Hurricanes like the one that hit Houston, Texas last August do a lot of physical damage— cars, home, buildings— but they can also rip the fabric of communities. In the aftermath of that kind of tragedy, many communities struggle to get back to "normal."
One such community was South Houston Elementary, where Maria Garza's 8 and 9-year old kids attend school. As part of a broader hurricane recovery effort, KaBOOM! and UnitedHealthcare teamed up with Maria and the rest of the community to rebuild the school's playground.
Maria Garza, second from right, helps build playground equipment
The moment Maria heard about the project, she deemed it "awesome!" and rallied her family and friends to get involved. Together they transformed more than a schoolyard.
Maria and her family happen to live right across the street from the elementary school, and she had a vested interest not only in the school community, but in giving her kids a great place to get out and be active. "I'm all for something more healthy and exciting for the kids that will get them outside playing instead of inside sitting around looking at screens," said Maria. And the existing playground had seen better days after the hurricane.
Maria jumped right in on the KaBOOM! playspace Design Day. She helped generate buzz and excitement among her family, neighbors and friends and convinved them to volunteer a few weeks later on Build Day. That was on March 24, 2018, which also happened to be her daughter's 8th birthday.
I could feel it. This is good for the kids, and good for the community.
Working with KaBOOM! on the project was wonderfully surprising for Maria. "It's something I had never experienced before," she said. "KaBOOM! guided us through the whole process. From the initial conversations and gathering support, to recruiting neighbors and even tightening play equipment bolts on build day. Best of all, the KaBOOM! people work with you. They help you. It's like a big family."
Maria remembers taking a break that day and pausing to look around and really take it all in. "I'm going to remember this always. We came together with our neighbors. My husband was even there doing a wood construction project," Maria said. "We built this together. It's a really special day."
Today, right through her window, Maria can see both kids and parents are already enjoying the playground as a community gathering spot, whether they're there to exercise or socialize. Even in the aftermath of tragedy, Maria found herself surrounded by smiles, laughter, joy and a real sense of community.
More photos from the day
Headlines today are screaming that screen time is bad for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics' statement on Media and Young Minds lays out many of the detrimental health and developmental concerns from overuse of screens, including the negative impact on sleep, cognitive and emotional development and temperament. Experts agree that excessive screen time for kids is a problem that needs to be addressed — quickly. Even some of the technologists who created Facebook, Google and other platforms have banded together to create the anti-tech addiction Truth About Tech campaign aimed at 55,000 public schools in the U.S. Meanwhile, activist investors are pressuring Apple and others to implement stronger parental controls to limit kids' screen time. However, there is a key piece missing from this conversation: what's the alternative, especially for kids growing up in under-resourced communities?
As a parent of three pre-teen girls, I'm very sympathetic to the impulse to place strict limits on kids' screen time. My wife and I have resisted the temptation — and peer pressure — to let our sixth-grader have a phone. But parental controls only get you so far. Ultimately, as we have seen in other similar national kids' health campaigns, it's not enough simply for adults to try to prevent kids from doing something adults think is harmful. As Scientific American points out, studies found that campaigns and programs such as "Just Say No" and D.A.R.E. did little to combat youth substance use.
Some experts believe that engaging with your kids while they're watching TV or on the computer is a possible solution because kids are more likely to be exposed to healthier content and interaction. This "joint screen time" solution, though, assumes that parents have the ability and bandwidth to spend significant time with kids in this way, a particular privilege that may not apply in under-resourced communities where parents spend most of their waking hours working to make ends meet. As our research with behavioral science experts at ideas42 found, precious time together often must be spent doing household chores or running errands with kids in tow. For these families, we need to make it as easy as possible to choose a healthier alternative to screen time — and one that is compelling, free and readily accessible.
The pathway to real solutions starts with a better understanding of what kids actually want. KaBOOM! conducted research with Insight Strategy Group and found that outdoor play is among the very few activities that can compete with video games. Although 88% of kids like videogames a lot, outdoor play is extremely close behind at 84%. Even more encouraging, 71% of kids agree that they'd "rather move around than do something in front of a screen" and 73% agree that "zip lines and super slides are more fun than video games." When given the choice, most kids would rather play outside. It's a choice parents would endorse — 87% of parents try to encourage outdoor play, second only to reading.
Not only do outdoor play spaces provide all of the benefits of video game play — fostering social interaction and a sense of community, developing collaboration and cooperation skills, offering increasing levels of challenge, inspiring curiosity and creativity and more — they come without the potential risks posed by screen time.
