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"Play. That's the best way kids learn -- doing something they enjoy." Trish Thomas, America's Most Playful Family Contest winner
Kids need balanced and active play to thrive.
Originally posted 12/8/2014 on the NetImpact.org blog.
At this year's Net Impact Conference, I participated in a session - Good at Doing Good - that explored what makes a nonprofit a successful, high-impact organization able to create and sustain lasting social change. As founder and CEO of KaBOOM! - the national nonprofit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids - I am proud of the impact we've had building more than 2,500 playgrounds in 18 years in communities all across the country. However, we at KaBOOM! also recognize that we cannot scale our organization to build enough playgrounds to address this challenge at the scale it exists in society, particularly for the 14.7 million American kids growing up in poverty.
Over the past two years, we've set a course to scale our impact without scaling the size of our organization in an unsustainable way. We are seeking outsized social returns by pursuing an influence strategy aimed at community-wide change that complements our direct impact work building playgrounds with low-income communities. In particular, we are focusing on driving cities to create kid-friendly, family-friendly communities that benefit all kids. Cities are critical to achieving society-level scale because most play-related infrastructure investments, policies, and programming happen at the local level and because cities, as the government of last resort, are becoming hotbeds of innovation to solve intractable social problems.
To drive change at the city level, we have positioned ourselves as standard - setters, not policy advocates. In other words, we are not pushing a policy agenda on cities, but rather creating a national platform for cities to implement their own big ideas for using play as a solution to their pressing challenges. Playability - the extent to which cities make it easy for all kids to get balanced and active play - can take many forms and address many challenges. For example, Brownsville, Texas, is bringing play opportunities to low-income neighborhoods in order to improve economic prospects in struggling neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Spartanburg, South Carolina, is planning to harness its under-utilized waterways as a competitive advantage to attract and retain families of all income levels who want abundant opportunities to play.
Investments in play will not be successful unless they lead to widespread behavior change. To inspire cities to generate solutions that overcome behavioral bottlenecks that keep kids from getting the play they need to thrive, we partnered with ideas42, a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve large-scale social problems. Among the findings from ideas42, we learned that cities need to put play everywhere, integrating play into dead time and dead space. In addition to playgrounds, we are encouraging cities to reimagine how everything from sidewalks and bus stops to grocery stores and health clinics can be filled with play, making it easier for families to prioritize play for their kids. These are places where low-income families are already spending significant, often frustrating time together. By embedding play everywhere, cities can turn these moments of frustration into moments of play-filled joy.
All families deserve to live in a safe community with ample job opportunities, great schools, and abundant opportunities to play, but we currently have inequitable distribution of services, resources, and opportunities for low-income families. This inequity serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty that threatens our nation's economic future. As we inspire cities to embrace Playability and implement Play Everywhere ideas, we need to ensure that play is used to address inequity, not exacerbate it. As walking and biking have taken off in cities across the country, they have tended to benefit those with means. For example, of the 70-plus miles of bike lanes in our hometown of Washington, DC, zero are in Anacostia, the part of the city with the highest concentration of poverty and kids in poverty. Consistent with our mission, it is our responsibility to ensure that cities do not follow a similar path when it comes to play.
Driven by our mission to improve the lives of kids growing up in poverty, we are impatient by nature. Our goal is to make societal change happen in the next decade, not the generations it has taken to gain traction on walking and biking. To get there, Playability requires a different approach to philanthropic partnership.
Partnerships of this kind are not easy, especially because the business of philanthropy is so risk-averse. It is easier to stick to what you know and do well, even if it cannot achieve scale. It is safer to fund small, tangible projects than to provide significant flexible resources that have the potential to achieve society-level change.
At KaBOOM!, we are fortunate to have partners that do not shy away from a challenge and encourage us not to rest on past success. We invite others to join us to ensure that all kids get the childhood they deserve filled with balanced and active play, so they can thrive.
On November 6, KaBOOM! is building its fifth playground in partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays, the first Major League Baseball franchise to build playgrounds with us! The entire Rays front office will once again join us as volunteers on the build.
To celebrate our fifth playground project with the Rays, Raymond, the team’s lovable mascot, shared some of his favorite places to play! Just like KaBOOM!, Raymond knows kids and families love to play everywhere—in addition to the playground and the baseball diamond! We call that playability, the extent to which a city makes it easy for all kids to get balanced and active play.
The Rays initiative to get involved with KaBOOM! stems from the organization sharing a core belief with KaBOOM! that children need a place to play every day in order to be active and healthy. A lack of play can have profound consequences for kids physically, socially, and cognitively.
