In 1995, when two Washington, D.C., children suffocated in an abandoned car because they had no safe place to play, many in the community and media pointed fingers. One outraged resident decided to pour his energies instead into building a playground for the children in that neighborhood. His name was Darell Hammond, and he mobilized a corps of local volunteers to join him in that effort.
A year later, Hammond would officially launch KaBOOM!, the D.C.-based playground-building nonprofit. Since that time, the organization has raised more than $200 million, rallied a million volunteers, overseen more than 2,000 community playground builds, and sparked a national dialogue about children’s rights to play. In this interview with Parks & Recreation, Hammond reflects on the powerful link between playground-building and community confidence. He also shares advice on how to electrify community leaders; and provides a glimpse into his organization’s newest crowd-sourced efforts to “put play on the map.”
Creating More Than a Playground
KaBOOM! approaches playground-building as a catalyst for broad-based community change—and, as Hammond terms it, “expanded civic capacity” among community members. While the organization focuses its projects on playground needs outside of parks and recreation departments, Hammond is quick to point to the holistic, park- and community-building spirit behind the famous, KaBOOM! one-day playground installations.
“When we talk about playgrounds, we’re not just talking about manufactured playground equipment. We’re also talking about gardens, picnic areas, and benches….more a park-type concept.” But even more than organizing collections of nice amenities, he points out, “it’s about getting people to come around a common cause, breaking up a project so that little things lead to a confidence boost.”
Hammond recounts story after story of the apathy-shattering effect of the playground projects KaBOOM! has facilitated. And, despite the thousands of installations completed, Hammond nonetheless speaks of the playground-community synergy with a trace of awe. The creation of central, colorful, play-oriented spaces leads community members “to emulate the sense of beauty that park and playground have created.” Murals are painted, trash is removed, and citizen leaders are energized.
“What I think we’ve tapped into is…citizen action. This is not merely picking a design and telling people, you have a choice of colors….If [the playground build] happens, the social capital becomes the byproduct of building the playground.”
From Followership to Leadership
If citizen action is the raw fuel for change, then citizen leadership is the essential ignition spark. KaBOOM! boasts an impressive record of success in igniting community leaders—many of whom go on to mentor other leaders. Yet volunteer burnout and apathy are potential problems. So, how to combat these conditions? Hammond believes the critical moment to offer coaching and encouragement to a budding civic leader is when he or she feels alone.
“Sometimes community leaders feel they’re doing things no one else has done,” Hammond says. “So you have to tell stories about the single mother in Philadelphia who had the same experience that they did. And here was her path to breaking up the project in order that little wins could lead to big wins.”
A critical element of his approach is celebrating small successes and building momentum from the confidence those successes instill—“instead of trying to boil the ocean all at the same time.” He offers would-be leaders reminders such as, “Go down and get one other volunteer. You’ve now doubled your size!”
Once volunteers experience success leading a project, the goal shifts toward mentorship of others. “The focus is on being great,” Hammond says, “so we coach people and put them in touch with people who have done it like them before….If we can connect everybody who’s worked with us in Philadelphia in an alumni network and they can coach and mentor each other, that is a powerful testimonial of people going from followership to leadership.”
The Power of Connection, Accelerated
The broad, play-promoting network that Hammond seeks to forge has led not only to regional alumni groups and mentorships but to some technology-based experiments in crowd-sourcing. Recently, for example, KaBOOM! launched internet crowd-mapping and fundraising platforms. These projects contain blends of elements from successful gaming, mapping, and social networking sites.
Behind the KaBOOM! play-mapping application is Hammond’s conviction that “play deserts”—areas where children do not have accessible, high-quality parks and playgrounds—contribute to our national childhood obesity problem. The trend of kids not being outside is, he insists, one that can be reversed by investments in infrastructure. “[Crowd-mapping] is a fun way to get people to go out and explore their neighborhoods. To get people to find the park with the best playgrounds and the best seating areas or picnic benches.”
And most importantly, Hammond adds, “it’s game-ified.” By including the elements of competition, and by capturing photos and ratings, users get motivated to add more to the maps.
Another recently developed platform, Our Dream Playground, is an online tool “to help people go from ‘How do you make this happen?” to actually making it happen. The game interface, points and prizes, and activity feeds are designed to motivate users to get playgrounds built. “Our Dream Playground,” Hammond remarks, “really incentivizes people to find a crowd and then build an even bigger crowd to support their project.”
Lessons for Parks and Rec
While Hammond is quick to distinguish his nonprofit work from the public, governmental role of parks and recreation agencies, he believes his experiences have some important applications for park professionals. The primary advice he offers is to encourage transparency in order to engage citizens. Mapping, he says, is one effective way to do that. “It lifts the veil off for those being served….If you simply say, ‘Here’s the map of where the playgrounds are and here’s the data,’ that’s one thing. But if you invite residents to participate in mapping all the play opportunities in their city…then you get people to be proactive.”
The tools KaBOOM! uses, Hammond says, are just examples of how to invite public participation in creating rich new play opportunities for children. And he suggests that parks and recreation departments can find untapped resources by trying new tools and “unleashing the citizenry to be a part of the solution.”
Maureen Hannan is Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation.
Learning to Embrace Risk
Many would argue that risk has no place in a playground. Darell Hammond believes otherwise. While he uses the phrase “dangerous playgrounds” to provoke dialogue and challenge the notion that all playgrounds must be safe, the fact is, Hammond advocates a style of playground design that allows for risk so as to incorporate levels of skill mastery. Below is his argument for the rewards of building risk into playgrounds:
We’re building a level of mastery into playground designs where, once kids do an activity for a minute or an hour, they’ve accomplished it and there’s no longer a sense of reward. There’s no longer a sense of achievement. Skateboarding and BMX biking are so popular because there’s an increasing arc of mastery that’s needed. Kids are able to show off once they’ve achieved a certain level, and then there are still higher levels to get to.
Do you see that in playgrounds?
All I’m saying is, we know liability and risk are challenges. Let’s have a conversation with the community, and let’s invite people to be part of the solution—instead of our lawyers trying to figure it out for us.
We [KaBOOM!] have seen this in New York City. We’ve seen it with the parks and rec department there and with Commissioner [Adrian] Benape—who’s one of the most enlightened park leaders in the country. We were fortunate enough to work with him on one of the imagination playgrounds in the city. It embraced risk….You go to that park in the summer, and there’s sometimes a waiting line to get in. And part of the reason is, again, we’ve built increasing levels of mastery into that playground.
Do something over and over, and that creates higher levels of mastery. And then that creates accomplishment and reward.