KaBOOM!: 2,000 Playgrounds and Counting

The 2,000th playground build for KaBOOM!
The 2,000th playground build for KaBOOM!

Happy Birthday! – How can I help? It’s 6:30 a.m. on June 15, 2011, and the first of the volunteers have begun to arrive. There is a flurry of activity as volunteers begin to set up for registration, unload supplies, and greet their fellow volunteers. What lies ahead is guaranteed to be a day filled with and fueled by manual labor. Today is the kind of day that will result in the truest form of sweat equity.Today marks the 2,000th playground build for KaBOOM!

KaBOOM! Working towards the day that every child in America has a safe place to play 

Like many nonprofits, KaBOOM! exists to solve a problem—the play deficit. Our children are playing less than any previous generation, and this lack of play is causing them profound physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. 

Physical harm: According to researchers from the Department of Health and Human Services, there is a stark correlation between the play deficit and childhood obesity: In neighborhoods without a park or playground, the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29 percent. (1) In fact, children with a park or playground within a half mile are almost five times more likely to be a healthy weight than children without playgrounds or parks nearby. (2) 

Intellectual harm: Without ample play, we will continue to see a decrease in creativity and imagination, as well as vital skills, including curiosity, social skills, resiliency, and the ability to assess risk. (3) A case in Germany in the 1970s provides an extraordinary example. As a result of a German educational reform movement, some German kindergartens threw out their play-based curricula in order to become “centers for cognitive achievement.” Research comparing students who continued to attend play-based kindergartens instead of the so-called cognitive centers found that at age 10, play-enriched children performed better in reading and mathematics, were better adjusted socially and emotionally, and excelled in creativity and oral expression. The play-based curriculum was promptly restored. (4) Children in China, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Japan are provided with playful schooling opportunities prior to second grade and have among the highest scores, ranked 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 respectively, on international PISA exam for 15 year olds. The United States was ranked at 13. The decline in creativity associated with the play deficit has already had an impact on our competitiveness in the world. In the book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next  Job Market, the authors examine how computers are reshaping the job market and how human skills are rewarded in the marketplace. The book reveals how this new marketplace places a premium on the skills fostered through play. (5) 

Social harm: Children who don’t play don’t learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves. (6) The lack of these skills has dramatic long-term effects. A long-term longitudinal study examined two groups of preschoolers in the United States. In one group, play was an important part of the curriculum. In the other, there was no play as part of their school day. Both groups were tracked through age 23. The children deprived of play showed increased problems with social integration, including greater likelihood of felony arrests by young adulthood. (7) 

Emotional harm: Studies have shown that schools without recess face increased incidence in classroom behavioral problems, including violence, emotional outbursts, and students who show a lack of ability to interact with peers and authority figures. (8) Outside the school, play deprivation can have serious long-term consequences. Physician, psychiatrist, and clinical researcher Stuart Brown studied more than 6,000 felons and found that 90 percent of convicted murderers lacked “play features” in their childhoods. Brown writes, “What all of these studies repeatedly revealed and what struck our separate research teams as unexpected, was that (among other findings) normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men regardless of demography.” Brown finds that “depression, over-control, driven ambition, envy, and often ecological havoc accompany the play-deprived life.” (9) 

The focus of all our work is to end the woeful lack of engaging places to play in America. We support the work of others who focus their efforts on the equally profound issues surrounding the lack of time for children to play. Our campaign to save play is driven by three strategies. 

Mapping the state of play, including play deserts: Recently, KaBOOM! contacted the Los Angeles Unified School District with a simple question: How many of their elementary schools had playgrounds? Our call was sent from one department to the other. No one knew. They told us no one had even asked them the question before. This anecdote tells a larger nationwide story. Although the play deficit is well documented on the macro level, no one knows which kids have a place to play and which kids don’t at the neighborhood level. The KaBOOM! Playspace Finder is designed to ultimately answer that question for the entire country. It is a user-generated map of play spaces—playgrounds, fields, courts, parks—with photos, ratings, and the ability to become a fan of a particular play space. This tool allows parents both to use and to support the play spaces that already exist. This tool will also produce a “play deserts” map, documenting the communities where children have nowhere to play. Once we know where the play deserts are, public policymakers and nonprofits, including KaBOOM!, can address the play deficit rationally and effectively. After mapping their own play deserts, mayors in St. Petersburg, Florida, Tucson, Arizona, and New York City have already implemented successful play policies. Our effort to map play deserts has the enthusiastic support of the White House and the Let’s Move! initiative. 

Building and improving engaging playgrounds: KaBOOM! built its first playground almost 15 years ago in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Not only did we create a great place for kids to play, but we also pioneered a new way to build playgrounds, allowing children to design the space and working with members of the community to build it. Soon, we’ll be building our 2,000th playground, using the same focus on community engagement as we did on that first build. The power of the KaBOOM! process is that it authentically engages residents in some of the lowest income communities around the country in the planning and construction of the playground. For 10 weeks, KaBOOM! works with community members and funding partners to plan a successful done-in-a-day playground build. Not only do kids get a great place to play at the end of it all, but communities forge new relationships and build social capital that they can rely on for years to come. We love these builds—they are the heart and soul of our organization, and we do about 200 of them every year. 

