By Sarah Vogelsong, The Progress-Index
HOPEWELL — When it comes to recreation, Hopewell isn’t monkeying around.
For the sixth time, the city has been awarded a Playful City USA designation by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that aims to bring “balanced and active play” back into children’s lives.
Play, it turns out, is serious business.
“Balanced and active play is crucial to the well-being of kids and the communities that they thrive in,” said KaBOOM! CEO James Siegel.
In Hopewell, making sure that high-quality sites for play like parks, playgrounds and community centers are accessible to everyone is linked to the city’s aim of cultivating a healthier population. According to the annual County Health Rankings, a national measure recognized by the Virginia Department of Health, Hopewell in 2015 ranked 127th of 133 localities in the commonwealth in health outcomes. Among the Tri-Cities, only Petersburg ranked lower, at 131 of 133.
In September 2015, Hopewell got into the health game when City Council passed a resolution joining the “Healthy Eating, Active Living” initiative. Called HEAL for short, this program promotes community policies that aim to stem obesity and improve community health.
For many adults, healthy living is seen as a chore — but it doesn’t need to be, said Aaron Reidmiller, Hopewell’s director of recreation and parks.
“Active lifestyles are often achieved through play for children,” he said. “It really ties in well with what we’re doing with the HEAL resolution.”
The Playful Cities designation opens the door to grants that can help the city upgrade and add to its play facilities, many of which are nearing the end of their life. Hopewell has previously drawn on such funds to install play equipment at Mathis Park and City Point.
Now that summer is in full swing, residents have many opportunities within the city for play, said Reidmiller. Besides the 19 municipal parks, recreation facilities and playgrounds that can be used by the public, school playgrounds are open during the summer while school isn’t in session.
“We’ve got a number of sites that really lend themselves to summer use, and they get really, really busy in the summertime,” Reidmiller said.
Two particularly popular Recreation and Parks summer programs are the nine-week summer camp series and the free-time program at the Hopewell Community Center, which allows students with a daily or other membership to use the facilities during open hours for free.
Looking forward, Reidmiller is hoping to continue making Hopewell “playable” through long-term improvements to existing municipal parks.
Under the current capital improvements plan, these renovations aren’t slated to begin until FY 2019, but grants in the meantime could speed up the process.
The upgrades he envisions are more than just swapping out old pieces of equipment for newer copies. Over the years, play equipment has gotten more sophisticated than the traditional monkey bars. Today, equipment aims to encourage more creative play and the development of coordination skills. Low-mounted tilted discs that kids stand on can promote balance, for instance, and webbed climbing nets can encourage children to develop muscles not tapped by the old-school climbing rope. Other innovations include the incorporation of parent- and kid-friendly fitness equipment into traditional playgrounds to increase opportunities for exercise.
At the end of the day, said Reidmiller, “we think it will make Hopewell a much more playful place.”