Saving Play

KaBOOM! | June 2017

Changing the Landscape

The year is 1995: Bill Clinton addresses the nation for his third State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress; tech giant Yahoo! is founded; Mississippi ratifies the thirteenth amendment, becoming the last state to abolish slavery; and hundreds of thousands journey to DC’s National Mall for the well-remembered Million Man March. 

But this same year, a lesser known event takes place—one that should have never happened, but that would also become the catalyst for a larger movement of social change. 

After becoming trapped in an abandoned car while playing, two young children suffocate to death. This occurs less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol. 

The city of Washington, D.C. looks very different from today. Vacant buildings and deserted lots pepper the landscape where playgrounds and parks now reside. Safe places for children to play in their communities represent a dream rather than a reality. 

Upon reading a Washington Post article about the tragic death of these two children, 24-year-old Darrell Hammond decides to change the landscape—literally. 

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He sets out to build a playground in honor of the boys who died. From his small DC apartment, Hammond begins planning. By partnering with local community leaders and residents he brings the community together and creates a safe place for children in the neighborhood to play. 

This is only the beginning.

The following year, Hammond co-founds KaBOOM!, a DC-based, national non-profit organization, dedicated to the construction of playgrounds in low-income communities across the U.S. and to advancing the state of play throughout the country.

It's a way of engaging the community to solve its own challenges. This isn't a handout, this isn't pure philanthropy. This is an investment on everybody's part.

Darell Hammond, Founder, KaBOOM!

Back to Basics

From these small beginnings—a single playground—KaBOOM! has grown into a nation-wide movement.

Twenty one years later, the organization has served over 8.5 million children and partnered with over 1 million volunteers. But in addition to creating great places to play, KaBOOM! works with communities to inspire greater understanding of the importance of play in fostering healthy and productive lives.

Pause for a moment and think back to your own childhood. 

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Remember bug-hunting, tree climbing or don’t touch the ground? How about pick-up baseball with the neighborhood kids? Can you recall exploring and adventuring in your backyard? What about monkey bars and hopscotch? Or “soup” made of leaves, grass, twigs and berries? Forts and scavenger hunts? 

These are my own personal nostalgic memories, but I would venture to guess you can recall your own. And that these memories are also deeply tied to your growth and development as a child. 

When abandoned cars are more accessible than jungle gyms, we have a problem—a problem we can fix.

Play is disappearing at home, at school and in communities, particularly for the 16 million children living in poverty.

America's kids are playing less than any previous generation. In fact, only one in four kids (adolescents or younger) get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity or active play per day. 

As play has decreased, obesity rates and behavioral and cognitive disorders have increased. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, and in 2011, the decline of play was linked to suicide rates that have quadrupled among teenagers under the age of 15, along with the rise of depression and anxiety in kids and young adults. 

One in three kids is obese or overweight, and one in five kids has been diagnosed with a mental illness.

And here is where KaBOOM! steps in. Through play, kids develop essential skills like collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, resilience and empathy—all of which they will need to succeed as adults in the global economy. 

Play contributes to physical, mental, social and emotional development. Kids build creative thinking and problem solving abilities, develop motor skills and coordination and practice conflict resolution and working together. 

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While it may seem like a simple or basic concept, play can be the catalyst for healthy development in many children’s lives. While some may view a playground as a luxury, safe play has, in fact, proven to be a necessity. 

Why, then, amidst this breadth of research demonstrating the importance of play, has it become a declining pastime?

Cutbacks on recess, a lack of safe places to play, overly-structured schedules, early specialization and too much screen time have all been identified as factors contributing to the decline of play. But in other cases, there are behavioral and cultural barriers to play. Working parents sometimes lack the availability; neighborhoods may lack the safe space; families may lack an awareness of its value and importance.

KaBOOM! works to address all these factors by partnering with local leaders, organizations and families to develop strategic plans to reintegrate play into their communities.

Play Space in Urban Baltimore

Long before the first slide is constructed, KaBOOM! projects begin laying the groundwork for play-filled communities. 

The process starts with identifying the key stakeholders, bringing together local leaders and creating buy-in on a larger scale. Though a single park or playground may be designed for young people, it must be owned and cared for by the entire community. 

