For 14 years, national nonprofit organization KaBOOM! has been
building playgrounds across the United States in an effort to build
communities and get children active and healthy. The organizations
Playful City USA campaign honors communities that have made a
commitment to improving the lives of children through play.
As part of that campaign, KaBOOM! commissioned a nationwide study
of various programs and local initiatives that increase the
activity levels of children. The resulting report, Play Matters,
highlights 12 simple and cost-effective ways public managers and
other local leaders can use play to improve the well-being of their
The opportunity to play is essential to childrens physical, social,
emotional, and educational development, as well as for the health
and well-being of their communities. Unfortunately, play is
disappearing from the lives of children. Rising obesity rates are
perhaps the most measurable and alarming evidence of a generation
that is less active and less playful. If this trend is not
reversed, this Sedentary Generation is on track to live shorter,
unhealthier lives than their parents.
The challenge for advocates and policymakers is to demonstrate that
play and play spaces are part of the solution to this urgent public
health problem. To overcome the misperception that play is trivial,
there must be more champions for play, and they must do a better
job of explaining its benefits. Civic leaders and citizens need to
mount robust and sustained initiatives that produce measurable
results in enhancing health, educational, environmental, economic,
and community development.
The KaBOOM! Play Matters report highlights 12 initiatives that have
used play to address one or more key issues and have seen benefits
in their communities as a result of their actions. The local
initiatives chosen for inclusion in the report run the gamut from
urban to rural and old school to high tech, and many were
implemented in a range of income environments.
To make the cut, each of the 12 initiatives had to show proven
results and represent a significant commitment to increasing play
and physical activity. In addition, the program or initiative
needed to be something other populations could do to increase the
amount of play in the lives of children in their own communities.
Honored Communities Ankeny, Iowa: Parks and Recreation
Total population: 42,287
Youth population: 11,460
Ankenys initiative, Governing through Citizen Engagement, involves
public-private collaboration that builds political capital in a
Ankeny has a rapidly expanding population of young families and a
culture oriented toward athletics. Citizen demand for athletic
facilities fast exceeded the supply of available space. After an
initial bond measure to build a sports complex failed, the city
reached out to citizens to solicit input and enlist fundraising
The outreach process revealed pent-up demand for play space and
triggered a cultural shift in governing: The city now incorporates
resident input into all phases of planning, implementation, and
maintenance. As a result of high citizen participation and
satisfaction rates, the Parks and Recreation Department had the
political capital to proceed with an ambitious plan for the
development of play areas in Ankeny.
City-led efforts resulted in a new 124-acre sports complex that
alleviated pressure on neighborhood playgrounds, and Ankeny has
since built two playgrounds at the complex and at a skate park.
There are now 33 parks and 21 playgrounds serving the regions
youth, with Ankeny constructing up to three new playgrounds per
Since 2002, Ankeny Parks and Recreation has directed $1.5 million
in public resources per year to playground development. Public
inputthrough surveys, focus groups, community engagement meetings,
and playground votesnow informs every park and playground
The citys 228-page master plan to guide future investment in parks,
playgrounds, and other open space is a product of public-private
Baltimore: Playworks (formerly Sports4Kids)
Total population: 763,181
Youth population: 178,012
Baltimores initiative, Playworks, is a cost-efficient way to reduce
violence and improve behavior. It provides full-day play and
physical education programming at low-income schools.
The program, which began in Oakland, California, is now active in
several other cities. It has been championed by school principals
as a cost-efficient way to improve schools overall learning
environments and culturesnot just the behavior of children on the
The Playworks model uses coaches trained to facilitate play during
the school day. A key focus of the program is recess. Particularly
at low-income, inner-city schools, disciplinary problems, a lack of
school staffing, and unsafe playgrounds have compromised
opportunities for play during recess.
There are 10,000 children participating in Playworks programs at 24
schools across Baltimore. In addition to recess and after-school
programming, Playworks also runs classroom games during the school
day. On average, Playworks delivers three 30-minute classroom games
each day in different classes within the school.
As a result of the program, Baltimore schools report fewer
incidents of violence, suspensions, and expulsions, as well as
improved behavior in the classroom.
