Fifteen years ago, California resident Jim Roberts had no idea that he would be crowned Napa Valley’s ‘Playground King.’ “I had an office supply store for 35 years,” he says. “What do I know about playgrounds?”
Jim had retired from his business and was volunteering as an academic mentor at a school in a low-income neighborhood. One day, he stopped by the principal’s office and found her terribly upset. A student had just fallen off a piece of equipment on the school playground and suffered a concussion.
“We went out to look at the playground,” Jim says, “and I saw a cement curb only two feet away from the equipment. I could tell this wasn’t safe. I said, this has got to be replaced, this is terrible.”
The principal happened to have a catalog from the playground equipment company Landscape Structures in her filing cabinet. They began poring over the catalog and Jim soon enlisted the help of Landscape Structures to come up with a plan. When Jim took the plan to the school’s Board of Directors, they proposed that he and his local Kiwanis club build the playground.
Jim says, “We dug in, and we got that playground down. It was sprinkling the whole time, but we didn’t care. A part was missing and we had to race out and get it, but we got the playground together and saved the school a lot of money.”
Jim was in his early 70s then. Now, at age 86, he has 58 playground builds under his belt, with three more in the works. “The Kiwanis club here is just incredible,” Jim says, “they just roll up their sleeves and chip in. On five different occasions, we’ve built two playgrounds in the same weekend. We’ve even had members join the club just because they wanted to help build playgrounds.”
Most of these playground builds have taken place at Napa Valley schools. Jim believes that playgrounds are a vital asset to a school community. “The kids just can’t sit there and study all the time, they wouldn’t hear anything after a while, they’d just turn off,” he says. “It’s important for them to get out and get fresh air, and have a challenging, fun, colorful playground. When they get out of class, they RACE, they RACE to that playground.”
It’s important for Jim that the playgrounds offer elements of challenge so children can learn and push themselves both inside and outside the classroom. Thinking back to his own childhood, Jim says, “I learned nothing on the playground. When I went to school, all we had was a turning bar. I remember digging holes in the ground and playing marbles. I want to provide for these kids what I didn’t have.”
He continues to be amazed by the challenges that children will rise to when given the opportunity. “Like overhead bars, for instance,” he says. “My daughter was a principal, and she said, I want this for the kindergarten, and it was an overhead structure. I thought the kids were too small, but we put in the structure, and now these tiny little kids are going hand over hand, whipping across the thing!”
Of course, children need a safe place to play both inside and outside of school. Luckily, the schools in Napa Valley keep their playgrounds open to the surrounding community outside of school hours. “When the school builds a playground, that’s recreation for the whole neighborhood,” Jim says. “I pass by some of the playgrounds on a Saturday, and all kinds of kids are there with their parents doing this or that.”
A recipient of multiple Let’s Play Completion Grants from KaBOOM!, Jim acknowledges that the hardest part of building a playground is coming up with the funds. Beyond that, all it takes is a can-do spirit and a hardworking group of volunteers. The community build model that Jim has helped to popularize across the Napa Valley has not only saved the county over a million dollars—which they have used to invest in other park projects—but has helped the community feel more invested in the end product.
As Jim can attest, the “end product” is not just a collection of colorful equipment. “It’s a hub for the whole neighborhood,” he says. “A magnet for kids, doing something safe, good, and healthy; learning and challenging themselves; and most importantly, having fun.”
Somewhere along the way, Mom Sarah Hirsch realized that kids’ birthday parties had become less about kids playing musical chairs and more about getting lots of elaborate presents.
When her son Harry turned one, he ended up opening one present every day, just so it wouldn’t overwhelm him. “We were amazed that he got so much stuff,” Sarah says. “It was so generous of our friends and family but also a little embarrassing to receive so many gifts for a one-year-old who was too little to care about presents.”
During the following year, Sarah realized just how much her son was learning by playing at the area playgrounds. He was growing stronger, his language improved, and he was more aware of the world around him. When it came time to plan his second birthday, she had a new idea.
“I wanted to share our good fortune with others and thought, ‘Instead of having people bring a present, why not ask them to give a donation?’”
She chose KaBOOM! because, as she says, “Everything Harry learns comes from play. What better organization to ask people to donate to than one that revolves all around the importance of play and bringing play to kids? I thought it was a perfect fit for us.”
Sure, Harry still received presents, but Sarah gave guests an option to make a charitable contribution, which resulted in more than $500 donated in Harry’s name.
As the year continued and Harry was invited to other kids’ parties, Sarah continued the charitable trend. Her favorite gift is a $15 contribution to KaBOOM! and a copy of the KaBOOM! outdoor game guide, Go Out and Play!. “People are really flattered that we made a donation in their child’s name,” Sarah says.
