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Making Playtime A Priority In America's Cities


So summer is almost here. For kids, they're certainly think about having more time to play but have you ever thought about where kids play? More and more people are raising families in urban environments, and for kids growing up in cities it's not always easy to find a safe place to play. So the nonprofit organization, KaBOOM!, got serious about the issue and recently partnered with the Humana Foundation to develop a national movement for playability in cities. It's called Playful City USA, and it honors communities across the country that work to give kids easy access to safe places to play. Here to tell us more is Darell Hammond. He is the CEO and founder of KaBOOM! and he joins us now in our studios in Washington, DC. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DARELL HAMMOND: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well first of all, just tell us what KaBOOM! does, for people who aren't familiar with it.

HAMMOND: So, we're been around for 19 years and we've developed over 2,600 playgrounds using corporate and community volunteers to work side-by-sides to fight for something. And we know we've made a difference and we know we've had an impact, but we get tens of thousands of applications every year for the 200 playgrounds that we end up building.

MARTIN: So, why are playgrounds important? I mean, let me just go back to the basic question - why are playgrounds important? And then hopefully you'll tell us about playability and why is that important.

HAMMOND: Yeah, well play is the work of kids as Fred Rogers said. And it's a way for them both to exercise their wiggles, exercise their mind and exercise their body. And it's the way they rationalize their world around them. It's the way that they learn social connections. It's both very intricate and very simple, and it's the foundation for lifelong ability to have relationships, to have health and to have a life prepared for living.

MARTIN: We talk about - a lot of times when you have these surveys of - or sometimes magazines - some sites will have surveys of, like, the livability, or affordability, or walk ability - and you want to get people to start thinking about playability. What makes a city playable?

HAMMOND: Yeah, for us playable means - it's the effort in which a city goes through to give all kids the balance and active play every day as the easy choice. And just like walk ability, bike ability - those are generally adult things. And they're in the adult context. And we know cities are struggling to try to figure out how to be child-friendly and family-friendly - not just to attract a creative class, but to be able to maintain them, grow them, and sustain them once they start having kids. And we've actually designed kids out of cities, and this is an attempt to design family-friendly child-friendly cities once again.

MARTIN: Tell me why that you think that that matters for cities? I mean, like, the core of the question is why should cities be places that are safe and good for families with children and not just for, you know, professional adults? Like, why do you think that matters?

HAMMOND: As mayors have told us across the country, it's an economic viability - that they need a tax base that will stay to put into the school system, to be close to the jobs so that they can attract and be employers of choice. You know, I was in Pittsburgh and the mayor was talking about developing and attracting 25 new families to downtown area. Mayor Emanuel is trying to do the same thing in Chicago, just as Mayor Rawlings-Blake is trying to do. She's trying to attract 10,000 new families.

And if you want to do that, you actually have to have amenities that have those strollers, that have these playgrounds and parks and walking paths, so that families can socialize and live together - not just live in their backyard, but live in the front yard and make the city the front yard. And we talk about, you know, playgrounds are important but the whole city should be a playground and play should happen everywhere. And there should be playful sidewalks and bus stops may have swings on them like they've done in Montréal.

MARTIN: Talk about how - you mention that you've been doing this work for almost 20 years now. Have the conversations changed over the course of time that you've been doing it? I was curious about how when you first started this playability index idea - just the basic project of KaBOOM!, which is building playgrounds and getting the community involved to build playgrounds - like, what kind of reception you had then versus what you have now.

HAMMOND: The reception is still the same, and people think that it's really nice what we do and we're best in class at putting off a done in a day volunteer experience, but we have to create a sense of urgency. Kids are losing their childhood - particularly the 60 million kids living in poverty. And that keeps me up at night, and that keeps our organization up at night. And, we have to give them a childhood that they deserve and play needs to be a part of that and we need to work it back in to where they live at home - their community around them at school, and caring adults that will participate in their lives. And the difference is, is that we have to create a sense of urgency around something that's so joyful.

MARTIN: Well, how did this start for you? I mean, you've written a memoir about this and you've written about this in the past - and I don't know if you're kind of burned out on talking about it - but I would - if you don't mind - I would like to ask you, for people who don't know the story about how you got started on this.

HAMMOND: Yeah. Well, I'm a product of charity myself. I grew up in a group home outside of Chicago and spent 14 years being raised by a charity. And I dropped out, or flunked out of college and moved here to Washington, DC and was on a friend's couch and was building a playground project as more of a volunteer event, when I read about two young kids in the shadows of the capital in Anacostia that had crawled into an abandoned car in 1995, suffocated and died. And a reporter from the Washington Post went down to the neighborhood and couldn't find a park three miles from where they lived. And finger-pointing was happening.

The mayor was blaming park and rec. and park and rec. blamed the housing authority. And I didn't set out to start an organization. I just said, I've got the skill to build a playground. Let's go try to remedy this situation for Aisha (PH) and Clindon (PH). Because the difference was, a community - when my situation happened to my family of eight - the community gave me a bear hug.

And Aisha and Clindon's community didn't give them a bear hug and I don't know what the circumstance of why it was different. I have some suggestions - some ideas - probably race, their zip code that they were born in versus where I was born. And those kids didn't get the childhood that they deserve. And so this has been my kind of fell-in-to passion about trying to give the kids the childhood that I got - something equal and comparable.

MARTIN: Do you feel that there's a best practice place that you would point to? Is there someplace that you feel in the United States, or wherever, that you would like other people to point to as an example of getting it right?

HAMMOND: Well, in the Playful City USA program we've recognized two hundred and twelve cities, and they're on the right journey. They're setting bold goals, they're trying to solve big problems and trying to use play as a means to either addressing toxic stress or caring adults. And, I look at what Chicago and the mayor is doing there - he's putting money to build up 300 new playgrounds within a seven minute walk of every person living in Chicago.

I look at Brownsville, TX, the poorest city in the country, who's trying to use play as a way to preventing toxic stress that we know is a chemical condition happens in your brain. And once it happens, it changes your ability to use the executive function, empathy and resiliency. So, I'm excited about some of the examples we see but it's just the start. And we need to both intensify the start that's happening, recognize what the best practices are and then, frankly, have a dominoes effect to see more cities adopt family-friendly, child-friendly policies to see it's scale.

MARTIN: Darell Hammond is CEO and founder of KaBOOM! and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, DC. Darell Hammond, thanks so much for joining us.

HAMMOND: Michel, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.