But 5 years ago, we asked ourselves a hard question—could we solve the problem of the play deficit by building a couple hundred playgrounds each year? The answer was no, so we then asked ourselves how could we radically increase the number of play spaces being created in the United States each year. Rather than turn to the tried-and-true approach of creating chapters or affiliates, we chose an approach that would have been unworkable even a few years earlier. We decided to go to scale using the Internet, open-sourcing everything we learned, putting it on the Web, and creating an online planning tool that empowers and guides play advocates through the process of planning, funding, and building playgrounds. The Monitor Institute recently published a study of our effort: Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale: A Case History of KaBOOM!. (10) In 2009, our online outreach efforts helped people build more than 1,600 do-it-yourself (DIY) playgrounds in communities around the United States—almost as many as we directly built over the past 14 years. 

Mere quantity of play spaces won’t solve the play deficit. We want children to have engaging playgrounds where they play longer and want to come back more often. That’s why we involve children in the design of every playground we build. Our commitment to innovative play design is also expressed in a project we’re working on called Imagination Playground. Conceived by architect David Rockwell, Imagination Playground combines loose parts, a manipulable environment, and play associates. Imagination Playground lives up to its name. Every gleeful child that encounters it constructs their own play structure every time they play, in combinations that give full reign to their creativity. (11) 

Advocating for local policies that increase opportunities to play: Finally, KaBOOM! sees the impact of our work and the work of our DIY playground builders every day, but to help solve the play deficit, we also work with local governments that want to ensure that their cities are full of great places to play. We focus our efforts on local policy because it is our cities and towns where the decisions to fund, not fund, or de-fund play spaces are most frequently made. It is clear to us that every school, every park, every public housing complex, and all new housing developments should have places to play. This can only happen if mayors, city councils, school superintendents, and the heads of parks and recreation departments fund, plan, build, and maintain the play spaces necessary for children’s health and well-being. The good news is that an increasing number of these local policymakers recognize the importance of play in their communities and are doing something about it. In return, KaBOOM! honors and celebrates these play pioneers with our Playful City USA program. Currently 118 cities have earned this designation, including New York City, Atlanta, Orlando, San Antonio, San Francisco, Phoenix, St. Paul, and Indianapolis. (12) We are also gathering, evaluating, and disseminating best practices in play, so we can accelerate the adoption of the most effective and replicable play policies. (13)  

So, as we celebrate our 2,000th build we are celebrating not only our own accomplishments but also those of community members at large who have persisted in their efforts to ensure happy, healthy childhoods for all of our children.


(1)   Singh, G., Siahpush, M., & Kogan, M. (2010).Neighborhood socioeconomic conditions, built environments, and childhood obesity. Health Affairs, 29(3) 

(2)  Potwarka, L. R., Kaczynski, A. T., & Flack, A. L. (2008). Places to play: Association of park space and facilities with healthy weight status among children. Journal of Community Health, 33(5). Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/579605

(3)   Singer, D., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (2006). Play=learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Isenberg, J. P., & Quisenberry, N. (2002). Play: Essential for all children. A Position Paper of the Association for Childhood Education International. Retrieved from http://www.udel.edu/bateman/acei/playpaper.htm

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2003, April). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60(7), 50–53. Retrieved from http://pdonline.ascd.org/pd_online/substitute/el200304_bodrova.html

(4)   Miller, E. & Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the kindergarten: Why children need play in school. Alliance for Childhood

(5)   Murnane, R., & Levy, F. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.
economy wide measures of routine and non-routine task input

(6)   Ginsburg, K. R. (2007, January). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1)

Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children: Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 159(1), 46–50. Retrieved from http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/159/1/46

(7)   Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The high/scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23. High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.highscope.org/file/Research/high_scope_curriculum/Curric_factsheet.pdf

 (8)    Barros, R. M., Silver, E. J., & Stein, R. E. K. (2009). School recess and group classroom   behavior. Pediatrics, 123(2), 431–436. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/123/2/431

(9)   Brown, S. (1998). Play as an organizing principal: Clinical evidence and personal observations. In Bekoff & Byers (Eds.), Animal Play, Cambridge University Press

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. New York: Penguin Press.

(10)   McLeod Grant, H., & Fulton, K. (2010). Breaking new ground: Using the Internet to scale: A case study of KaBOOM!. Monitor Institute. Retrieved from http://kaboom.org/monitor_report

(11)   See www.imaginationplayground.org.       

(12)   Click here for a complete list of 2010 Playful City USA communities: http://kaboom.org/help_save_play/playful_city_usa/2010_playful_city_usa_communities

(13)   Play Matters: A Study of Best Practices to Inform Local and Process in Support of Children’s Play. (2009). http://kaboom.org/docs/documents/pdf/playmatters/Play_Matters_Case_Summaries.pdf


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