A low roll of thunder rumbled in the cloudy Denver sky recently. A hundred volunteers’ heads turned toward the sky, pausing with shovels of cement and mulch in hand, as the first raindrops fell over the José Valdez Elementary School’s new playground.
Kathryn Lusk, senior project manager with KaBOOM!, took a microphone from under a purple tent where a few volunteers had taken shelter.
“For everyone who was getting too hot earlier this morning, I think we’re about to cool off,” she quipped.
In four hours, 150 volunteers had turned a barren lot into a playground, adding new equipment, painting murals alongside the school’s sidewalks, and making art easels for the kids’ art classes.
The playground was the result of collaboration between the school, community and KaBOOM!, a non-profit group which helps low-income communities build safe places for children to play. The new playground at the Valdez school was one of more than 2,000 playground services that KaBOOM! has helped build in its 15 years.
Founder Darell Hammond said the group’s mission is to help communities realize their own dream playgrounds and put play back on society’s priority list.
“People have to see play as more important than what it currently is,” he said. “We don’t want to get boxed into thinking play only happens on a playground. The best type of play is all kinds of play.”
Hammond, who himself grew up in a group home outside of Chicago, found that play and exercise were in danger in the United States as kids spend more and more time in front of televisions or computers. Families in high-crime urban areas also rarely have a safe place to play.
But the playgrounds don’t just benefit their visitors, said Hammond. Getting parents and kids outside and active helps keep the whole community safer.
“Crime doesn’t happen where people congregate,” he said.
KaBOOM! receives about 14,000 requests a year to help build play spaces for schools and communities. The group then coordinates with a corporate sponsor like Target or Dr Pepper-Snapple to pay for 90 percent of the building costs, and the community pays for the remaining 10 percent. The group helps manage the construction, coordinating the community, contractors, suppliers and sponsors.
Valdez was a good candidate for KaBOOM!’s help, according to those involved. Jennie Klein, an administrative assistant at the school, said 72 percent of the students receive free or reduced cost lunches. A dual-language school, the kids come from diverse lower- to middle-class backgrounds as the neighborhood demographics shift.
“These kids totally need and deserve this,” Klein added.
Students at Valdez drew designs of their dream playground. The artwork that inspired the final design hung around the gym on the day of the build — colorful crayon drawings of slides and swing sets. Principal Peter Sherman said they decided to include a green space and a courtyard so parents and the rest of the community could use the grounds, too.
Molly Gilpin, one of the parents who spearheaded the playground project, said she got involved because she wanted to see her daughters have a better, safer place to play at school.
“I can’t tell you how many times my daughter has been nailed in the head by the old swing sets,” she said.
Gilpin added that the more her daughters get to play, the less disciplining she needs to do.
Last year, 600 communities built new play spaces on their own, Hammond said. KaBOOM! is encouraging that by offering online applications to allow people to map the “state of play” in their state, providing information on quality and access to parks and playgrounds by area and telling them how they can do more.
Hammond added that he’d be happy to put himself out of a job once the play more attitude takes off.