The cornerstone of planning a successful play space, according to the KABOOM! model, is "connecting the dots" between and among community assets through relationship building. By making and building on these connections, you widen the circle of community involvement and build stronger networks that sustain a community over time.

Take the example of Baltimore. 

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In 2015, Baltimore brought city leaders and private partners together to engage underserved youth and revitalize their communities with kids in mind.

KaBOOM! partnered with these leaders to launch the Play More B’More program in the summer of 2016. This multi-sector partnership gives underserved youth in Baltimore an opportunity to lead the creation of kid-friendly communities. 

Organizations throughout the city are coming together to address the needs of youth in their city.

Glenn Love, with the Family League of Baltimore explains the context of a community in crisis: “When we look at the residents of Baltimore in particular, we are dealing with a city that is heavily traumatized. There is some research that has suggested that roughly 50 percent of Baltimore’s residents have either been victims, perpetrators or witnesses of violent crime.”

“So when I think about the challenges that not just Baltimore is facing, but the myriad of issues that other cities across the country are confronted with, I think putting kids first should be a priority."

Fagan Harris, with the Baltimore Corps, describes one of the factors contributing to crime and violence: “When a lot of the jobs left, a lot of the hope and opportunity left with it, and a lot of our youth are struggling to connect with employment. They struggle to find safe spaces where they can learn, thrive and grow.”

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Aisha Alexander, Director of External Affairs at KaBOOM!, affirms this sentiment as the motivation for the project: “We are dealing with an epidemic across this country where kids are denied access to opportunity… They don’t have the opportunity to play. They don’t have the opportunity to be leaders. They don’t have the opportunity to be involved in the solutions for their community.” 

The Play More B’More project provides just such an opportunity. 

1,376 volunteers now have ownership in improving the city of Baltimore, and 8,680 more kids now have access to play in their neighborhoods.

Tailored to address specific local needs, the program builds more than just a playground—it builds opportunity, engaging youth in the planning and implementation of play spaces throughout their city.  

Fifty youth interns have now been given pathways to work and educational opportunities. For some, this is a first step toward their future career. 

KaBOOM's reach extends far beyond the play structures that are built. Volunteers, community leaders, local organizations, residents, schools, children and youth are all among those involved in the planning and construction of each play space. The result? A community of people committed to changing the culture of their communities. 

We're not talking about issues, we're talking about solutions.

Debbie Rock, LIGHT Health and Wellness Comprehensive Services, Inc.

In The Wake of Disaster

Imagine waking up one morning as a kid and not recognizing your neighborhood. You step outside and look across the street only to notice your neighbor’s house is gone. You look to your left and you see a couch upside down on your cousin’s lawn. You look to your right and see a tree coming out of your neighbor’s roof. Further down, you see toys just floating down the street. You run back inside to talk to your parents but no one is there.

This is what happened when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. 

When the storm hit, everyone had to grow up fast. I remember feeling that we couldn't be just five years old anymore; we had to grow up and deal with the situation. When we were allowed to draw our dream playground, we were able to be kids again. I remember thinking that all I wanted was a safe place to play. I felt like I was finally able to do something that would make me happy.

Hollie Kosbab, 15-year old

"It was rough. It was too rough for a five year old to be put through.”

Hollie remembers that day, “It was like the wind just pushed everything out of the way. There was nothing and no one after the hurricane. My family and I rode down the beach, and there was just debris and trees all over the ground. We went to see our school, but it was all gone. A lot of people left the area … those of us that stayed had to live in a tent and take cold showers every day. It was rough. It was too rough for a five year old to be put through.”

Disasters don’t just cause widespread loss and suffering, they also disrupt normal daily routines for kids and families. More than one million people in the Gulf Coast were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“Unless you’ve lived through a catastrophic CAT 5 storm, it’s hard to imagine how upended everything is,” explains Ginny Reynolds, a woman who helped inspire KaBOOM's engagement in the Gulf Coast.

Kids are among the most vulnerable when disasters occur. They depend on the overall health of their family, parents, and/or caregivers to thrive but during a disaster, adults’ focus naturally shifts from kids to more pressing needs such as shelter and food. 

