Active, creative, and social play has a number of benefits for children, especially those in low-income, urban communities. However, nowadays many kids don’t get enough opportunities for healthy play, according to staffer Janine Kacprzak from the nonprofit KaBOOM. The organization has helped build over 2,500 playgrounds across the country, including hundreds in Chicago, Kacprzak said.
KaBOOM recently shifted its focus from simply building playgrounds to encouraging cities to provide “corner stores of play” — opportunities for children to recreate close to home. At the Playful City USA Summit in Chicago last month, leaders from around the country took a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood, brainstorming play-friendly placemaking ideas that could work in any community.
One of the main reasons why many kids don’t engage in healthy play as often as they should is the issue of proximity, Kacprzak said. A park or playground can feel far away because a family has to drive or take transit to access it, or walk to a different part of the neighborhood.
Unsafe or unpleasant conditions for walking or biking, including poor street design, crumbling infrastructure, or concerns about crime, exacerbate the problem. As a result, the majority of low-income families KaBOOM surveyed tend to take their kids out to play on weekends, sometimes for several hours at a time.
If this kind of play is the equivalent of a weekly trip to the supermarket, the nonprofit proposes creating “corner stores of play” through placemaking – activating underused public spaces. “The idea is to make smaller play areas throughout the city, so it’s not this huge hassle of getting kids ready for an outing, but something nearby,” Kacprzak said. She added that cities who use this approach in all kinds of neighborhoods, and prioritize investing in parks and play in general, benefit economically by attracting and retaining families and businesses.
212 municipalities of all sizes are participating in KaBOOM’s Playful City USA program by using play as a strategy to address challenges in their communities. Representatives of 12 of the cities convened at Blue 1647, a tech incubator space at 1647 South Blue Island in Pilsen, for the summit.