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Advocates Unite Divided Community Around Play

Not everyone believes in the power of a playground—but some can be convinced. That's what Jason Ellis learned when KaBOOM! partnered with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), the Washington Capitals, and So Kids Can to build a playground in the 2012 Playful City USA community of Alexandria, Va.

The playground was to be built at Hopkins-Tancil Courts, a Section 8 housing development in Old Town. "When you think about a two-block area which has probably has around 100 or so kids... this is a very needed playground," said Jason, who works at ARHA. Thomas Shan, a child who lives in Hopkins-Tancil Courts was excited about the playground because "kids won't go in the house and play Xbox 360 [any]more, and they'll use all their energy."

But Jason found himself challenged by affluent neighbors who did not appreciate his community, much less the thought of a new playground there. Finally, one particularly vocal neighbor decided to meet with Jason and talk through his vision and his work with KaBOOM!. Jason had his talking points ready and emphasized that the playground would "encourage the kids to play safely... encourage them to channel their energy in a constructive fashion, and... encourage them to have healthier lifestyles." By the end of the meeting, the once-disgruntled neighbor not only apologized for being unable to volunteer at the playground build, but she also handed Jason a check for $500!

Since the playground build, Jason reports that there have been no complaints from the neighbors who originally opposed the playground. He also says that the playground is almost "too popular!"

Kids head straight from the school bus to the playground after school, and it's always packed on the weekends. Amongst families, there is increased awareness and excitement about ARHA programming. Next project? A community garden.

It's not just the ARHA that has committed to the health and well-being of kids in Alexandria. Residents and local organizations across the city have joined forces to launch Project Play, which aims to increase play opportunities in all areas of need. The movement started with mapping playspaces to assess areas of play inequity. Carrie Fesperman Redden, Health Planner for Alexandria Health Department, says, "We knew that the city council had invested a lot of money into playgrounds and yet we were hearing from parents that they were having trouble accessing the playgrounds. So there was a real mismatch in information."

The assessment revealed that the biggest area of inequity was in the West End, where according to Carrie, "There's not a lot of city owned land. We've really had to think creatively about some partnerships you can create to create play." One solution they found was to work with apartment complexes, like Hopkins-Tancil Courts, to bring play opportunities to the families and children who live there.

KaBOOM! recognized Alexandria as a 2012 Playful City USA community for its collaborative approach, can-do spirit, and steadfast commitment to ensuring that every child in Alexandria has access to a quality place to play.

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Florida Playground is a Continued Source of Inspiration

Back in 2010, KaBOOM! worked with the Windsor Cove apartments to replace its decrepit playground. The community had been brought to its knees following a mass shooting in 2008, and many of the mothers who lived there were afraid to let their kids play outside. Windsor Cove resident and mother of three Yolanda Robinson told us, "You have people shooting and you have to think—well if I send my kids outside today they just might get shot."

When KaBOOM! staffer David Flanigan traveled to Windsor Cove in 2012 to check on the playground we had helped build three years prior, he was hopeful but anxious. The last thing he wanted to find was an empty playground and parents still fearful of sending their children outside.

He need not have worried. He found the playground crawling with kids and a community that, according to resident Melody Hills, "continued to talk to one another and come together, despite the challenges."

Melody told David that the mothers who were directly involved in the playground planning and building process moved toward self-sufficiency. "Four of the women gained employment, two went to school, and two moved out of the Windsor Cove apartments," she said. "But, most of all, I will never forget the looks on the faces of the children when the playground was completed. That was priceless!"

The playground helped this community rebuild after an unspeakable tragedy, but perhaps more importantly, the kids of Windsor Cove were able to reclaim their childhoods, one swish down the slide at a time.

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A Playful Challenge Met, and Exceeded

Annie Cheng wasn't planning on spending most of last summer at the playground, but when she learned about the KaBOOM! Summer Playground Challenge from a local parent listserv, she thought she'd give it a try. "Last summer my son had just turned three and a half, and my daughter turned one, so she began to become very active," Annie says. "She wanted to go out and play almost every day."

The Challenge asked parents to visit and map as many playgrounds as they could over the summer, and to share their experiences along the way. Annie was a casual participant at first, but once she and her children got started, they became hooked. Looking at a map, Annie began to notice just how many playgrounds there were in her hometown of San Francisco and it motivated her to explore new ones.

As a single parent, Annie was lucky to get help from her sister, who was visiting for the summer from Taiwan. In Annie's words, her sister is "not really a playground type of girl." Annie says, "She likes doing indoor things like going to the mall." After the first week, her sister asked, "Is this enough?" But Annie kept pushing her, and soon her sister was asking, "Where are we going tomorrow?" Together, they would take a look at what errands they needed to do each day and then look for playgrounds on the way. Annie says the Challenge really changed her sister, helping her to be more active and appreciate the outdoors.

Annie's children changed, too. Her son "slowly built his confidence and learned a lot. He started learning how to climb better. Before he was like, ‘Can you help me get up here and do this/that?' but later I was asking him, 'Do you need help?', and he said, ‘No, I can do it!'"

Annie says she used to hover more, but she's gradually learned to give her children some space and let them take on new challenges. Even after her daughter Isobel broke her leg coming down a slide—an understandably frightening experience for any parent—she was still begging to go to the playground. When the doctor advised against it, Isobel climbed furniture instead, cast and all.

