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Allowing Full Play



Darell Hammond hung out with the First Lady this week. A-gain.

Hammond is the founder and CEO of KaBoom!, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide a safe place to play within walking distance for every child in America. On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama joined Hammond at a charter school in D.C. to cut the ribbon at KaBoom’s 2,000th playground build, the second time she’s held the giant scissors for KaBoom! Past ribbon cutters include former First Lady Laura Bush; celebs such as Regis Phibin and Kelly Ripa also have attended builds.

Hammond founded KaBoom! after reading a newspaper article about two children who suffocated while playing in a car in D.C. because they had no other place to play. His recently-released book, "KaBoom! How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play" made the New York Times best seller list.

Let’s start off with your book. What inspired you to write it, and what do you hope people take with them after they’ve read it?

KaBOOM! is commemorating its 15th anniversary this year and to celebrate, I wanted to share what we have done in our first 15 years and what we can accomplish in the future. The book not only tells the story of my personal journey — which starts at a group home called Mooseheart, where I spent most of my childhood — it also describes how we took an idea and transformed it into an organization that has changed people’s lives. To continue that transformation, the book also serves as a how-to guide for folks who’ve become inspired to help me fight the Play Deficit. I want readers to take up the cause in their own neighborhoods. I hope people take away the fact that everyone has the power to make a difference.


What did you learn from writing the book?

My number one take-away? That I am never going to be a professional writer. It was easier for me to build 2,000 playgrounds than to write a 300 page book. Seriously though, in doing the research for this book, I had to do an extraordinary amount of digging into my family’s past. I also had to do a good bit of soul-searching and coming to terms with the mistakes I’ve made over the years. But if we don’t take a serious look at our mistakes, we’ll never learn from them.

Your inspiring personal story is pretty well-known among those working to increase physical activity opportunities for young people. How do you think it is shaping the work you do today?

My personal history is what keeps me going when the going gets tough, because I know how much what I do matters. When I was little, I saw first-hand how much impact volunteers could have, and now, as an adult, I know how critical it was for me to have a great place to play growing up. I know first-hand how important volunteering and charitable giving is for everyone involved, because hundreds of thousands of Moose members donated their time and money to support the place I called home. And they made sure I had a place to play every day. Now that I’m an adult, I can tell how my experience on those playgrounds shaped much of my character, from my ability to negotiate with others to the calculated risks I take.

It seems that the lack of safe places to play is a big factor driving the ongoing childhood obesity epidemic. What do you think happened in our society that caused active play to be pushed aside?

The Play Deficit has been building for years, and there’s no one culprit, but within one generation, unstructured play has all but vanished from children’s lives. The most blatant issue KaBOOM! addresses is the lack of spaces children have to play. The CDC reports that only one in five children live within walking distance of a playground. Why did this happen? I think that in low-income neighborhoods, living space is at a premium, so apartment buildings and convenience stores gobble up all the open space, and cars have totally taken over the roads where kids used to play asphalt games. In the suburbs, parents with big jobs got big houses with big fenced-in lawns and I think they became too insulated, and too nuclear. In the process, they lost a lot of the sense of community there used to be, along with an appreciation for the importance of public space, where neighborhood children could gather and play pick-up games.

Other culprits include a parental reliance on television and computers to be digital babysitters. Kids spend more than seven hours a day with electronic media now. That’s time they’re not spending playing outside like we used to. We’re also living in a more litigious society, so playgrounds get dumbed down to the point where they’re no fun. Lots of places can’t have swings anymore because of a fear of lawsuits. Can you imagine growing up without access to a swing? Then there’s the parents who over-schedule their kids, so they go from adult-taught piano lesson to adult-coached game and every waking hour is controlled by someone else, so kids can’t initiate anything, or think for themselves.

Basically there’s one problem with 100 different solutions, which is why I’m working to get the entire nation to take on the Play Deficit in their own community. Every community needs to come up with their own answer to this, for the sake of their children’s health and happiness.

What advice would you have for people looking to increase places for play in their own communities?

In the book, I lay out ideas of what folks can do. Also, I encourage folks to get involved on and join the national conversation about the importance of play. Some of the best ideas are still out there and we want to hear them.

Here are three ideas from the book:

Form a playground watch: Put parents at ease and encourage more playground use by gathering a group of volunteers to rotate shifts on a playground watch. Not only does this ensure that a responsible adult is always at the playground, but it protects against vandalism and crime. And don’t forget to add the playground to our Playspace Finder so you can easily organize the community around the park.

Organize a play street: Work with your neighborhood and your city to close the street on a regular basis (maybe once a week like Jackson Heights in Queens, NY) and open it up for play!

Build a playground: Don’t have a playground in your neighborhood or school? Build one yourself! Use our online project planner, which will take you through every part of the playspace building process, from idea to fundraising to ongoing maintenance. The planner gives you all the tools you need to follow our unique done-in-a-day, community-led build model.

What has happened to the playgrounds you’ve built? Are most still in good shape and used by the kids in their communities? Have some fallen into disrepair? If so, does KaBOOM! ever return to communities and make repairs?

The thing to remember here is that KaBOOM! doesn’t build the playgrounds. We empower communities to build each and every playground. Community members are part of the planning process from the very beginning and have to raise funds, volunteers, tools, and food, so we know they’re totally invested in the project. Our playgrounds are really well maintained, and last much longer than those built without community involvement. No kid is going to mess up a playground his mother helped build, and no community that worked so hard for something wonderful is going to let it fall into disrepair. One great example of the power of the KaBOOM! community-build model is in Hartford, Connecticut, where in the very same neighborhood, one playground was installed by a manufacturer and was trashed within two years. A KaBOOM! community-built playground went in at about the same time and is going strong to this day. That’s the power of community investment and involvement in the process.

Do you find it difficult to convince people that more play is needed, or do you find folks to be pretty responsive?

It’s strange, because while adults deeply cherish their own childhood play memories, many think of play as a luxury, not a childhood necessity. So I have to carefully lay out the fact that there’s a Play Deficit in the nation and that it’s causing real harm to our children. Once folks understand the physical, mental, academic, and social consequences of the Play Deficit, they’re usually ready to help me take action.

What’s your favorite part of the playground? The monkey bars? The jungle gym? The swings?

I’ll always love the swings, but there’s all sorts of great equipment and new ideas out there now. I’m really excited about our new Imagination Playground equipment system, I love the things that let kids move, wobble or spin. I’m also really interested in including more nature play on playgrounds.

What’s next for you and KaBOOM?

First, we have to show people how many kids need a place to play, so we’re creating a Play Desert Map that shows which communities are child-rich and playground poor. Then, we can’t build all the playgrounds America needs by ourselves, so I’m focusing a lot of my time and energy to spread the word about our online project planner (like a wedding planner, for playgrounds), which enables folks to build playgrounds using our community-build model with our help, but without one of our project managers on the ground. We’re also working hard to help local governments take steps towards ensuring that kids in their communities have a great place to play. Sometimes the structures already exist, but they’re locked up when kids are out of school, so we support joint use agreements to open these sites up to the public.