Over the past five years, the Rays and KaBOOM! have built playgrounds with the Camp Cristina YMCA, James B. Sanderlin Family Center, Layla’s House YMCA, Citizen’s Alliance for Progress, and Team Success: A School of Excellence. Take a look back at these playground builds!
[Originally posted on The Huffington Post]
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration are part of a growing number of city leaders across the country who recognize the importance of play in creating vibrant communities. Young adults have flocked to active cities like Chicago that have created walkable and bikable communities. Chicago understands that to keep these adults once they become parents, it must prioritize playability — ensuring a kid and family friendly community that not only gives kids the active and balanced play they need to thrive, but also retains residents and supports local businesses.
Play matters to child development — it’s a muscle-builder, brain-expander and friend-maker. And for kids who face extreme adversity — depravation, neglect, abuse, exposure to violence — play can protect against toxic stress, which hinders healthy brain development. That is why I applaud Chicago for committing to the ambitious goal of ensuring that all kids in Chicago live within a seven-minute walk to a park or playground. Chicago has also extended the school day to bring back recess, physical education, and the arts. City leaders are working in tandem with community groups and the private sector to ensure that the play needs of all Chicagoans are met, in all neighborhoods.
Leading cities are also innovating to push the play boundaries beyond the schoolyard and the playground, enabling play to happen everywhere. Consider how Baltimore replaced a traditional bus stop shelter with giant climbable letters that spell BUS, turning an everyday space normally associated with waiting and frustration into a joyful play space that kids love and parents value. In Chicago, the city is experimenting with People Spots — temporary, pop-up parklets adjacent to sidewalks, typically within existing parking lanes. By expanding the sidewalks, they create seasonal space for outdoor gatherings and family playtime. As a placemaking tool, People Spots increase foot, bike and stroller traffic. As a result, local store owners report a 10–20% increase in revenue, according to metroplanning.org, just one example of the economic benefits of playability. By reclaiming public space for kids and families, and integrating play into their daily lives, Chicago and other leading cities are making it easier for kids to get the play they need and setting them on a healthy and successful path.
That's why on October 23 and 24, KaBOOM!, with the generous support of Humana Inc. and the Humana Foundation, will host its Playful City USA Leaders Summit in Chicago. A dozen teams from cities across the country — from San Francisco to Spartanburg, SC, and from Pittsburgh to Providence — will join the host city's team to build momentum for their bold goals and big ideas for transforming their communities into kid and family friendly cities filled with play.
Ben Hecht, CEO of Living Cities, who will be participating in the Playful City USA Leaders Summit, agrees that play has a role in thinking about urban development differently. Play is no longer an individual responsibility, he says. It is a societal and community responsibility.
Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago, along with other cities heading to the Summit, are demonstrating that playable cities are the cities of the future.
Enjoy this guest post from our friends at Doozy, a life-sized board game that inspires people to get outside and create their own play, about the importance of creative and imaginative play!
When did you last play a game - at a social event, on the bus, at work? Now really think, when did you last let yourself go, make things up and build creatively with others? We want the latter to be more than a distant memory. The harsh reality is that people are spending, on average, more than 7 hours a day in front of a screen, and most play and entertainment now involves a screen too.
Our mission is to inspire people to get outside and create their own play through the framework of a life-sized board game. Doozy lets you be your own game piece and flex your creative muscles as you hop from space to space completing challenges with other players.
So how does it work? You take the circular spaces and create any closed loop of your choice (the goal is to get back to the start). You roll the die, go to the next space of that color, draw a card, and you do what it tells you to do. The card challenges might ask you to grab a partner and “wheelbarrow” around the board, switch shoes with someone, or even act like a taco!
But what really sets Doozy apart is that you have the power to change the size of the board, the rules of the game, and the challenges that fuel it. We trust you to bring your own quirks and ideas to Doozy and customize it to your playful needs. As players become co-creators and invest themselves in the game, they inherently internalize Doozy’s larger message and make more time for play in their daily routine, high fiving co-workers, getting outside for lunch, and being that much more playful.
When we introduce Doozy, we use the word framework because ultimately it’s not about the game itself but rather the idea that Doozy can be a bridge; a bridge between the prescribed play of a digital age and the kick-the-can, baseball-meets-freeze tag experiences we had growing up; a bridge between caring adults and children, bosses and employees, new friends and old. The idea that players are creators is reinforced by the rewards of our current Kickstarter campaign, where you can simply take the idea and run with it, download and print the cards, make the spaces, or have it all manufactured and delivered to your doorstep. Because ultimately, we won’t be the ones to design Doozy 2.0 – you will!