What's more, we have the tools today to ensure that every kid in the U.S. has access to safe, great places to play — whether it's a neighborhood playground, or an everyday space transformed to include opportunities for play. A bus stop doesn't have to be just a waiting area; it can be transformed with swings and creative colors into a place that encourages kids to play where they spend time every day. Sidewalks can become spaces for learning and imaginative play when they're redesigned with kids in mind.
It isn't a question of know-how. It's a question of priorities, resources, public will and equity. Parents are already there, with 75% surveyed by Insight Strategy Group saying they "would give up their own personal favorite activity to have a new playground right on their street for their kids." The number jumps to a whopping 86% for families with annual household incomes of less than $50,000. Yet, this desire has not translated into the change we need. For kids in these low-income households, only 51% have adequate places to play in their neighborhoods. Instead of merely trying to convince kids to say no to screens, let's give them something exciting to say yes to — abundant opportunities to play where they live and learn, and all along the way. And let's start with the kids who need it most.
It was August 19, 2017. As an American of South Asian descent, it had been a painful week for Jay -- and for the country in general. The Saturday prior, white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed violently in Charlottesville.
"It was a tough week to be a person of color in America. I talked to my friends and family on the phone a lot. As we watched the news, there were feelings of sadness combined with helplessness."
Then Jay came to Inglewood, CA to build a playground.
"I think it's easy to feel overwhelmed by today's news. But I realized that when a sense of helplessness sets in, it's a sign to put some good back into the world. After such a tragic week, working together with people of different races, religions, ages and backgrounds all to build a playground for kids was such a cathartic experience that gave me hope."
Jay shoveled mulch into the new playspace. He was working alongside people he'd never met, but it felt as though he'd known them for a long time. After a week of emotional withdrawal, Jay was beginning to feel like himself again.
As the mulch pile got smaller, a spirit of camaraderie grew with the other volunteers.
Then, across the playground, he saw a familiar face. It was Jermaine; an old friend he had worked with a few years back.
"It was so fun to see him. We caught up and I asked him what had prompted him to volunteer that day. Turns out that as a kid, he had gone to the school where we were building the playground -- Parent Elementary School -- and was pumped to help the current students get their first real playground."
The old friends worked side-by-side, chatting and laughing for hours. At the end of the day, they joined the full team of volunteers for the ceremonial ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of the brand new playground they'd helped to build together.
"I underestimated how cathartic it would be to do something so basic as shovel mulch. To be part of a team of people coming together to physically build something for kids." said Jay. "It was medicine."
When it comes to her job, Cara Spencer has a relentless source of motivation: her son. Since she was elected as a city council member in 2015, Cara has been working to make her neighborhood, Gravois Park, a safer place for him and for all who live there.
"Gravois Park is one of the most challenged neighborhoods in St. Louis. We have violent crime here on a regular basis," says Cara.
With 39% of residents living at or below the poverty line, it can be difficult for her neighbors to feel hopeful about the area. But Cara wanted to begin to change that by focusing on the neighborhood park.
Gravois Park had a broken playground; photo by Daniel Henrichs
The park is brimming with potential— it's in the center of a densely populated, diverse community. But for a long time, it was not somewhere Cara felt comfortable bringing her son. The lack of well-lit areas and broken playground equipment signaled danger and warded off local kids and families.
"It just felt wrong," says Cara. "We had this barely functional playground, and it invited anything but play."
She decided it was time to do something about it. Cara's team put in new lighting, planted trees, and focused on making the space more welcoming to kids and families. "Better connected communities are safer. And the park is a place where neighbors make connections and become friends."
Cara (second from right) stands proudly in front of the new playground
While the park landscaping was looking better, Cara couldn't find the funding to build a new playground. Then, last year, the local business district applied for— and was awarded— a KaBOOM! grant.
Throughout the planning process, businesses donated supplies, the school recruited volunteers, and neighbors signed up to help.
"This project really brought people together like never before," said Cara. When it was time to build the playground, people of all ages and backgrounds showed up to contribute. This was the first opportunity many of them had to meet their neighbors! Many had never even been to the park before.
Building a playground brought the community closer together
Despite St. Louis having one of the highest crime rates in the nation, the Gravois Park neighborhood has seen a 16% drop in crime over the past year.
Cara believes that collectively creating a safe public space led to increased community cohesion and ownership over where they live. "There's no substitute for having a project to work on together and, after it's done, having a beautiful playground for our kids that everyone is proud of. And they should be— they built it!"
There's still much work to be done, but already, Cara is noticing progress. People are looking out for each other and taking care of the park.
