Play at the center of community renewal
An adult presence can make a huge difference in creating safe play environments. The Pogo Park project in Richmond, California, is a good example. A few summers ago in a very poor section called the Iron Triangle, there stood an abandoned playground. Although hundreds of children lived within walking distance, they never used the park. When Toody Maher, a very energetic play advocate in Richmond, surveyed parents to ask why they didn’t use the playground, the answers were revealing of why poor neighborhoods have become play deserts.
The parents spoke of the abandoned houses near the park where drug users hung out, of the alcoholics who sat in the park all day, and of the guns sold in the park at night. They spoke of filth and graffiti in the park. Toody, determined to breathe new life into the playground and the neighborhood, received a small grant for recording use of the park. She hired some local youths, dressed them in official T-shirts, and gave them clipboards. They sat in the park all day recording the few times families used the park.
And then a miracle happened. The presence of the young people in their official shirts made the parents feel safe enough to come to the park with their children. Toody and the teens gathered cast-off materials to use as loose parts. She rented an empty garage to store the loose parts, and the young people brought them to the park each day. Suddenly, the park was alive with playful children and adults. Now, Toody has worked with the city to secure a $2 million grant to renovate the playground. She and her team worked closely with the local community to learn what it wanted.
They wanted more than a playground; they wanted a hub for reviving their neighborhood. Along with play equipment and loose parts, they wanted picnic tables and barbecues so they could socialize with friends and family. They wanted the streets by the park closed on weekends so a farmers’ market could be opened. They wanted safe routes to the playground, which are being dubbed "yellow brick roads." And they wanted playworkers on hand so the children would be safe. All of that is now in development. (13)
For examples of how play is helping to transform other communities, see Play Matters (14), an excellent report compiled by the play advocacy group KaBoom. It also sponsors the Playful Cities program in which the mayor’s office, city agencies, and non-profits work together to develop opportunities for play. At last count, there were over 100 registered playful cities. (15)
Play coalitions are also starting across the country to bring together a wide swath of the community who care about play: health professionals, educators, recreation specialists, artists, and others. Play coalitions have formed in New York (16), San Francisco, and San Antonio. Efforts are underway in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well.