a great idea.

As of 2012, the Chicago Department of Public Health states that obesity is one of the top underlying preventable causes of death in the U.S., and childhood obesity rates in Chicago are more than twice the national average.

Dr. Miller loves the idea of PlayStreets.

“Obesity is directly linked to all these other adult diseases like hypertension, heart disease and stroke, so it’s important for people to know that,” he said.

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