StoriesPlayspaces can help address the youth mental health crisis

By KABOOM! | May 11, 2022

“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.”Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

The health and well-being of our kids is deeply connected to the places where they live and play. As the world nears the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, kids, much like adults, need outlets that relieve stress and provide social connection more than ever. Spaces where young people can be active, express themselves, connect with friends and neighbors, or just blow off steam are critical, and in some communities they’re in short supply.

Supporting the mental health of young people is an important part of our work to increase access to playspaces at KABOOM!, and is even more critical given the troubling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past two years, nearly a quarter-million children in the United States lost a caregiver due to the pandemic, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. Rates of anxiety, depression, trauma, loneliness, and suicide have skyrocketed, spurring national pediatric groups to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health and advocate for a range of interventions.

These interventions include increasing funding for mental health resources, integrating mental healthcare into schools, and creating more community-based programs that connect young people to supports and resources. Investing in child-friendly neighborhood spaces like parks and playgrounds is an essential part of the solution too. They provide numerous benefits that support mental health, and should be part of a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of the one in five youth who experience mental illness. Research demonstrates how time spent in these spaces is associated with lower rates of stress, depression, and anxiety and greater life satisfaction.

Experts recognize that play is important in practically all areas of childhood health. “I think we’re continuously learning that play is really essential for kids — it’s not just an afterthought or an accessory,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) report on promoting healthy development through play. It’s so important for mental and physical health, in fact, that the AAP recommends doctors write a “prescription for play” encouraging caregivers to play with their child every day in the early years of life.

Many city leaders recognize that this simple fact–kids need play to grow and thrive–is amplified when you look more broadly at community health. Toxic stress associated with systemic racism and poverty are being compounded by pandemic-related disruptions and economic strain. The clear need for action at a systems level is why KABOOM! recently launched the 25 in 5 Initiative to End Playspace Inequity, our five-year, $250 million plan to accelerate efforts towards achieving playspace equity across the United States. Over the next five years, we will work alongside the places and people – systems, municipalities, and nonprofit networks – to ensure that every child can access the critical development benefits an amazing place to play provides.

Our kids need our support now more than ever. Leaders in cities and towns must work to ensure that all children have equitable access to the recreation they need to grow up happy and healthy. It will take a collaborative approach to address this growing mental health need, and we are committed to doing our part together with communities to create joyful spaces where kids feel they are valued and belong. Through diverse, creative partnerships and bold action, we can support children through troubled waters and into happier, brighter futures.

If you know a young person who is struggling with mental health, resources are available here:

  • Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741 in the United States
  • For LGBTQ Youth: TrevorLifeline at 866-488-7386, Trevor Text- Text “START” to 678676
  • Resources for parents, caregivers, and others can be found at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

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