Harry recently turned three, and Sarah knew how she was going to make his Sesame Street party even more special. “It was a no-brainer that we would do a KaBOOM! party again. Last year was really just the beginning of something that has become a cause in our family. We’re passionate about the importance of play and KaBOOM! is near and dear to our hearts.”
Donations for Harry’s birthday totaled more than $600 this year. Sarah has gotten nothing but compliments from other parents for how she’s “cutting down on the excess” that comes with birthday parties. “I think as Harry begins to understand more about the world, he’ll be really proud of this, too.”
By some measures Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! were successful US nonprofits—growing rapidly, engaging numerous partners, and improving the lives of tens of millions of children. Yet all the while, the problems we were tackling—hunger and the lack of opportunities to play—were getting worse and even accelerating in recent years as the economy took a downturn. More than 16 million children in America now live in poverty, up from 11.6 million in 2000. We have witnessed how children who play on KaBOOM! playgrounds benefit physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally, but we face the fact that one in three children is obese or overweight, and one in five suffers from a mental illness, with rates of depression higher than ever before. And the list goes on.
KaBOOM! and Share Our Strength realized that to make significant progress we had to move beyond simple solutions to complex problems, and we had to answer anew, in a much bolder way, the most critical question of all: “What does success look like?” Though it may seem counterintuitive for a non-profit sector already struggling to support, sustain, and scale up its impact—our approach calls for nonprofits to embrace a much heavier lift. We must look beyond short-term achievements that please funders, staff, and stakeholders but yield only incremental change, and instead hold ourselves accountable for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will ultimately solve social problems.
That is why KaBOOM! is committed to ensuring all children get the balance of active play they need to become healthy and successful adults. Together, we can give all kids the childhood they deserve.
Children intuitively understand the importance of engaging in active play, every single day. While they may not be able to rationalize the cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits of play, they know that play makes them feel happier, helps them let off steam, and gives them a chance to be with friends.
Throughout the history of the play movement, some children have worked extra hard in the name of the play. The stories of these young play heroes will make you smile, if not jump for joy:
In 1995, a seven-year-old girl named Ashley Brodie was instrumental in planning and fundraising for the first KaBOOM! community playground build. A resident of Livingston Manor, the housing complex in Southeast DC where the playground would be built, Ashley had been looking at the empty lot outside her window for months and sketching designs for the playground she hoped to build there. When she met KaBOOM! founder and CEO Darell Hammond and learned about plans to transform the lot into a place to play, she immediately jumped in to help, slipping fliers under neighbors’ doors and walking around to neighborhood restaurants to put donation canisters on the counters. She also personally collected $9.97 in pennies. As the build date commenced, she asked permission to stay home from school so she could help the volunteers and watch her longtime dream come to life.
> Read our new children’s book inspired by Ashley's story, My Dream Playground.
When Alex Griffith of Forest Hill, Md. learned that the playground at the hospital where he was born was in severe disrepair, he took it upon himself to build a new one. Adopted from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Alex said, "Russia is part of me and this hospital is part of me. They gave me life, so I [wanted] to give back to them, to give them a fun place to play.” Alex spent six months researching the existing playground, then proposed the idea for his Eagle Scout Project. To get support, he sold candy, put on a car show, launched a letter writing campaign, went to local business meetings, and forged relationships with Rotary International and various adoption groups. Alex designed the playground himself, incorporating the red white, and blue colors of both the Russian and American flags. Finally in August 2009, more than two years after committing to the project, Alex traveled to Krasnoyarsk to help bring the design to life, and to celebrate his 16th birthday with the grand opening of his playground.
Last summer, a year before Detroit formally declared bankruptcy, a nine-year-old boy named Joshua Smith decided he wanted to help his struggling hometown. He sold lemonade and popcorn in front of his house in the hopes of raising at least $1,000 to improve the city’s parks. Not only did he end up far exceeding his fundraising goal, but his story caught the attention of Kevin Cook, an executive from playground manufacturing company Playworld Systems. The company surprised Joshua on his birthday with plans to build a $50,000 play structure at a nearby park. When Joshua heard the news, he said, “I feel really great!” And so he should!
In spring of 2012, when a city council in Canterbury, UK announced plans to build housing on Kingsmead field, neighborhood kids painted enormous signs to protect their beloved playspace. Orla and Timmy, ages 10 and 11 respectively, attended a city council meeting to take a stand. Orla said: "It's not just for me and my friends but for all the people of the area who live and breathe better because there is a lovely empty green field nearby." Said Timmy: “Often in the evenings, I go to the field and play football with my dad and brother. It's very easy to stay indoors and watch TV or play computer games. Please leave our field alone." Over a year later, they are still fighting the good fight.
