Making Play a Priority—The Story of KaBOOM!

There is a sentence a fifth of the way into the book, KaBOOM! How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play by Darell Hammond that says it all. He writes: “If you haven’t figured it out by now, when someone says no to me, I tend to dig in and figure out how to make it a yes.”

In his Introduction to KaBOOM!, Stuart Brown, Founder and President of the National Institute for Play, writes that this book is ultimately a classic hero story—where the protagonist takes a journey, enters a forest where there is no path, encounters demons, and by turning no into yes, not only survives, but triumphs.

Darell Hammond grew up at Mooseheart, a 1,000-acre community west of Chicago for “children and teens in need.” Hammond describes this institution as an “insurance policy for members of the [Moose] fraternity. If something happened to you, your children could go there and be taken care of.” In his case, his father left one day saying that he was going to unload a truck, never to return to his wife and eight children, and rather than split up the family into foster care or orphanages, his mother took them all to Mooseheart, together.

But Mooseheart is a kind and caring place. The forest with demons that Brown is referring to is a society that doesn’t value and promote play. The journey that Hammond was on had a turning point when he read a 1995 article in the Washington Post about two young children from a nearby housing project who climbed into a Pontiac to play on a brutally hot and humid DC day, got locked inside, and suffocated. The article in the Post was headlined, “No Place to Play.” Hammond was already involved in building a playground but that story gave his work a huge urgency. In 1996, he founded KaBOOM! a nonprofit that has helped communities build playgrounds in some of the toughest and poorest neighborhoods in the United States. Their mission is saving play and their goal is to create a place to play within walking distance of every child in America.

As I read KaBOOM! I was reminded less of an old-fashioned hero story—although it has all of those elements—and more of a modern day inspirational story, like the one told in Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness.  Tony Hsieh, CEO and his team at have created a business model that empowers employees and customers and that aims to deliver happiness. In fact, on the Delivering Happiness Web site, they write of their work as a journey with passion and purpose. Their vision is to “deliver happiness in our everyday lives and to the world.”

Like Hsieh, Hammond empowers children and communities by involving them in creating their own playgrounds. And that is an essential point. KaBOOM! does not deliver prefab playgrounds. Essential to their process is what they call “Design Day.” They ask the children to “close their eyes and imagine their dream playground.” Then, they ask the children to open their eyes and to draw what they have imagined. From there, a project manager talks to the adults and helps them settle on a design that incorporates the children’s dreams. And then weeks later, they have “Build Day!” where the adults and the children build the playground together. It is a community building process, where as Hammond says, the process is as important as the product. And this process clearly delivers happiness.

The KaBOOM! playgrounds promote not just collaboration and happiness, but most importantly, they promote learning by creating environments that inspire deep involvement and discovery. They also inspire the adults in the children’s lives—not just to stand around and watch—but to get involved too, in asking questions and providing information (“Why do you go down that slide faster than the other slide?” or “How many blocks do you think you can stack on top of each other before the tower falls down?”).This is the essence of playful learning.

Since the publication of my book, Mind in the Making, a year ago this April, I have been out speaking to groups of teachers and parents between once and three times a week. Whether I am in Minnesota or Indiana, in Alabama or New York, the story is the same. There is a deep concern about the way we are raising and teaching children in America. Teachers and parents alike bemoan the loss of recess and the loss of playful learning.

And here’s the irony. Just the business community is recognizing the importance of employee and customer empowerment (witness the popularity of Hsieh’s book), just as the business community is learning that joy at work can enhance focus, team building, learning, and yes, productivity, we are increasingly stripping these experiences from the lives of children.

If there were ever a compelling need for KaBOOM!, the movement to save play, it is now. It is my hope that this book becomes the trigger point for those who create environment for children much in the way that Delivering Happiness is becoming for those who create workplace environments. As Hammond demonstrates, we must make play a priority.