The most noticeable sign of success? There are kids and families using the playground! Often times, this includes Cara and her son.
This week, our hearts are heavy watching news reports of the devastating damage Hurricane Harvey has wrought throughout Texas and beyond. We cannot help but think of the many kids and families who have been displaced and impacted in stressful, scary ways. We know that crises like natural disasters are traumatic for everyone involved— especially kids.
We also know that, in the aftermath of a disaster, it is incredibly important for kids to feel a sense of normalcy despite the stress that they experience. That is why we are working with organizations like Save The Children, who have set up Child Friendly Spaces in shelters located near the impacted areas. These spaces give kids the opportunity to take a break from the surrounding chaos by providing them safe places to play, thus reducing the stress that they are facing. We are in close touch with these organizations and are ready to provide support for kids and families by deploying our creative play products where they tell us they are needed.
We also connected to our Houston-area grantees and organizations that provide relief services for kids and families. We are ready to assess long-term needs once recovery begins. As communities rebuild after a disaster, the needs of kids can often be overlooked. Our priority is to help the neighborhoods and communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey to come together to bring play spaces to the kids who need it most.
Once recovery begins, we are ready to accept any requests and ideas about play space repair and rebuilding across the areas affected. Our greatest hope is that recovery can begin as soon as possible.
Richmond, Virginia has seen its share of hardship. The poverty rate is 25%. For kids alone, that number rises to nearly 40%. Though there are lots of opportunities for development, progress on solutions can be sluggish when city departments and organizations don't work collectively.
"All too often, well-intentioned community leaders and advocates work in silos, focusing on one area of impact without tapping the resources and expertise of their neighbors," said Ashley Hall, manager at the Capital Region Collaborative, an organization that brings together groups to enhance the quality of life in Greater Richmond. Ashley has found that even while living and working within mere miles of each other, collaboration and alignment are often a challenge.
Fortunately, there is one cause that's uniting people in Richmond: creating a more playful place to live.
"Play is something that resonates with everybody," said Jeff McIntyre, a director at Sports Backers, a non-profit that inspires Richmond residents to live actively. Through his work, Jeff has discovered that whether a group's focus is economic development, education, or most anything else, play is a cause that bridges the gap and brings departments, organizations, and citizens together.
Recently, Richmond has been more intentional about their efforts in play. They built ARCpark, an accessible playground that is open to the public. And they provide other playful opportunities available to all kids, including a basketball league with CarMax, a KaBOOM! National Partner.
These efforts were catalyzed last year, when Ashley and Jeff discovered Playful City USA, our recognition program honoring cities and towns that ensure all kids - particularly those in low-income communities - get the balanced and active play they need to thrive. The application process alone proved to be beneficial, as the duo were engaging in dialogue with Tamara Jenkins, recreation coordinator for the City of Richmond.
"The ability to reach out to counterparts and get new ideas is bringing more people into play and into their facilities and parks," said Tamara. "Being able to collaborate across the region now, there's no limit to the things we can do."
The Playful City USA honor was just the beginning.
Ashley, Jeff, and Tamara then learned about the Play Everywhere Challenge, a national grant competition led by KaBOOM! to transform everyday spaces into places for play. With the synergy they had already established working on the Playful City USA application, this cross-sector team felt emboldened to recruit others in the community to enter the competition.
They ultimately collaborated with Virginia Commonwealth University's da Vinci Center to create Upswing, retractable jump ropes and sidewalk play in front of barber shops in low-income neighborhoods. The grant proposal was funded, and the project even landed Richmond a spot in the New York Times.
The City is continuing to feel the momentum of their Playful City USA designation. They're now working with several other municipalities in the area in an effort to earn them the same recognition. Through the process, employees are transcending their roles at a particular government agency, business, or non-profit, and are collaborating as neighbors to bring play to all kids in Greater Richmond.
When the flood hit Louisiana this August, it hit hard. At least 13 people died and tens of thousands of homes were affected, causing billions of dollars in property damage. In some parishes, 90% of the structures were affected.
"The flooding came at a tremendous speed. You might have been walking in an area, and 15 minutes later it was underwater. Many people lost their homes, their cars; it was a disaster. I would compare it to Katrina, but without the winds," said Diane Drake of BREC, the subdivision of the state of Louisiana that oversees parks and public spaces in East Baton Rouge.
BREC has been working tirelessly for weeks to assist with disaster relief. They've set up shelters and have provided access to conventional basic needs, like food and water.
They've also provided access to play.
Extensive research confirms the importance of play to helps kids deal with toxic stress. It's in disaster situations that this kind of outlet becomes especially urgent.
