First Lady Michelle Obama: ‘So Many Communities Are Becoming Play Deserts’

By Melanie Arter | May 19, 2016 | 1:42pm EDT
First lady Michelle Obama (AP Photo)

( – At a summit by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, first lady Michelle Obama said Tuesday that some U.S. communities are “play deserts,” because they don’t have sufficient opportunities for kids to participate in sports and other outdoor activities, compared to wealthy communities.

“So many communities are becoming play deserts, but in wealthy communities, there is a wealth of resources. You can be in field hockey, or you can learn how to swim. There are aquatic centers and -- I’ve seen the difference. The disparities are amazing to me,” she said.


As previously reported, the Obama administration coined the phrase “food deserts” to describe an urban area where a significant share of the population lives more than one mile from a grocery store.

Mrs. Obama took part in the 2016 Project Play Summit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., alongside her brother, Craig Robinson, a college basketball analyst for ESPN. It was hosted by ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon of “Pardon the Interruption.” All three grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

“Mrs. Obama, I wanted to ask you about Project Play -- a report recently recognizing that sports participation rates among youth living in households with the lowest incomes are about half that of youth from wealthier homes, and we talked about this early. Are there other ways that we should be looking at to close that gap and make people understand why it’s important?” Wilbon asked.

“Well, at some point, it’s going to require an investment. So the question is, where do you make that investment? In the past, we made the investment in school, because everybody went to school or goes to school. So that was the easiest place -- recess, gym, sports in school. That costs money. We hit a wall, so we stopped investing,” Mrs. Obama said.

“So then the next level of investment comes in youth centers, sports clubs, but again, that’s an investment, because you’ve got to have places with gyms, and you’ve got hire staff. You’ve got to have equipment … so if you look to the Boys and Girls Clubs, or youth leagues, that still requires and investment,” she said.

“So at some level, we have to kind of ask ourselves how much are we willing to invest in the kids in our society? Because at some point, we’ve got to make that investment, even if it’s an investment in better parks in every community, creating safe spaces where kids can go out to play,” Mrs. Obama said.

“On the South Side, now, we had parks, and some of those parks just aren’t -- they haven’t been maintained. The sports fields don’t work, the swings are broken. In so many communities you have a place for a park, but it’s going to take an investment to make it a place that kids will actually use. So where does that investment come from? That’s the city,” she said.  

“So we don’t want to do that anymore, so it’s just -- slowly it’s becoming a desert, a play desert. So many communities are becoming play deserts, but in wealthy communities, there is a wealth of resources. You can be in field hockey, or you can learn how to swim. There are aquatic centers and -- I’ve seen the difference. The disparities are amazing to me,” the first lady said.

“So are we saying that some kids are worthy of that investment and physical activity, and then there are millions of others who aren’t? And what’s the role that we as a society have for making sure that kids have equal access?” she asked, adding that the same is “true for music and art.”

“That why Let’s Move is so important to me, because my view is, as a parent, is if I think this is important for my kids, it’s important for every kid,” Mrs. Obama said. “So it can’t be good enough that my kid has it if the vast majority of kids in this country don’t have it, because who are my kids going to play with? Who are they going to compete against?

“And I just hope that we get out of that mentality of ‘I got mine over here, and as long as mine are good, good luck.’ It’s that ‘eat or be eaten’ kind of -- but that’s basically what we’re doing when it comes to sports, because we’re okay going into some neighborhoods where there isn’t even a field, but in other communities, there is every field -- there are more fields than there are kids,” she said.

“There are more opportunities than there are kids, but we have to kind of look at ourselves and say, how did we get here, and why is that okay? Because right now it’s okay. We’re okay with that, and that’s sad,” Mrs. Obama added.

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