San Francisco: ParkScan
Total population: 744,041
Youth population: 107,885
San Franciscos ParkScan initiative is driven by a coalition of park
advocates who aim to change business as usual attitudes. City
residents organized to hold public officials accountable for
improving playground quality and safety. The effort was led by park
activist Isabel Wade, who mobilized a coalition of park groups to
build awareness, visibility, and broader political support and
financial capital for parks.
To improve on public transparency and accountability, the
Neighborhood Parks Council (NPC) developed ParkScan, a tool to
document, report, and track park maintenance issues. ParkScan data
collection heightened public interest in improving the safety of
San Franciscos playgrounds. In response, NPC focused its political
capital and tactics on playgrounds in disrepair and increases in
public and private funding for playground development.
Of the 26 playgrounds receiving a failing grade on the 2006
Playground Report Card, seven have been upgraded to a passing grade
and 15 are on track to receive a C or better, either through
capital development or a focused effort on playground repair. NPC
has supported more than 100 friends of community groups that have
conducted work days to clean up and repair their neighborhood
playgrounds. Since 1996, the advocacy of NPC has helped support the
rebuilding and renovation of 40 playgrounds in San Francisco.
Boston: Boston Schoolyard Initiative
Total population: 589,141
Youth population: 116,649
Bostons Schoolyard Initiative succeeds by avoiding costly errors.
The citys public-private collaboration, initially inspired by the
green movement, has constructed new schoolyards across the city.
With the leadership of Mayor Tom Menino, the Boston Schoolyard
Initiative has transformed the outdoor physical space of more than
70 Boston schoolyards into colorful and engaging outdoor classrooms
and places to play.
More than $4 million in private funds and nearly $16 million in
public funds have been invested in designing and constructing
comprehensive schoolyards across Boston. Mayor Menino has been the
leading political champion for this effort, safeguarding resources
during an economic downturn and positioning this project as part of
his education reform agenda.
Greenbelt, Maryland: Joint-Use Agreements with Homeowners
Total population: 21,456
Youth population: 5,167
Greenbelts public-private partnership between the city and
homeowners associations (HOAs) increases both the quality and
accessibility of playgrounds.
Building on a model joint-use agreement between the city and the
most established homeowners associations in Greenbelt,
representatives of some of the more recently developed associations
successfully lobbied the city council to extend agreements for play
spaces. As a result of this partnership, there has been greater
public and private attention to and investment in play spaces for
As a condition of these joint-use agreements, upgraded play spaces
are made accessible to all citizens of Greenbelt. There are
currently 60 public and private playgrounds in Greenbelta city
covering six square miles. The joint-use agreements provided access
to an additional seven playgrounds for children and families living
outside HOA areas and made existing playgrounds more accessible for
Boulder, Colorado: The Freiker Program
Total population: 94,673
Youth population: 13,569
Boulders Freiker program is a low-cost project to get children
biking and walking. Freiker (short for frequent biker) is a parent-
and volunteer-driven nonprofit that uses incentives and innovative
technology to increase the number of elementary school children
regularly bicycling and walking to school.
A solar-powered freikometer counts daily trips. Children and
parents can view and manage their data online, and students receive
awards based on activity level. Within five years, this low-cost
model has significantly increased physical activity and has spread
to schools in four other states and Canada.
Three thousand participants have completed more than 120,000 foot
and bicycle trips and have traveled 150,000 miles (six times around
the world). Freiker reports that the children have burned more than
3.5 million calories, saved nearly 8,000 gallons of gas, and
prevented more than 150,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
Although launched in an affluent suburb, the program has proven
replicable in low-income and urban communities.
St. Petersburg, Florida: Play n Close to Home
Total population: 248,232
Youth population: 39,631
St. Petersburgs Play n Close to Home initiative demonstrates how
one man (the mayor) made a difference. Mayor Rick Baker developed
the policy, which would create a playground within a half mile of
every child in the city.
The mayor then leveraged his political position to create the
organizational authority, systems, and resources necessary to
implement this policy. Through joint-use agreements with the school
district and community organizations, the city has significantly
improved opportunities for play.