Cheryl Michelet of BREC explains:
Just put yourself in the position of a child who has to leave their home, maybe in a boat. They don't know where they're going, they don't know what's been left behind. They're going to this big place with just cots and people who they don't know. And there's nothing to do at all.
At the shelters and emergency camps, BREC was able to give kids a little bit of a daily routine and get them out of this situation of uncertainty into a time where they can just play. They don't have to worry, they don't have to think about what's next. They can just be free and play and move and use their imagination.
Kids confined to these shelters were delighted by BREC on the Geaux, a mobile recreation program designed to get the youngsters active and having fun. It's a truck that opens up to offer all types of playful materials: hula hoops, trampolines, sports equipment, and even an obstacle course. The "fun-mobile" had previously been used at parks and recreation centers. Now, it was serving a similar function in more pressing circumstances.
This playtime also benefitted the parents, many of whom were still trying to process the enormous impact of the flood. "It gave the adults a break, where maybe they needed to be making phone calls or they might just need some private time where they could quietly grieve what had happened without doing that in front of the children," said Cheryl.
Perhaps the most unique and exciting aspect of the play relief came in the form of a Rigamajig. Though it sounds like it came out of a Dr. Seuss book, Rigamajig is actually a collection of wooden planks, pulleys, and ropes designed for hands-on play and learning. BREC received the Rigamajig through a Let's Play Grant in 2014.
The Rigamajig was invaluable at the shelters, in part because it encouraged a sense of community between the kids. Although they didn't know each other coming into the shelter, they quickly found themselves sharing parts and working together to build all sorts of creative contraptions.
"It created new friendships among kids who didn't know each other," recalls Diane. "It helped them to have something shared."
Even when it was time to pack up, Diane was moved by the cooperation the kids demonstrated, volunteering to stack Rigamajig parts. "Although many of them didn't want to stop playing, these simple chores gave them a chance to be part of something normal."
Though it's been several weeks since the flooding, Louisiana is still very much in recovery mode. Many kids are unable to go to school, and don't have access to safe places to play. We're continuing to work with community partners in the region to assess needs and offer support.
Discover what Rigamajig can do for kids near you.
Last fall, Byron Gilliland asked the janitor to help him move most of the furniture out of his classroom, leaving behind just a few tables and chairs, and a huge amount of empty floor space. He was thrilled to have extra room for educational adventures. The janitor was happy to help (it would make the classroom easier to clean).
Byron is a 1st grade teacher at Jefferson STEM Elementary School in Winona, Minnesota. But sometimes he feels more like his students are teaching him.
"At least once a week, I point out to my students something I've learned from them. They figure out things that I wouldn't have thought of. As a student they absolutely love that. How often do you hear as a first-grader that you're smarter than your teacher? It gives them more drive to put in extra effort."
Byron is always looking for new ways to challenge his students creatively. When he heard about Rigamajig, he had a hunch it would be exactly the learning tool that he was looking for; something that could help his students cultivate enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. On its surface, Rigamajig is a collection of wooden planks, nuts, bolts, and loose parts. However, when mixed with the passion of a caring, motivated teacher, it becomes an infectious means to encourage free play and inquiry-based learning in the classroom.
Byron's been focusing on science and engineering because it helps his students with higher-level thinking skills. They're encouraged to think outside of the box to develop practical solutions to real-world problems.
Recently, the class did a joint effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to develop new ideas for uprooting invasive species. The students had a brainstorming session to determine what kind of machine would have this capability. Eventually, they settled on a pulley and sketched out different possible designs. Using the Rigamajig, the students were able to bring their ideas to life. They negotiated different pulley systems and voted on the one they thought would work best. Afterwards, the class went into the field to see the machines that were actually in use by the USFWS. The students relished the opportunity to relate the work they were doing to the real world.
Byron's approach to project-based learning with the Rigamajig encourages inclusiveness in the classroom. Students of varying academic and social competencies find themselves working together, suggesting ideas, and learning from each other.
The class has had a bunch of adventures with the Rigamajig. From performing operations in base 10 to creating leprechaun traps, Byron has found endless uses for the learning tool, and the outcome has validated his approach:
"It's amazing how much you can get away with when the results show up. As our test scores go up, it seems like I can try a lot more things in my classroom."
Now, when the janitor passes by Byron's room during the school day, he often stops to watch and smile – and not just because of his lighter workload!
Learn more about Rigamajig. We have grants available for qualifying schools and organizations. See what Byron's been up to on his class's Facebook page.
