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Creating the Ultimate Map of Play

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This summer, when Castro Valley mother Brenda Roberts and her son and daughter visit Bay Area parks, they'll be doing more than just playing. They're participating in a national effort, organized by KaBOOM!, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., to compile a “Map of Play" — an online directory of playgrounds across the country.

Roberts only heard about KaBOOM! three weeks ago, but she has been operating her own website, Great Kids Parks, for three years. The site has maps and reviews of more than 140 parks in California. Most of the reviews are written by Roberts, though she jokes, “I beg and borrow and steal as much as I can.”

If "tiger mothers" à la Amy Chua and Ivy-League-a-must mom Nicole Imprescia are at one end of the play spectrum, KaBOOM! and mothers like Roberts are at the other.

“We’re trying to promote play not as a luxury but as an absolute necessity in children’s lives,” said Kerala Taylor, online content manager for the organization.

KaBOOM! started in 1996, when founder Darell Hammond read a Washington Post article about two kids who died while playing in an abandoned car. The organization has since sought to solve the nation’s “play deficit.”

The modern American child has lost approximately 12 hours of weekly free time, while spending more and more time with entertainment media — an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day. The deficit disproportionately affects low-income children, who have fewer available play spaces and spend an estimated 50 percent more time in front of the television than their affluent peers, according to the organization. 

Play helps children develop their interpersonal skills, learn to work through disagreements and stay focused during classes. And let’s not forget about the physical impacts of an increasingly sedentary population: 17 percent of American children are obese and more are overweight.

In the Bay Area, KaBOOM! has helped 96 low-income communities build new playgrounds, each one constructed in a single day. 

Roberts started her own mapping efforts after her son’s weekly Castro Valley playgroup discovered a treasure of a park in San Leandro. “Nobody had heard of it before and everybody raved about it,” she said, “and so I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a directory?”

Among Roberts’ favorites is Adventure Playground in Berkeley, which takes after the bare-bones playgrounds that arose after World War II. Children essentially create their own play space: jump on overturned fishing boats, dig in the dirt, frolic in the occasional patch of grass and even use old hammers and saws — under supervision, of course — all in the name of play. 

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that KaBOOM! started in 1986. It started in 1996.

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