By the end of the summer, they had managed to visit and map at least one new playground nearly every day: 63 in all. They loved nearly all of them, but preferred playgrounds with natural elements, particularly if they had "lots of trees, shade, and trails for riding bikes." Annie says, "We used to go to the same [playgrounds] all the time. Now, after the Challenge, we found so many fun places to go." They continued to explore new playgrounds through the fall, and she and her sister are already planning their itinerary for next summer.

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Missoula Opens Playgrounds for All

In 2007, staff at Missoula's Jefferson Early Learning program realized they had a problem. The playground equipment at the Jefferson Preschool was decaying and needed major renovation to ensure the safety of children. When they formed a playground committee to address the issue, the conversation moved beyond safety and toward finding other ways to maximize their student's playground experience.

The committee decided to move forward with the goal of transforming the site into a "barrier-free playspace," where children of different mental and physical abilities would be able to engage and interact with others, take advantage of playground features, and easily navigate the environment.

Through the financial and volunteer support of the Missoula Sunrise Rotary, the committee was able to remove all of the unsafe structures and clear the way for a major playground makeover.

Still, the committee lacked much of the financial backing needed to bring the playground they envisioned to fruition, despite the strong support that the project had gained in the community. Committee members then learned about the KaBOOM! Let's Play Joint Use Grants, made available through the support of Dr Pepper Snapple Group. They applied for and were awarded a $15,000 grant in 2011, to help communities open school playgrounds to the public during non-school hours through a joint use agreement. And, in 2012, began incorporating three other school playgrounds within their plans to increase play opportunities for Missoula's children.

A Playful City USA designee since 2009, Missoula was recently named one of America's Promise Alliance's 100 "Best Communities for Young People." Though the city has long demonstrated a commitment to the well-being of its children, the joint use agreement marked a step forward. According to committee member Neil Murray, it formed "the epicenter of everything," bringing many stakeholders together and launching a major collaborative effort between Missoula County Public Schools, Missoula Parks and Recreation, and Full Circle Counseling Solutions, a local mental health agency located just two blocks from the Jefferson Preschool Playground.

After receiving the grant, Missoula worked to formalize the public use of playgrounds at Paxson, Rattlesnake, and Cold Springs Elementary Schools. Combined with a $7,500 match from the county school district, the grant allowed for major safety improvements to the sites, including fencing, resurfacing, and the installation of a new irrigation system. Additionally, through town meetings and increased media attention, the process led to greater awareness of Missoula's playground assets among residents and, says Murray, "created the spark" needed to bring the vision of a barrier-free playspace to fruition.

In planning the best use of the space, Murray cites Universal Design Philosophy as the underlying principle behind the project. "We incorporated what the community wanted to use the space for," says Murray. For instance, a shared love of dogs resulted in the creation of an enclosed space for canines, utilized by the school's speech therapist as a space to engage children in dog therapy sessions, and also used by families (with and without pets) to take a break in the shade or get a drink of water. A local landscape architect focused on designing features, like rolling hills and open entryways, which created a more welcoming atmosphere.

Today, the Jefferson Preschool Playground truly serves as "a community playground for all children." With a joint use agreement that has opened four playgrounds to the public, the committee continues to improve playspaces to ensure that all children in Missoula remain healthy, active, and safe. Through collaboration, inclusive planning, and sponsorship at local and national levels, the Jefferson Preschool Playground project has resulted in a major win for play.

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A Playground Grows in Downtown St. Louis

For the 12 years that Matt O'Leary has lived in downtown St. Louis, he wished someone would do something about Lucas Park. Littered with needles and trash, the park was known as a place for drinking, drug use, and other unruly behavior. Meanwhile, the 350 children under age six who lived nearby had no place to play.

Eventually Matt got sick of waiting, and he wasn't the only one. When his neighbor Kelly Kelsey found out about our Let's Play Construction Grants, they decided to join forces to form a non-profit called Friends of Lucas Park. They recognized that "people feel so strongly about the park not only because of the tremendous negatives the park has brought, but because… Lucas Park could be a tremendous asset that is denied to them, the place where downtown's various communities instinctually want to gather and build a sense of community."

Kelly and Matt promptly got to work. While Matt focused on landscape improvements, Kelly applied for, and received, a Let's Play Construction Grant. She rallied her community to raise additional funds, and using our tools on Our Dream Playground, formed a planning committee to organize a done-in-a-day playground build that drew from existing community assets.

On September 8, 2012, an estimated 100 volunteers—including 40 teenagers who showed up unexpectedly asking how they could help—hauled wheelbarrows, shoveled dirt, and assembled equipment, constructing a beautiful new playground in less than 12 hours!

Says Kelly, since the playground build, "The park has gone through a complete transformation – a total 180. Area residents are shocked at the change." She adds, "I've seen so many families in the park that I've never seen before. I knew there were more kids in the neighborhood, but they never played outside."

Friends of Lucas Park knows that its work isn't finished. That's why at KaBOOM! we say, "It starts with a playground." The rest of the park remains fenced off until they complete more renovations. The group is also aware that even a brand new playground could fall into disrepair if not cared for by the surrounding community. They plan to keep neighbors engaged in the maintenance of the playground so that future generations of downtown St. Louis families can enjoy a safe, communal place to play.

Read the original blog post for more details.


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