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Darell Hammond wants to ignite a KaBOOM! in building public playgrounds

Darell Hammond, founder of KaBOOM!, talks about why kids need unstructured playtime and efforts to map 'play deserts' where playgrounds need to be built or renovated. The key to it all: self-organizing local citizen groups.

By Staff Writer / April 25, 2011

Darell Hammond, chief executive officer and founder of KaBOOM!

Courtesy of KaBOOM!

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KaBOOM! is a nonprofit group in Washington D.C. dedicated to helping provide American kids with a safe place to play within walking distance of their homes. Founder and CEO Darell Hammond grew up in a group home outside Chicago and as a young adult was moved to action when he read about two children who died while playing in an abandoned car because there was no playground nearby. Now, after 15 years, KaBOOM! is about to build its 2,000th playground in low-income areas around the US. Hammond's new book, "KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play," is being published tomorrow.

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"We're not trying to do all the work ourselves," Mr. Hammond says in a recent phone interview with me. "We're trying to frame the issue" and "build tools" that local groups can use.

We also talked about America's "state of play," the nation's "play deficit," efforts to map "play deserts" (where playgrounds need to be built or renovated), and how the work of self-organized local citizens underlies the KaBOOM! philosophy.

(The interview below has been edited and condensed.)

Just how bad is our "play deficit" in America?

Darell Hammond: We built more than 200 playgrounds last year but we got more than 14,000 requests. [The problem] is bigger than the resources KaBOOM! has to solve it. And that's why we're trying to crowd-source the solution to get it to be higher on parents', teachers', and administrators' agendas, but also recognizing that if we sense an urgency there's also a solution that comes behind it.

You're nearing 2,000 playgrounds that you've built?

Our big milestones this year are our 15th birthday and that we'll build our 2,000th playground. We have raised $200 million, leveraged over 1 million volunteers, and impacted 5.5 million kids. So we're pretty proud of that.

What do you hope your book will accomplish?

This is KaBOOM!'s 15th birthday and as we looked back at the impact we've been able to have and looked forward to what's needed and necessary one of the things that we recognized is that as a society we treat play too much as a luxury. We need to think about how do we get people to better understand that it's through play that kids build the social skills, the muscular development, and actually the creativity that's going to be needed and necessary for a thriving childhood but also to adapt to the world they are going to inherit, sooner rather than later.

KaBOOM helps local organizations come together to build playgrounds for children?

We're solving the "play deficit" through empowering communities to map where the play opportunities are, to map "play deserts." After they've identified "play deserts" [they] actually tap into tools and resources to build and improve the [playgrounds] that exist or need to exist and become advocates at the city level for times and places for play, such as reinstating recess, or [developing] a master plan around what would make the whole city more playful.

So building a new playground is only one solution, one part of what you're advocating?

We're asking people to map their current "state of play." If they figure out that there's a play deficit in either access or quality [they can] improve it by building or managing a current [playground] better and then go on to look at the whole city and ultimately the whole country.

How have the economic problems of the last few years impacted your efforts?

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