We want to spark a movement but we can’t do it alone. Let’s set an example so this generation of kids grows up with the balanced and active play they need to thrive. We want to see kids growing up differently: talking with that other person in the elevator, moving their phones a little further away from their bed, and spending more time playing than in front of the TV. With your help, we can bring play back for kids and adults!
The Wall Street Journal recently examined how cities are looking to reverse the trend of young families moving to the suburbs as their children get older. The article – "Cities Want Young Families to Play and Stay" by Anne Marie Chaker – does a wonderful job of illustrating how innovative communities are using play to attract and retain young families. Chaker discusses the role of the creative class in the growth of cities:
"About a decade ago, the so-called creative class of 20somethings fueled the revival of urban centers by settling in downtown areas mixing condos and coffee shops. Now, as millennials and other urbanites have children, their needs are changing. Cities want to hold on to them by becoming more "playable," for both children and adults."
The article provides the statistics and reasons regarding the trend but also notes that there is hope for its reversal:
"As children age, families are less likely to live in cities; 42% of married couples whose youngest child is less than one year old live in city centers, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Joe Cortright, principal economist for Impresa Inc., a consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. That figure drops to 28% when the youngest reaches age 10.
The main culprits: concerns about safety, the lure of more space and the poor perception of urban schools, according to a 2008 report published by CEOs for Cities, a national network of over 600 urban leaders. But, the report adds, "cities are becoming more vibrant and livable."
At KaBOOM!, we couldn't agree more that play is the answer to retaining young families. So much so that we've coined a word to describe the extent to which a city makes it easy for all kids to get balanced and active play. We call this playability.
We understand for communities to thrive, they need to ensure that all of their residents are happy, healthy, and contributing to their community's overall vitality. One essential ingredient in the recipe is a renewed commitment to fostering family-friendly, kid-friendly environments that allow young people to get their bodies moving and their minds engaged no matter where they are. When cities make a commitment to playability, they are not just contributing to the wellness of their communities. They are strengthening the competiveness of their economies— sustainably, cost-effectively, and playfully.
The Wall Street Journal article supports this assertion:
"Cities have every reason to want professionals to stick around. As people age and have children, their value to communities grows, both in spending power and taxable income, says Candace Damon, vice chairman with HR&A Advisors, an urban-development consulting firm based in New York. Average income for householders from ages 35 to 44 is 28% higher than for those ages 25 to 34, according to Census Bureau data.
As people age and have children, Ms. Damon adds, they also tend to care more about their community. "People don't get civically engaged until they are relatively settled in their personal lives," she says. "They care about schools, they worry about potholes and the ambulance going too fast." If cities don't retain that 30-and-up demographic, "then you don't have people who are going to care and ensure they remain good places to live."
Kids and parents are calling out for play everywhere. People don't just want great parks and playgrounds; they want a complete reimagining of what our urban spaces and places look like—from sidewalks to bus stops and parking lots. KaBOOM! urges cities across the country to answer this call.
Congratulations to the cities of Chicago, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, and Phoenix for prioritizing play in their communities and being highlighted in the article. To find out what other cities are doing to become more playable visit playfulcityusa.org.
What is your city doing to create a more fun and playful environment? Share your comments below or join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #playability.
At KaBOOM!, we believe that the well-being of society begins with the well-being of children. This is why we’re such big advocates of balanced and active play, which is essential to enable children to thrive. Yet, as Gretchen Reynolds writes in a recent article “This Is Our Youth” for The New York Times Wellness blog, far too many of today’s children are not getting the play they need to thrive.
A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that America’s kids, across all ethnic groups and socioeconomic circumstances, are becoming less healthy with every passing year. Only 42 percent of the children who participated in the study were as fit as they should have been given their age, and kids’ average fitness has declined by about 10 percent since 2004.
Unfortunately, this is not entirely surprising: today’s children play less than any previous generation. Declining recess, a lack of safe places to play, overly-structured schedules, too much focus on one activity, and too much screen time have all replaced balanced and active play.
Janet Fulton, a lead CDC epidemiologist who oversaw the new study, says that “kids who are less fit when they’re young are likely to be less healthy when they’re adults.” In other words, the play deficit threatens to create a vicious cycle from childhood through adulthood.
Reynolds writes in her article: “The finding raises troubling questions about the future health and longevity of our children and suggests that parents and other authority figures need to find better ways to get our youth moving.”
