Contrary to the conventional city planning wisdom, building playgrounds isn't the best way to get kids outside.
"We know from the work that we do that playgrounds are critically important," James Siegal, president of KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that's dedicated to bringing more play into kids' lives, tells Business Insider. "At the same time, playgrounds alone are not sufficient to ensure that kids get the play that they need to thrive."
Finding the fun in daily life can be a challenge for the roughly 16 million kids living in poverty. Instead of spending their after-school hours playing sports or hanging out with friends, kids often find themselves taking over the role of parent, hauling groceries onto city buses and watching over younger siblings while Mom or Dad hold down a second job.
As a result, they are turned into adults before they ever get a chance to be kids.
KaBOOM!'s solution to that accelerated aging is enhancing what it calls "playability" and the positive effects could extend way past playtime.
Playability is the extent to which a sense of fun is woven into the fabric of city life, rather than isolated to a few swing sets on a city planner's map. Playable cities might include crosswalks that double as hopscotch grids, bus stops that kids can climb on, and baskets of sidewalk chalk hanging outside local businesses.
These are small changes. But for people in poverty, they could be profound.
When money isn't a problem, we don't stop to think about buying the value-brand dish soap over the Ajax. We reserve that energy for major purchases.
For people in poverty, every purchase can be a major one.
One 2013 study published in Science found poverty can lower IQ by up to 13 points. Poverty stresses people out; it hurts their physical health; and, as KaBOOM! has found through behavioral science research, it stops families from playing.
"It's all about making play as easy as possible," says Sarah Welch, a behavioral economist at ideas42, the firm KaBOOM! recently partnered with to understand how and when play happens.
For a lot of families, playtime is simply too much of a planned effort. Welch compares it to grocery shopping. "Many of the families we talked to only went to playgrounds on weekends a big, two- or three-times-a-month 'shopping trip' to a play 'supermarket,'" Welch says.
Instead, what communities need are play spaces that more resemble convenience stores.
"Families dont need to plan ahead or pack a bag if play can happen right outside their doorstep, or at the bus stop on their way downtown," she says.
KaBOOM! has already recognized hundreds of cities across America that have taken steps to increase their playability.
In Missoula, Montana, the city is working to install shared play spaces within a half mile of each home. Folks in Ottowa, Kansas, receive a "Play Passport" alerting them to upcoming community-wide events. And in Bloomington, Illinois, residents are being treated to an additional 10 miles of bikeways, paths, and trails, along with a mile and a half of new sidewalks to reduce a reliance on cars.
"You've got this virtuous cycle of innovation that's happening, where cities are trying to compete and outdo each other," Siegal says.
In a perfect world, the idea will catch on to all major cities and surrounding low-income areas, so that alongside a strong formal education, each child will have a fair shot at success.
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