Making the Bay Area a Paradise for Play

Sponsored: With a focus on nature, learning and health, KABOOM! and its partners are bringing community playspaces to life across the region.

Just a couple of years ago, if you were to approach East Oakland’s Lockwood STEAM Academy by way of its playground, acres of stark asphalt and blacktop would have been the first thing to catch your eye. There were few trees to provide shade for kids, and it featured mainly a dated play structure and a few basketball courts that were worse for wear. The K through 5 students knew nothing different, until a unique partnership between several Bay Area organizations and KABOOM! changed the equation for them.

KABOOM! is a nonprofit whose mission is to end playspace inequity, and it operates in urban and rural environments — everywhere a need for equitable access to playspaces exists. The Bay Area is now home to scores of creative new playspaces scattered throughout the region — 25 are planned within the Oakland Unified School District alone — designed specifically with childhood outcomes in mind. “We have been building cross-sector partnerships that allow us to be bold and innovative in our solutions,” says Lysa Ratliff, CEO of KABOOM!. “Together, we are reimagining the schoolyard as an outdoor oasis of learning as well as a place where kids can make friendships, build healthy bodies and soar.”

The diverse array of partners include the Oakland Unified School District, Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation and San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Together, they continue to create and transform playspaces like the one at Lockwood STEAM Academy. “We engaged the kids to help us dream up the best possible playspace we could,” says Chris Helfrich, president and CEO of Eat. Learn. Play. “Now it has two new playgrounds, multi-sport courts and an incredible nature exploration area.”

To create the new playspace, the team added natural elements throughout. In the nature area, kids can now play under the shade of Jacaranda, gum and maple trees, jumping on and off logs and other natural elements. The team also revitalized old community gardens, helping foster healthy eating options for the local neighborhood. “When we first opened the new space, a little girl approached her teacher with tears in her eyes and asked if she would have to find a new school now, because she couldn’t believe this space was for her,” Helfrich says. “That’s what this is about — dreaming up spaces that kids deserve.”

New trees and gardens at Lockwood STEAM provide a touch of nature. (Photo courtesy of Desmond Gribben @dcphotosf for Eat. Learn. Play.)

Beyond the Schoolyard

Other projects throughout the Bay Area include a Nature Exploration Area within Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco, which recently won the Cities Inspire Award from UNICEF. Again engaging local children in the design process, this partnership between KABOOM! and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, blossomed two years ago. “We wanted to get kids excited about connecting with nature,” says Maria Durana, director of the SF Children & Nature Collaborative. “We arranged logs and boulders to enable play … and smaller branches and tree ‘cookies’ that kids can shape and play with to spark their imagination.”

Future plans in San Francisco include a total of eight nature playspaces. “Childhood is rapidly changing, moving indoors and online,” Durana says. “We want to ensure kids can grow up connected to nature for all its physical and mental health benefits.”

Kaiser Permanente has also been a key partner to KABOOM! in the Bay Area, beginning in 2015 as part of a parks funding initiative. “The initiative was designed as an implementation strategy to address the identified community needs of healthy eating/active living, community & family safety, and mental health and wellness,” says Kathryn Boyle, community health manager at the organization. “Equitable access to safe parks and open spaces can address all of these health needs.”

Stephen and Ayesha Curry check out the new sport courts at Lockwood STEAM. (Photo courtesy of Noah Graham/Getty Images, Desmond Gribben for Eat. Learn. Play.)

This is critical, says Diana Bojorquez, MD, a Kaiser Permanente pediatrics specialist. “There’s so much research into the importance of nature and access to green environments,” she says. “It betters outcomes in academics, cognitive functioning, and mental health. It also lowers the risks of anxiety and depression in children.”

For these reasons and more, the Oakland Unified School District has been “amazed” to see kids playing in spaces and structures they otherwise could not, according to Preston Thomas, chief systems and services officer in the district. “These spaces are all the things, and it’s a powerful model to involve children in their design,” he says. “As you see it all come together and see the parents get involved, too, it really becomes a powerful environment. KABOOM! brings in this model that you won’t see in a normal school design process, and I can’t explain just how incredible the transformation has been.”

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Amanda Loudin is a career freelance writer with a focus on health and science. Bylines include The New York Times, The Washington Post, MONEY magazine and many more. Learn more and read samples of her work on her website.

Tags: parksbay areaparks equityplaygroundsplayspacesplayspace equity

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