Solving this urgent problem requires engaged, caring adults. “Inactivity is a family issue,” notes Dr. Gordon Blackburn of the Cleveland Clinic. “If parents aren’t active, kids won’t be.” But, on the positive side, “If it’s fun, kids will keep doing it.”
Behaviors take root in the context of relationships, and families are arguably the most important relationship for driving healthy behaviors. Along with fostering improved health, adults can unleash kids’ creativity and encourage them to take on age-appropriate challenges through play.
Ultimately, no matter their beginnings or background, all kids need balanced and active play. Caring, engaged adults are essential to ensuring kids get the play they need to thrive.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup final is quickly approaching. Over the last few weeks, world-class players from 32 countries met in Brazil in the hopes of winning one of the most esteemed competitions in sports. For many, watching the World Cup is a family affair and parents may wonder whether it’s a good idea to get their kids involved in sports at an early age. That’s a great idea – running and kicking get legs moving and hearts pumping! Just remember: balanced and active play is essential for kids to thrive.
As David Epstein writes in The New York Times, “we should urge kids to avoid hyper-specialization and instead sample a variety of sports through at least age 12.” At KaBOOM!, we define balanced and active play as developing active minds, active bodies, and being active together to realize all of play’s benefits. Just as a healthy diet balances proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, a balanced “play diet” should include a mix of all kinds of play, because different types have different benefits.
For example, by playing sports like soccer, a child fulfills the active body aspect of balanced and active play and develops teamwork (active together) but there is little development of the child’s mind since rules are imposed. On the other hand, children who engage in unstructured playground and street games tend to build off loosely established rules and invent their own as they go. For instance, part of the appeal of skateboarding is its spirit of invention, imagination, and self-expression – all of which are crucial to the holistic development of a child and fulfilling the active mind aspect of balanced and active play.
Every child should have the opportunity to various forms of play in order to realize all of its benefits. Because play — in all of its forms — is a powerful thing. From addressing obesity, and improving mental health and wellness, to building a creative and successful workforce – balanced and active play lays the foundation for a skilled, healthy, resilient, and successful society.
Tell us how you ensure the kids in your life get the balanced and active play they need to thrive! Leave a comment below.
Across the United States, cities are competing in a relentless race to not only attract but also retain businesses, economic development and jobs. For cities to thrive, they first need to ensure that all residents of any and every social class-- from young millenials to growing families-- are happy, healthy and contributing to their community's overall vitality.
How can cities cultivate a competitive advantage today to build a sustainable future for tomorrow? As urban leaders explore ways to enhance accessibility for its residents and businesses, some cities are turning to play to build that advantage by reviving a commitment to public recreation and redefining it with the idea of playability.
A recent GOVERNING blog post by Ron Littlefield, former Chattanooga mayor and current lead analyst on the City Accelerator Initiative, touches on this topic and discusses how cities compete to find new ways to offer recreational opportunities. Littlefield shines a light on the city of San Antonio to exemplify innovative ways cities are reimagining public spaces and programs beyond the traditional sense and promoting leisure and play everywhere. San Antonio was also named among the 212 cities honored as a Playful City USA community for its work in prioritizing play and making the city more playable for kids, families and people of all ages.
During a keynote address at the 2013 Lifelong Health, Fitness and Learning through Play Conference at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Dr. Joe Frost described the city as an "inter-generational play mecca" filled with parks, fair grounds, trails, playgrounds, gardens and museums that kids, families and players of any age can enjoy.
"Here, children have access to a petting zoo, vegetable gardens, playground equipment, seashore with sand, rocks, and flowing water, indoor play areas with glass walls for viewing animals, petting zoo, and a walk-through cave with fish cavorting in huge aquariums. Nearby Sea World adds to this remarkable mix, and all this is enhanced by playgrounds created by KaBOOM! and San Antonio families."
Dr. Ruth Moore, professor at the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word adds how San Antonio's cultural organizations show their commitment to play:
"At the city's one-hundred-year-old zoo, trained play leaders are always on duty throughout the Nature Spot, a beautifully planned nature area for young children. In addition, the Nature Spot's leadership annually joins hands with the University of the Incarnate Word's School of Education and others in the community to provide play days on site, thus extending more large play events to all."
Cities and towns, along with leaders from every sector working together, have the opportunity to turn play spaces, and all spaces, into transformative theaters of activity, inspiration, and discovery. Now is the time to take action to build the city environment where you and your family can live, work, play and thrive together.