In 2010, students at Mount Washington Elementary in Louisville, Ky. prepared a report for a class project to convince school administrators to lengthen recess time. They researched the importance of physical activity and compared their recess time—10 minutes—to that of other schools in the district. When the students presented their findings, the school council discovered that it wasn't enforcing its own wellness policy, and extended recess to meet the recommended minimum of 15 minutes. Perhaps a future class can lobby to exceed to minimum!
Do you know any extraordinary children who have gone the extra mile to spread the joy of play?
"I dream about having a playground — a real playground, a fun playground — in our neighborhood. But all we have is an empty lot down the street from my apartment."
When a little girl sees a man measuring the empty lot, she’s sure that he’s there to help make her playground dream come true. And he is!
Inspired by the real story of the first-ever playground build by KaBOOM!, here is the story of how a determined young girl, with the help of her family, friends and community, makes her dream playground in her own neighborhood a reality.
"This book may inspire more than dreams," notes Kirkus Reviews. Written by Kate Becker, VP of Program Management at KaBOOM!, the book's spirited prose is brought to life by illustrator Jed Henry's "charmingly childlike" pictures (Kirkus Reviews).
Sadly, like the girl depicted in this book, all too many children lack access to a safe place to play. They will learn that with spirit and resolve, they too can make their playground dreams come true.
No dogs allowed? No kids allowed? When it comes to play spaces, dog owners and parents sometimes find themselves at odds. Not so at Jefferson Elementary School in Playful City USA community Missoula, Montana, where a new “barrier-free” playground includes a space for the city’s many dogs (and their owners) to play.
But Scout doesn’t just play at Jefferson; he has a job to do. A four year-old English Lab, Scout serves as an assistant to Nancy Jo Connell, a speech-language pathologist with the Missoula County Public Schools district. Nancy Jo enlists Scout’s help to work with students to overcome communicative difficulties, autism, and emotional or physical problems, in a process known as animal-assisted therapy.
Before the new barrier-free playground was constructed, Nancy Jo and Scout had been working with students inside the classroom. Nancy Jo has since found that the new outdoor play space is expanding Scout’s therapeutic potential.
Being out on the playground, she says, allows the kids to release steam and reduce stress. It also adds a social dimension to the therapy sessions, since the children participating in therapy can invite their peers on the playground to come play with Scout.
A favorite outdoor activity is grooming Scout, which helps to increase children’s coordination and fine motor skills. For some, especially those on the autism spectrum, the pet grooming process can be calming. Other favorite play activities with Scout, including hide-and-seek and fetch, increase physical activity and motivate students to learn language commands like “fast, slow, and stop.”
In fact, one boy with autism uttered his very first words at school while playing fetch with Scout. The boy tossed the ball multiple times, watching Scout retrieve it, but after one toss, Nancy Jo gave Scout the signal to stay. Expecting the dog to get the ball, the boy finally shouted, “Go!” When he went home that night, he pointed to a copy of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and turning to his mother, said, “Puppy.”
As Scout demonstrates, dogs and kids can not only play “nice,” but dogs with the right training and disposition can actually help children with special needs reduce stress, bridge social divides, and improve their fine motor and language skills. Something as simple as a game of fetch can lead to developmental breakthroughs.
Could dogs like Scout become a fixture at other school and public playgrounds? After all, innovation doesn’t have to mean elaborate new-fangled play structures. It can simply mean opening the playground gates to something we already have.
Photo courtesy of Jefferson Early Learning Center.
At this year’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks, discussed unlocking our superpowers. Jill shared her definition of superpowers—"the quirky, authentic, unique mix of personality and talents that are brought to bear in response to a opportunity or a need to breathtaking affect."
Everybody holds superpowers—everyday kids, volunteers at playground builds, and community advocates. Watch Jill’s motivating speech and learn how you can unlock the superpowers of others.
Not all problems are hard to solve. In Detroit, one of the most formidable barriers to play is overgrown grass.
Enter Tom Nardone (pictured right), a do-gooder but no goodie-goodie. Founder and Gang Leader of the Detroit Mower Gang, Tom and his motley crew of “renegade landscapers” are taking action. Rather than wring their hands, they realized that they have the tools they need—namely, mowers, trimmers, lawn tractors, and muscles—to transform Detroit’s deteriorating parks.
After all, no one wants to visit a playground if they have to wade through grass to get to the swings. An abandoned playground becomes vulnerable to vandalism and crime, launching a vicious cycle that can change the entire character of a neighborhood.
Tom, a father of three, started the Mower Gang in 2010, shortly after Mayor Dave Bing proposed closing 77 city parks, leaving thousands of kids without a place to play. At the time, Tom was coaching one of his son’s soccer teams, but he wanted to give more back to the community. “I have to do something that fits me,” he thought.
