KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play

Anyone who spent his or her childhood summers running, jumping, or sliding at a neighborhood playground will be drawn to KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. In it, Darell Hammond shares the story of how he and Dawn Hutchinson-Weiss founded KaBOOM! in 1995 to help residents in low-income communities organize themselves to build much-needed playgrounds in their communities.

One of eight children, Hammond spent his childhood at Mooseheart, a Chicago-area institution affiliated with the Loyal Order of Moose that houses children and families in need on a sprawling campus that includes a K-12 school, a fieldhouse and stadium, and athletic fields and courts. While Hammond's time at Mooseheart didn't lead him directly to the nonprofit sector, his values, many of which are reflected in KaBOOM!'s organizational culture, were shaped by his experience there. "Among other things," he writes, "those values are a way of thinking about challenges and obstacles, and they hold that you have to push beyond such limits if you really want to transform yourself."

In part, his book is a leadership guide for nonprofit managers filled with Drucker-esque tips and life lessons learned the hard way. Hammond is not afraid to share his weaknesses, and he does so often. For example, in a chapter about the early days of KaBOOM!, he explains how he lost his temper with an employee during a staff meeting. At the time, I was "impatient and...immature," he writes, but have since learned the wisdom of "prais[ing] in public, reprimand[ing] in private." He also describes in detail the organization's growing pains, including the time he was nearly ousted as CEO by eight disgruntled employees (out of a staff of twelve). In the end, the employee who led the attempted coup was fired, but Hammond, with support from his board, made changes that addressed the remaining employees' concerns.

The story of the organization's growth is fascinating. In its early days, KaBOOM! worked offline only, with a project manager traveling to each project site twice — the first time for Design Day, during which children from the community were encouraged to draw their dream playground and (perhaps more importantly) relationships with community residents and representatives were cultivated; and the second time to oversee construction of a "done-in-a-day" playground. With advances in technology, however, the organization eventually moved from a "one to one" model, in which a single project manager is assigned to a project from start to finish, to a "many to many" model in which the KaBOOM! Web site serves as a platform for "people to talk to each other about play and playgrounds, sharing their expertise and motivating each other." As a result of that shift, the organization has boosted the number of people it trains every year to over nine thousand, while significantly increasing the number of playgrounds built (with or without its direct support).

Because KaBOOM! measures its impact by what happens after a playground is built, the organization annually visits about twenty-five sites that have been open at least two years; Hammond notes that an impressive 86 percent of KaBOOM! projects are well maintained two years after they've come online. The organization also looks at the "ripple effects" the construction of a new playground can have; indeed, one of its goals in bringing people together to improve a neighborhood is to empower residents to believe they are the key ingredient in community-based change. In the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia, for example, the playground built with the organization's help was "tagged" repeatedly by local youth in the days after it was opened. Each time it was hit, however, a community partner by the name of Juanita Hatton would remove the tag. Hatton did this for five days, until the graffiti stopped appearing. She also assigned local kids to keep an eye on the site and report anything "unusual." In 2010, more than ten years after the playground was built, it was still in great shape.

For someone who spent her youth outside playing, it's easy for me to appreciate the critical role of play and playtime in the physical and emotional development of children. For those who remain unconvinced, Hammond provides research that supports the argument. And he asserts that play is how children prepare themselves for adulthood. "In much the way the play of young animals is related to what those animals will do once they've matured, for children, play is a stab at reality, a way for them to explore the world with the benefit of a safety net," he writes. "How kids play also allows them to experience risk and the consequences of physical actions. It's where they get to push their physical limits (higher on the swing! faster on the merry-go-round!), which teaches them about danger and consequences."

Hammond also cites the positive effect of play on a child's ability to learn. According to a study by scientists at the University of North Carolina, "kids who played a lot in their early years ended up with improved reading levels and a greater likelihood of attending college. They even had higher IQ scores, averaging 105 compared to about 85."

Unfortunately, while the benefits of play are evident to almost everyone, the need for playtime infrastructure has never been greater — a serious problem made worse by an increase in lawsuits "where some families sue...for what basically amount to routine [playground] accidents." In response, some school districts have gone so far as to ban certain activities and/or equipment, including running (Broward County, Florida), sledding (Warren County, New Jersey; Flagstaff, Arizona), and swings (Plano, Texas). "The result of all this is that kids are possibly safer in the short term, in the same way that you'd be safer if you never left your house," writes Hammond. "But even if you put bubble wrap around kids and bundled them into helmets and elbow pads and steel-toed high-tops, they'd come out worse in the end. They'd reach adulthood unable to evaluate risk, and they'd be terrified of the world."

Indeed, despite the best efforts of KaBOOM! to promote the importance of playgrounds and playtime — over the last fifteen years, it has raised almost $200 million and built more than two thousand playgrounds — Hammond says the organization's successes "are not enough to fill the large and growing gap between what's currently out there for kids and what's needed." To address that gap, he urges readers to engage in "mass-level collaboration," even as he argues against more research on the benefits of play ("[it] takes a very long time...and right now we don't have the luxury of time"). His other recommendations are equally sensible (if not always practical): nonprofits in the children and youth space need to work together instead of competing against each other (for funds and supporters); federal governments should make school recess mandatory (and require fewer standardized tests); and state and local governments should adjust their funding priorities to create more support for playtime infrastructure.

For those interested, Hammond also shares the inner workings of a playground construction project, and he ends the book with a list of ways parents can advocate on behalf of play. KaBOOM! can do a lot, he says, "but only if we have people from local neighborhoods working shoulder to shoulder....Even the resources of the U.S. government don't compare with what a small group of dedicated, passionate people can do in their own neighborhood by working together."

Wise words from someone who has witnessed the truth of that statement in action.

Regina Mahone
Staff Writer, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York