Over seven years, Baker increased the percentage of youth aged 18
and under living within a half mile of a playground from 49 percent
to 74 percent (See Table 1). The mayor also directed $500,000 in
public resources per year to new playground development during that
The mayors playground policy resulted in 25 new playgroundsmany of
which are located in underserved communitiesand eight new play
areas on school grounds, where the previous equipment was often
inadequate, outdated, and dilapidated.
Denver: Learning Landscapes
Total population: 588,349
Youth population: 143,557
Denvers Learning Landscapes initiative is a school-community
partnership that inspires civic leaders. The citys Learning
Landscapes effort is an entrepreneurial public-private partnership
that designs and builds comprehensive outdoor play spaces at
schools across Denver. The design-and-build process provided an
opportunity to work with schools to engage parents, students,
businesses, and civic leaders.
Through joint-use agreements, these play spaces were opened up to
the community after school hours.
The popularity of these play spaces led to public demandand $39
million in public fundingto expand the model program to every
schoolyard across Denver.
Tucson, Arizona: Sharing Play Space and
Total population: 486,669
Youth population: 129,227
Tucson has employed joint-use agreements to increase open space and
improve safety. The city and the Tucson Unified School District
developed a joint-use agreement to open up new play spaces to the
public. By sharing liability and maintenance responsibilities, the
school district saved money while city residents benefited.
Twelve neighborhood playgrounds and fields have been opened up to
the community and general public. Each of the citys six districts
now has two additional playgrounds, chosen specifically in
communities with the largest deficit of play space. Play equipment
at these 12 playgrounds was evaluated and, where necessary,
upgraded to meet the National Playground Safety Institutes
The spaces on these grounds now receive year-round maintenance
support and are regularly patrolled by the police. Communities
report reduced vandalism at schools with open school yards.
Seattle: High Point Housing Project
Total population: 594,210
Youth population: 103,747
Seattles High Point Housing Project is a play-friendly community
that has attracted national attention. The program provides a model
of a mixed-income and intergenerational planned community that was
designed with a focus on healthy living.
The Seattle Housing Authority, a public corporation governed by a
citizen commission, received federal funding for the project. By
engaging residents and collaborating agencies, the authority
transformed a built environment oriented to vehicles and without
safe, accessible play areas into an innovative, play-friendly
community that is attracting national attention.
Within less than one-square mile, the High Point development has 17
playgrounds and a community park. There are pocket parks on every
other block that serve as front lawns and community play spaces.
New York City: Streets Renaissance Campaign
Total population: 8,008,278
Youth population: 2,153,450
New York City has focused on its play efforts on the Streets as
Places to Play program. Reviving an old New York City
traditionstreets as great places for children to playthe Big Apple
underscores its long history of turning paved areas into
opportunities for community gatherings, entertainment, and play.
The last few years have seen improved access to streets for such
activities. The movement has been driven by grassroots advocacy
groups and community members who are effectively using new media
tools to develop public awareness and build support.
A recent increase in applications for block parties and
high-profile street closures are evidence of the success of this
effort. In a densely developed urban area, street closures are a
cost-efficient and effective way to provide children with access to
safe, open areas for play.
In 2008, residents held 3,000 block parties, an increase of 300
from 2007. The city also permitted one Sunday play street for seven
months of the year, serving roughly 1,000 people per week. Efforts
are underway to expand the program to additional neighborhoods.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Switch Program
Total population: 126,396
Youth population: 30,967
Cedar Rapids initiativeSwitch What You Do, View,
and Chewis about more play, less screen time, and healthier eating.
The citys effort is a community- and family-based program designed
to encourage eight- to 10-year-old children to change three
critical health behaviors, all of which are proven risk factors for
The program aims to increase childrens physical activity (Switch
What You Do), decrease their screen time (Switch What You View),
and increase their fruit and vegetable consumption (Switch What You
Chew). Initially developed and tested by the National Institute on
Media and the Family, the program measures and then creates
incentives for physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption,
and reduced screen time.
Since 2005, more than 2,500 students in Cedar Rapids have
participated in the program. On average, participants decreased
their screen time more than two hours per week, increased their
steps by about 350 per day, and increased fruit and vegetable
consumption by two servings per day. The Switch Team reported that
children in the program spent more time performing physical
activity and less time in front of the television or computer.