He started out small. He bought a used lawn tractor for $250 and, he says, “I would go out to parks and I would mow under the swing sets. I mean, this [was] not rocket science… I would just go out there and spend an afternoon, I wouldn’t schedule it… I’d just have two hours free from work, throw the thing in the back of the truck, go, come back, and go back to work. It was good.”
When he found an overgrown velodrome (a bicycle racing track, pictured below at left) at Dorais Playground, he wanted to restore it, but he knew he needed help. He created a Facebook page and started inviting people to show up. “I thought to myself if one person, if one guy shows up to this thing, it would be great,” says Tom. Aside from his brother and coworker, “one guy showed up. Guess what his name was? His name was Guy! I wanted one guy, I got a Guy.”
From its humble beginnings, the Mower Gang has steadily grown—and its work doesn’t stop at mowing. The gang meets every other week at a different park, usually attracting about 20 volunteers. In 2011, they held a “road rally,” which included a scavenger hunt to collect information about 90 of Detroit’s parks and determine areas of need. Realizing that many playgrounds in Detroit had swing sets, but no swings, the Mower Gang began a project on Kickstarter to replace 40 of the city’s 200+ missing swings. They aimed to raise a modest $800 and ended up with $3,020. The Gang also received a Let’s Play Maintenance grant from KaBOOM! to help purchase new playground surfacing.
This past Memorial Day weekend, 70 weed-whacking, grass-hacking volunteers gathered to tackle 12 parks in 24 hours as part of the first annual Mowtown Mowdown. “People love a good deed and nobody spends the night in a Detroit park. We were just crazy enough to do both,” Tom says.
Even though Tom has attracted major media attention for his work, including two appearances on the Conan show, he remains humble about his work. He might just be a guy with a lawn mower, he says, but “something is greater than nothing.”
And that something can mean quite a lot for a child. "The park is one of the bright moments in childhood," Mower Gang member Andy Didorosi says. "You learn there, you play there, that’s your jam. And if your park is dangerous, overgrown or unusable, well ..."
Tom says, “What I get out of it is every time we do the swing sets, every time we do the play places, there’s always kids that come out. It never fails that you see the result right away.”
Photos via the Detroit Mower Gang's Facebook page.
Playgrounds, children and joy: three things that go together about as well as anything.
Promoting the happiness and well-being of kids and families is at the heart of what Disney does each and every day, which is why KaBOOM! and Disney have partnered together to build dozens of playgrounds and community gardens across the U.S.
Disney is a KaBOOM! National Partner and supports the efforts of KaBOOM! to help achieve our vision of a great play to play within walking distance of every child in America. As part of their 2013 efforts with KaBOOM!, Disney will build14 new playgrounds in 10 states and Mexico. By the end of 2013, Disney’s support will bring the magic of play to more than 50,000 children and families. Disney also supports KaBOOM! mapping efforts by encouraging everyone to map playspaces and to help identify areas most in need.
In May, Disney is celebrating 30 years of VoluntEARS – Disney’s companywide volunteer efforts. KaBOOM! and Disney will celebrate the anniversary by bringing smiles and laughter to thousands of children and families with playground builds in Clermont, Fla., Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Cloud, Fla., and Kailua, Hawaii.
Check out the video link here to Disney’s latest project in Chicago:
When six-year-old Jadon Gotay (now seven) was given a class project to help a nonprofit, he knew he wanted to help an organization that did “fun things for kids.” After asking around, he found KaBOOM! and was immediately smitten.
What does Jadon love about the playground? Most importantly that it’s outside. “I love being outside,” he says. He also loves to “play tag, go on the swings, and climb all the stuff at the playground. There’s always new stuff to do and try.”
To help bring play to kids who aren’t able to spend as much time at the playground, Jadon organized a raffle fundraiser that asked people to guess how many Legos were in a jar. He raised over $500. With the help of his mom, Neida, he also organized a local play day (pictured below) in his hometown of Orlando to get his friends and neighbors out to the playground.
When asked how she makes sure that Jadon gets enough time to play, Neida says: “I’m a big believer in letting kids be kids. As a working mom I make sure that he is enrolled in after-school programs that promote play. Our weekends consist of being with the kids and doing fun stuff as a family. We look for new parks and playgrounds in town and make it a priority to try them out.”
Jadon says that play is important because “it’s important to stay active and not be bored all day.” His mom adds that play “helps build imagination, social skills, and even problem-solving skills.” Which is all true—though when it comes down to it, Jadon likes to play for the same reason as children around the world and throughout history have always liked to play: “Because it’s fun.”
Unfortunately, as Jadon has learned, some children are missing out on the fun. We need more kids like him to help bring the fun back to childhood.
How many Legos do you think are in the jar? Give Jadon some words of encouragement and make your own guess!