Big Day of Play Focused on Getting Seattle Moving Through Cultural Inclusion

by Marilee Jolin

When you think of stress relief and personal development, what comes to mind? If your answer wasn’t “play”, Lakema Bell -Chair of the Seattle Parks & Recreation’s Big Day of Play – has words for you.

“Playing is the best way to get back to your inner self,” she says. “Every day is time for play. We are bombarded with all kinds of worries, fears, negative images, sounds, sights that keep us in a sense of protection mode; that keeps us alert; that keeps us on defense. And when you’re on defense, you’re causing inflammation – you’re causing disease in your body.”

But, she says, “…when you are allowed to play, when you are allowed to release those toxins, when you’re allowed to release those energies and feelings of distrust…those are the times when you’re most connected to your true self and those are the times when you’re allowed to just be and be okay in the skin you’re in.”

If this sounds like a lot to expect from a community day of playing, just ask Bell what’s so special about the Big Day of Play. The depth and breadth of activities is astounding. So too is the immense effort to deliver a truly community-based, culturally-relevant and accessible event for all.

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Big Day of Play 2016 [Photo courtesy of Seattle Parks an Recreation]
Rachel Shulkin, Seattle Parks and Recreation Communications Manager notes, “Seattle Parks and Recreation believe you should never stop playing. There is no age group, area of Seattle, or community that should not be able to find accessible and fun ways to get out and be active, stay healthy, and play.”

The official information says the day will offer sports, game exhibitions, music, and dance performances but, when asked about the variety of activities this year, Ms. Bell rattles off a much more detailed and extensive list.

“Universal Play Equipment: all abilities play equipment, Silent Disco, Northwest Tap Connection Performances, A whole slew of field activities, Roller Derby, Wheelchair Rugby, Futsol, Inflatables, Water slide, Rock Climbing Wall, Boating/Kayaking, New Spin Group bike rentals, Rainbow Bingo, Food trucks, Skate like a Girl, African Dance, Drumming, Lao Dance…”

I stop her there (there’s only so much room in an article) but not even this impressive list is exhaustive.

Big Day of Play has been around for 10 years, but the program shifted its focus two years ago after Bell took over as Chair. Organizers participated with the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to evaluate Big Day of Play, examining how their programming, outreach and other modes of operating might be creating barriers to access and unintended consequences.

As a result, Day of Play organizers focused their attention on the 98118 zip code, noted for its rich cultural diversity, and changed their strategies in significant ways to increase awareness and access.

“We utilized communication ambassadors. We translated all of our information. We utilized multi-ethnic media.” Bell says these efforts paid off in Day of Play’s turnout last year, which saw a dramatic increase in participation from people of color and beautiful variety of languages spoken at the event. 

“It was wonderful to see people moving and trying various fitness activities and programs representing all classes and cultures, where over 50 different languages were being spoken where the one common language spoken among everyone was play,” says Adrienne Caver-Hall, of Seattle Parks and Recreation.

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Big Day of Play 2016 [Photo courtesy of Seattle Parks and Recreation]
Big Day of Play’s efforts at cultural inclusion are rooted in more than just good PR, but are a fundamental building block of the Get Moving Initiative of which Bell is Program Coordinator. Bell is compelled that Get Moving is only successful if it is reaching those most impacted by inactive lifestyles and the corresponding health concerns.

“What’s the purpose of getting people moving? To move them past these health disparities so they can have longer lives. They can live and ascend to their highest potential.” Bell says enthusiastically.

Which disparities would those be? “Native American, Pacific Islanders, Latinos and folks from the African diaspora – they were almost 3 times higher in regards to reports of no physical activity and obesity than…their white counterparts,” Bell reports.

Getting folks moving is, in Bell’s assessment, about offering culturally relevant activities. Bell notes that Zumba and aerobics and Jazzercise are just fine but where’s the Capoeira? Where’s the Filipino jump-rope? Where’s the Somali dance? Bell’s efforts to expand culturally relevant offerings throughout the Get Moving Initiative have created many new opportunities for people of color to become physically active and these opportunities are particularly abundant during the Big Day of Play. 

And while getting people moving is an important goal, Bell and Big Day of Play organizers see additional community-building and empowering aspects to their event.  “[I want] them to know there’s avenues and ways to engage physically. There are resources out here. I want you to know about it and be able to access it.” But even more than that, Bell hopes that every person who attends will feel that they matter and are important.

Ms. Bell’s answer to my final questions sums it up quite nicely. I ask what she hopes the impact of Big Day of Play will be for those who attend.

Her response: “To know that you are welcomed, you are loved, and your differences are celebrated.”

Big Day of Play will be held August 19 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at Rainier Playfields and Community Center (4600 38th Ave. S, Seattle)

All activities are FREE! (Food available from local food trucks for purchase)

Marilee Jolin is the Executive Director of the South Seattle Emerald. She currently resides in the Beacon Hill neighborhood with her two daughters.