To play or not to play: Mothers and city officials discuss future of playgrounds

HARLINGEN — Orange tape surrounds forgotten slides and swings once played by children. On McKelvey Park located on 1325 S. 77 Sunshine Strip, swings are restrained with padlocks as well as the only special needs swing on sight. The majority of playgrounds in Cameron County have been made off limits since the pandemic started back in March of 2020.

Brenna Cavazos and Krista Banuelos are two Harlingen mothers concerned about the detrimental effects the closure of playgrounds will cause on children. It has been almost a year since their children were able to play in one but Cavazos and Banuelos said they wonder about parents whose only option of entertainment for their children outside the home are playgrounds at parks.

Cavazos has three children, her oldest being 10 and her youngest a toddler turning two soon. Banuelos has a daughter who is seven and a son who will turn three in a few months.

“Both Brenna and I are stay at home moms and the park was a big place to let our kids burn some energy and get some socialization,” Banuelos said.

Cavazos said she would visit playgrounds with her children a couple of times a week.

Banuelos and Cavazos decided to create an online petition seeking signatures to have elected officials such as Cameron and Hidalgo County District Judges as well as State Representatives to take a look and reconsider.

“The goal of this petition is to prompt local RGV city and county-level officials to re-open playgrounds. The alternative, acceptable result would be to clearly communicate what benchmarks we can expect as communities to allow for playground re-openings,” the petition reads.

“This petition does not, in any way, make light of the seriousness of the pandemic. We acknowledge that the spread of this virus in a playground setting is not 100 percent preventable and realize that many city decisions are to avoid liability and community spread. However, the consequences of not reopening are very serious and will have long-term effects on children’s mental and physical well-being in the RGV communities,” it says at the end.

Banuelos and Cavazos did their own research and found out the majority of cities in Texas have their playgrounds open with the exception of Austin and Houston.

Discrepancies in RGV playgrounds

Banuelos found out one playground in Brownsville was open as well as playgrounds located in South Padre Island, Weslaco, Donna and Laguna Vista. Banuelos asked on a Facebook message whether John. L. Tompkins Park had playgrounds open at South Padre Island and received a response confirming.

Currently playgrounds in Harlingen, San Benito, Edinburg, McAllen, Mission, Pharr, Los Fresnos, Mercedes, Port Isabel, La Feria, Raymondville, Rio Hondo, Combes, La Joya and Progreso are closed. .

Omar Rodriguez, the Director of Parks & Recreation for the City of Weslaco said back in September the local order in Weslaco determined it was safe to open the playgrounds based on the Emergency Management rules.

“We feel it is important to exercise, we encourage no groups larger than ten while using our parks and to continue social distance,” Rodriguez said.

“It is important to get some level of exercising and a lot of the exercise equipment in our parks allow that,” he said.

The Laguna Vista Town Hall also confirmed their playgrounds were open, but no official comment was made by a director.

“There are over 90 percent of playgrounds open for children to use and the rest are in the Valley. We just want to know why the children here are getting the short end of the stick in my words,” Banuelos said.

The petition was created almost a week ago and has received more than 500 signatures. Both mothers believe there is a grand majority of people wanting to have all playgrounds reopened.

Socioeconomic reasons behind reopening

Banuelos and Cavazos both agreed they have the option of keeping their children entertained in their own backyards. Banuelos’s children attend a private school with its own playground which has alleviated the fact they could be missing out. However, both are concerned for the families who do not have the same resources.

“There is a huge demand for families for families who do not have any other options or have the opportunity to go to the indoor places such as Chuckee Cheese and Xtreme Jump. Not that there’s anything wrong with those but if we are saying those can be open and outdoor places are banned it is another contradiction in our opinion,” Banuelos said.

For Cavazos, her main concern is her children currently learning virtually and having to be attached to a screen most of the day limits their movement. Though trails are open in Harlingen, her children are not wanting to just walk.

“I have visited almost all playgrounds in Harlingen and people are still going in but I don’t want to encourage my children to cut down the tape. I think these things should be open without making people feel they are doing something wrong,” Cavazos said.

“They need to have their brains firing up, they need the climbing, supervised play and be able to make new connections when they come back to their learning,” she said.

Cavazos has a garage where her children have been playing for the majority of the year. However, she acknowledges not everyone has that opportunity.

