Play Philly reopens for summer at rec centers throughout the city

City officials celebrated the launch of day camp programming at Vogt Playground in Tacony on July 6.

City Councilman Bobby Henon helps a Vogt Playground day camper through the sack race portion of an obstacle course. TIMES PHOTOS: WILLIAM KENNY

Twenty-eight of Philadelphia’s recreation centers are done playing around with childhood obesity.

This summer, they’re getting serious about promoting kids’ health and will use Councilman Bobby Henon’s Play Philly program to offer their day campers more active and structured play opportunities, as well as healthy lifestyle guidance.

Last Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney and Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell joined Henon and dozens of summer camp attendees at the place where Play Philly began four years ago, Tacony’s Vogt Playground, to commemorate the launch of a new era of the program. The event also gave Kenney an opportunity to tout the forthcoming rehabilitation of the facility as part of his sweeping Rebuild initiative.

Henon started Play Philly in 2013 at Vogt through a nonprofit foundation as a way to provide additional specialized staffing to the facility’s summer day camp. The program was known as Philly Play at the time. A year later, it grew to 10 recreation centers — one in each City Council district.

By 2016, in partnership with the city and with support from corporate, labor and nonprofit sponsors, Play Philly had reached more than 30 of the city’s 150 rec centers and more than 4,000 children. This year, Parks and Rec has taken over management of the program for the first time.

Henon said today’s kids need extra encouragement to step away from high-tech activities and engage in old-fashioned physical play.

“It’s about playing every day. There’s no secret that today I think we play a little bit differently,” he said, addressing the Vogt kids directly. “Believe it or not, there was a time when a television couldn’t fit in your hand, when Facebook and Snapchat did not exist. We had to go out and knock on each other’s doors and ask, ‘Hey, do you want to come out and play?’ Is anybody doing that these days?”

Vogt Playground day campers wait for their turn on the obstacle course.

Philadelphia County’s rate of childhood obesity is among the highest in Pennsylvania, Henon said. It’s a problem that should be attacked through exercise, nutrition and other healthy lifestyle choices.

“Part of future success is establishing healthy habits early on,” Kenney said. “Children who are active perform better in school and are less likely to suffer from preventable diseases like obesity and hypertension later in life. Part of being healthy is being active. That’s why this program is so great. It shows why being healthy can also be a lot of fun.”

Play Philly will support 28 rec centers during their six-week summer camp programs with extra staffing to organize and direct more activities while teaching kids about healthy food and beverage choices. The collaboration also facilitates more play-themed field trips, including a trip to the University of Pennsylvania for the annual Play Philly Summer Challenge involving all 28 participating centers. Kids will tackle a mud run-style obstacle course and enjoy an outdoor picnic and dance party.

Recreation Leader George Kilcullen has seen a difference at Vogt since Play Philly began.

“What it does is it makes the kids more active,” Kilcullen said. “There’s also the camaraderie and the competition. Today kids don’t want to engage themselves and play as much. Too often they’re just kind of competing against the video screen. Now we’re going live, one-on-one in a safe, fun environment. There’s definitely more children getting involved at certain rec centers because there’s a component of physical activity as opposed to just the same day-camp activities over and over again.”

Many of those same centers including Vogt are in line for major improvements as part of Rebuild, a $500 million capital program funded largely by the city’s sugary drinks tax.

“We’re going to do a really good job in the next couple years fixing up all these places so you can really be proud of the facilities,” Kenney said. “The facility (here) is in pretty good shape, but it’s old. It needs a little work. And our fields out there need a lot of work because they get a lot of play.” ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.