According to the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

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KaBOOM! believes all kids need access to balanced and active play every day so they can thrive. The urgency of this need in the wake of Hurricane Katrina became quickly apparent to Founder Darell Hammond and in 2005, KaBOOM! launched Operation Playground – an initiative committed to building 100 playgrounds in hurricane affected areas of the Gulf Coast.

“We were kids again, coloring and sharing crayons, and we got to put all our ideas together to have what kids have.” – Hollie Kosbab

“Honestly, I just wanted to play tag with my friends and play on the swing set after the hurricane hit but there was nowhere to do that. Nowhere to have fun and be a kid. All the kids were gone and we didn't have a swing set or a playground. We were moved to the Kiln Middle School but they weren't doing much better than us. We still had nowhere to play so we did the only thing we could: we went to the back, ran around and imagined things!” 

For Hollie, the arrival of a playground was akin to Christmas morning. She recalls waking up on build day: “I remember that I couldn't sleep the night before because I was so excited to finally have a place to play! I just laid there and it just felt like Christmas, I felt like: I'm going to get one present … I finally get one present!”

Play is an important part of rebuilding childhoods, which is why KaBOOM! established an internal Disaster Relief and Crisis Recovery Task Force and a roadmap to respond when there are natural or manmade disasters that have an impact on children. Through this initiative, KaBOOM! has been able to bring 196 play spaces to areas of the Gulf Coast that suffered hurricane damage as well as seven playgrounds to communities in Oklahoma devastated by tornadoes in 2013. 

For children whose lives have been turned upside-down by crisis, play restores the intangible -- stability, familiarity, hope. 

Play in the Everyday

Playgrounds provide joyful oases of play within cities, and they are critical to ensuring kids have the absolute best childhood. Since its inception, KaBOOM! has built over 16,700 playgrounds in cities across the country and continues to add hundreds more each year. But in order to provide an adequate number of accessible play spaces for the 16 million kids living in poverty in this country, the organization continues to look beyond traditional playgrounds.

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Play doesn't have to happen in a multi-million dollar park renovation in a wealthy neighborhood. Rather, it can happen in moments of downtime, in unexpected spaces, and in everyday places. Grocery stores, a bus stop, sidewalks, or laundromats can be transformed into stimulating, creative outlets for play.

When parks and playgrounds are a bus ride away, they become special-occasion locations. But by offering right-around-the-corner options, play opportunities can be incorporated into the everyday routines of children from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Cities and communities can play a unique, critical role in ensuring all kids have access to play spaces. KaBOOM's "Play Everywhere Challenge" is an effort to partner with cities to turn spaces into PLAYces—transformative theaters of activity, inspiration and discovery. Out of over 1,000 entries, 50 winners were selected and awarded funds to bring their creations to life. 

Kids living within one kilometer of a park or playground are almost five times more likely to be of a healthy weight than kids without playgrounds in nearby parks

More and more cities are recognizing the competitive advantage of play. Open spaces such as parks and recreation areas can have a positive effect on nearby residential property values and can lead to increased economic vitality. But beyond the tangible benefits, play helps produce healthy and thriving communities by cultivating community engagement, encouraging creativity, protecting against toxic stress for kids experiencing crisis, providing outlets for physical activity and fostering collaboration.

As KaBOOM! continues to grow and adapt to the changing needs of our culture and environment, one thing remains the same: its commitment to help give all kids the childhood they deserve. 

Play matters because kids matter. And so, one swing, one slide, one sidewalk chalk drawing at a time, KaBOOM! has taken on an important mission—saving play.

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Editor's Note

This story was simply fun! Playgrounds, communities coming together and smiling children—these images are full of joy. Yet, the uplifting note of this story makes it no less compelling. On the contrary, it is testament to the positive and culture-changing impact of KaBOOM!

Thank you to the KaBOOM! community—the thousands of employees, volunteers, leaders and citizens—for helping to build a brighter future for future generations. And thank you to our ever-faithful and talented photographer, Erica Baker, for bringing this story to life through your beautiful and brilliant photography.

I leave you with the words of KaBOOM:

"I believe in laughing,
And the high five.
I believe in courage,
And adventure...

You look at me,
You see what I can be,
You open the door,
And I believe in play."

May we all believe in play.

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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