“There are a lot of apartment buildings next to Pendleton Park that are not able to go play and I think that is wrong,” she said.

Banuelos said they want to bring equity to the children in the Valley.

Effects from closures on special needs children

Another concern for parents who like Cavazos and Banuelos would like for playgrounds to reopen are the options available for special needs children. Their petition has comments where parents such as Kristina Rodriguez express their concerns on the matter.

“I have two special needs children. I have been going to the special needs parks since the day they opened. Although most home playgrounds have swings it is not the right type of equipment, my children need to be out there,” Rodriguez commented.

“I know how to keep them safe and if people don’t want to go they don’t have to go,” she said.

Another parent posted on a Harlingen Facebook group called Harlingen Mamas about her own concerns.

“I just want to take a moment to advocate for those in wheelchairs, I would love for the playgrounds to open,” Kristen Resendez wrote. Pendleton Park in Harlingen has a wheelchair swing which has not been open for access either.

Negative effects on children’s mental health

Cavazos said she believes there will be an increase in depression, anxiety and child obesity. At the same time, their learning capabilities will have negative effects in her opinion if there are no places for children to play.

Noelia Sanchez, Licensed Professional Counselor and School Counselor, who is in favor of the petition, gave her opinion on the matter.

“Initially I was okay with congregation of children but it is different in a park in public setting because the parent has more control of that. We started to see some trends and patterns in clients we see, I have noticed more depression and more anxiety, fear of going to places,” she said.

Her clients range from the age of 10 to 17. Although they have told her they prefer to do home learning, they are still not getting to socialize which Sanchez believes is hindering them.

“The negatives are stopping physical activity which is part of any self care or mental health activity. It is one of the things a therapist will tell you to get outside and get some sunlight, that is why there are high depression rates in Washington because it is always cold and raining. Being outdoors is helpful,” she said.

“We have to think of the children who do not have access to that, not everyone has a playground in their backyard,” Sanchez said.

In her opinion, increasing the usage of video games will hinder social skills because children will not be able to communicate in person in the future.

“If it is all you are doing it can certainly have an effect long term,” she said.

Sanchez added the physical activities promoted by the playground serve as an outlet to let go of emotions that children might not know how to alleviate without them.

“Parents have told me they are struggling because they don’t have an outlet. Even when you exercise and you are able to release the stress and tension, when you are not it can be like a soda can when you shake it, it will eventually explode,” she said.

Rosa Linda Cruz, Licensed Professional Counselor from Los Fresnos, said not only is it important to be close to the environment for the benefits of the immune system but it also decreases stress.

“You are able to be more attentive and more focused because of the connection with nature, it reduces mental fatigue,” she said.

“I compare it with what we are doing with other places, we could explore alternative solutions. If they were to open these, maybe they could put up more signs. I understand when the numbers are rising but when they are leveling off, is there a way we can implement something,” Cruz said.

She mentioned people do socially distance at the supermarket, she does not see why it would not be possible at the playground.

“Our leaders are making tough decisions, I think maybe somewhere in the middle there might be a gray area where they can tweak it or adjust accordingly to what is happening within our own communities,” she said.

Response from Cameron County and Harlingen officials

Joe Vega, Cameron County Parks and Recreation Department Director said only walking trails are open in Cameron County Parks.

“Our playground areas and soccer fields are closed right now. We are monitoring this COVID situation very closely and hopefully we can take back to normality soon,” he said.

“There have been a lot of cases still and hospitals are up to capacity. We have to be very careful and hopefully now with the vaccine things will be back to normal,” he said.

Vega said they are following the executive order by Cameron County.

Irma Garza, Public Relations Officer of the city of Harlingen said playgrounds will continue to be closed due to the rule of no gatherings of more than ten people not of the same family.

“We are following the Executive Order No. GA-32 by Governor Abbott. With COVID changing one day to the next we do not know when to open. We were looking before to possible ways but because of the situation we are in at this point we do not know,” Garza said.

Garza said the executive order states it is not allowing any changes until COVID-19 patients are under 15 percent.

Banuelos and Cavazos said they do not want to undermine the seriousness of the pandemic but would like to know when it would be safe to reopen.

“We absolutely promote social distancing, wearing a mask, and wiping down services. We are not anti protocol but if we can mirror what other cities are doing then I don’t see why we can’t do that in the Valley,” Banuelos said.