There's something special about a kid's sense of wonder and intrigue while looking at the world. We were reminded of this several weeks ago, when a group of students came to our Washington D.C. headquarters with the After-School All-Stars Program, as part of the Career Exploration Opportunities (CEO) initiative. They came to learn about our work and to gain a more well-rounded idea of future career options.
We led them through an activity designed to get them thinking about our vision for cities to incorporate play everywhere. First, we went outside to the courtyard in front of our office building. They broke into groups to explore the area and think about different ways they could make it more playable. Then, we passed out coloring supplies and had the students sketch out their ideas.
"When I went outside and saw the plaza, my first thought was that we have to make more space," said Anthony, a 12-year-old participant. "Most plazas don't have things that 'wow' people. I want everyone to be amazed."
After the students had a chance to draw their ideas with crayons, we went back into the office. With shoe boxes, pipe cleaners, clay, and other art supplies, the groups transformed their drawings into 3-D dioramas of their new play spaces. When they finished, each group presented their project to the rest of the class.
We were amazed with what these kids came up with; ideas ranged from turning the fountain into an aquarium to setting up climbing boulders. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the students' determination for inclusivity. One group thought to include a moving walkway with handrails for seniors and people with disabilities. It seemed fitting that a play space should be accessible for all people.
Once Anthony finishes school, he would love to be a pro football or basketball player. But if that doesn't work out, he'd like to be a contractor or an engineer. "I want people to appreciate and enjoy things that I build. I want kids to pass by and say 'I like that building. Can we go in there, Mom, Dad?'"
Seeing the enthusiasm of Anthony and his classmates throughout the afternoon, it was clear that they were inspired to take on the challenges that lay ahead. And we were, too.
Did you play scrabble or Jump the Creek today?
Attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival did.
Across campus, a series of playful, interactive installations are transporting participants back to their earliest memories of "just being a kid." With one of the tracks at Spotlight Health focused on The Child, what better way than to remind global thought leaders of the importance of play for all kids.
Running around outside, doing hopscotch or double Dutch on the sidewalk, playing sports at the local park until the sun went down. For most of us, our play time growing up made a deep and undeniable impression: the laughter, the creative outlet, the friendships made with other kids. And perhaps most importantly, play created a strong foundation for our future success, by helping us to build new social skills and greater self-confidence, explore risk-taking opportunities and live a healthier lifestyle.
Today's kids deserve each and every one of those benefits linked to play, but they aren’t growing up this way. Playing outside until the sun sets is a distant memory for most. And in many communities across America, kids aren't getting the play they need to thrive.
Our research shows that play can easily become overlooked in the day-to-day life of families – especially those living in poverty. Kids growing up in poverty spend almost 25 percent more time than their more affluent peers doing chores and running errands with their parents and other caregivers because there is no viable alternative for child care. In too many communities, it is often not safe for kids to roam out of a caring adult’s sight. If play is inconvenient or unsafe, it becomes the forgotten option. But we can’t let this happen, for the sake of our kids’ healthy futures.
What if the answer were so simple, it seemed revolutionary? What if we made it hard for kids not to play by creating opportunities to play everywhere?
In early May, we launched the Play Everywhere Challenge, developed in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Target, Playworld, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This new initiative transforms street corners, sidewalks, bus stops and other everyday spaces into engaging, safe PLAYces for kids. Play everywhere encourages kids to play along the way to school or their friend’s home, or while tagging along with parents to the supermarket or laundromat, changing inactive moments into dynamic experiences. All across America, we want to inspire kid- and family-friendly design -- literally making play a part of our urban fabric and contributing to kids’ physical, social, and emotional health. As our RWJF colleague noted, “Kids playing is the sound of a culture of health.”
We have received over 1,000 outstanding applications with creative ideas that seek to integrate play into kids’ daily lives. Today we announce the 200 finalists. The finalists will receive funds and assistance to further hone their ideas, and in September we will award $1 million in prize money to enable 50 winners from all across the United States to bring their ideas to life.
We hope you will join us to celebrate play everywhere throughout the Aspen Ideas Festival. You may have noticed the playful, interactive installations around campus – whether it’s on sidewalks or at the hot dog stand! Be sure to stop for a moment and PLAY, and use the hashtag #playeverywhere to capture the fun. Visit RWJF and KaBOOM! in the Paepcke tent to learn more about the Play Everywhere Challenge, our finalists, building a culture of health, and how to create play opportunities back home.
As you connect with your playful side during the Festival, let’s all commit to ensuring all kids get the childhood they deserve filled with play.