For more ideas and inspiration about how other cities are investing in innovative playful strategies, visit PlayfulCityUSA.org.
A recent Education Week commentary does a nice job of reflecting a KaBOOM! key principle: play and education go hand-in-hand. The commentary, The Case for the New Kindergarten: Challenging and Playful, centers on the false dichotomy "that preschool and kindergarten must either be geared toward play and socioemotional development or focused on rigorous academic instruction."
We couldn't agree more. Play should be a part of well-rounded school day. That is, kids need to learn to read, write, do math and practice problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity, all of which are essential outcomes promoted by Common Core standards.
Furthermore, we know play helps children adjust to the school setting, and enhances their learning readiness, behavior, and problem solving skills. Play indirectly contributes to children learning more hard skills in school by mitigating behavioral problems and increasing academic engagement. Schools without recess face increased incidents of classroom behavioral problems, which detract from learning time. Studies show play may also increase children's capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered drastic changes in activity.
Unfortunately, play is disappearing in schools. A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of children surveyed had little to no recess in their school day. That's nearly one in three kids. This is in spite of research, such as a Gallup poll revealing that elementary school principals overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students' social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.
As global competition increases, it is imperative that children develop a skill-set relevant to today's workforce and are able to approach challenges with creative solutions in order to navigate our complex, ever-changing world. Critical thinking and collaboration are integral to the jobs of the future—many times more so than hard skills—and balanced and active play helps to develop these skills.
It's time we stop thinking of early childhood education models as an "either or" proposition and value and implement holistic instruction. We encourage you to join the discussion and post your thoughts below on the importance of protecting and promoting the importance of play for all children or share your ideas on how play can be incorporated into education. You can also share this blog post with your social networks to further the conversation.
Across the United States, urban leaders are implementing a powerful idea: To compete, they need play.
In order to attract and retain the businesses, jobs, and residents who breathe energy and enterprise into their neighborhoods, they first need to foster family-friendly, kid-friendly environments that promote play everywhere, while addressing the needs of underserved communities.
At KaBOOM!, we call this idea playability, the extent to which a city makes it easy for all kids to get balanced and active play. Because play matters for all kids. And this week, in partnership with the Humana Foundation—the philanthropic arm of Humana, Inc. –our Playful City USA initiative is honoring 212 cities and towns in 43 states that make playability a part of their community-wide agenda.
Together, these communities represent the vanguard of a national playability movement. They are finding creative ways to meet the needs of families, grow their economies, and become more competitive. And, in the process, they are solving some of our nation's most pressing challenges on the scale that they exist.
For instance, these cities know that play can help young people manage toxic stress, an epidemic among children in low-income neighborhoods, and an issue at the heart of our work. This is why, in Washington D.C. , the Play DC initiative is redefining playgrounds as community spaces in which young people can cope with and positively release their stress. It is why, in Brownsville, Texas–recently named the poorest city in the country–city leaders recently broke ground on the community's first walking trail and handicapped-accessible playground. Families that ordinarily would struggle to find safe, public opportunities to get active are now discovering that their city is making it easy for their kids to play everywhere.
These cities know that play can spark creativity and resilience, two of the most important leadership- and job-skills of the 21st century, while enriching all other aspects of learning from the STEM disciplines to critical thinking and analysis. This is why the City of Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is delivering on their ambitious goal to ensure that every child lives within a seven-minute walk to a park or playground, while extending the school day to bring back recess, physical education, and the arts.
Play is essential for young people's health and wellness, as well. It builds muscles, expands minds, and forges friendships. Cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have launched in-school programs that teach students about balance by getting active, eating better, and spending less time in front of screens. In Baton Rouge's case, the city also introduced a mobile recreation unit called "BREC on the Geaux," which brings play equipment to underserved neighborhoods.
These inspiring efforts are just the beginning. These cities and our other 2014 Playful City USA honorees are setting a great example for others to consider and to follow.
Moreover, they have not simply relegated play to the playground. They have made the positive choice the easy choice by ensuring that kids—and the supportive, engaged adults who care for them—have the opportunity to play everywhere, from the sidewalk to the bus stop. With partners like the Humana Foundation, KaBOOM! is calling on communities all across the country to do the same, ensuring that all kids, particularly the 16 million growing up in poverty, have the childhood they deserve—a childhood filled with the play they need to thrive. When cities invest in playability, they set in motion a virtuous cycle. More opportunities for play attract more families, which leads to economic competitiveness. When cities make good on the promise of play, all of their residents have an opportunity to be happy, healthy, and to contribute to their community's overall vitality.