Most adults give little thought to the role childhood playgrounds held in developing them into who they are today. If you were fortunate enough to grow up with safe, well-maintained playgrounds within easy reach of home, you could easily overlook the value you derived from that experience. While out playing with friends, you developed fine and gross motor skills, social and emotional skills, the ability to problem solve and so much more.
For many children of color, the effects of systemic racism have denied them those benefits. That’s playspace inequity and KABOOM!, a national nonprofit, is working to end it for good. In partnership with communities around the country, KABOOM! is creating playspaces to improve the quality of life for children living without great playspaces nearby.
To achieve those goals, KABOOM! has taken a data-informed approach to help drive resources to those communities most in need. When layered with creative partnerships formed with a variety of stakeholders, everyone has a better understanding of what and where playspace inequity is, and how to then close those gaps.
The city of Philadelphia serves as a case in point. In partnering with Vanguard Strong Start for Kids, and Childcare Aware of America (CCAoA), KABOOM! recently developed an insightful data set that painted a realistic picture of playspace inequity for children 0 to 6 living in the city of brotherly love. While the numbers are specific to Philadelphia, KABOOM! provides similar data sets to other cities interested in learning about and addressing playspace inequity.
Developing a Score for Success
To date, there is no national database of playground locations. “Without that information, it is difficult to talk about where and why playspace inequity occurs,” says Isaac Castillo, senior advisor for learning and evaluation at KABOOM!. “You might think something like Google Maps could show where the playgrounds are, but it’s citizen-generated and not vetted.”
Needing an accurate method for data gathering on playspace locations, KABOOM! created what it calls the Playspace Inequity Prioritization Index (PIPI), made up of 21 data points for census tracts within the United States. “We applied the index to census tracts with 100 or more kids,” Castillo says, “and created a single numeric value to estimate what playspaces look like in every community throughout the United States.”
The PIPI numeric value begins at a score of zero, which is an average number for most playspaces around the country. “There’s not much inequity at zero and it’s about the middle of the scale,” Castillo says. “As you go into the negative scores, there’s less inequity and you’re looking at well-resourced communities.”
If a community scores on the positive side of the scale, however, KABOOM! has landed on a spot in need of more and better playspaces. “Once we have that data, we can create maps that serve as visual demonstrations to internal or external stakeholders,” says Colleen Coyne, a specialist in learning and evaluation at KABOOM!. “We can now show that a mid-sized city with a good distribution of playgrounds doesn’t tell the whole story, and that can be misleading. When you pull in the PIPI data, you can see that many of those playgrounds are in poor condition and that those playgrounds exist in predominantly Black communities.”
When the team applied the PIPI scale to Philadelphia, it revealed that nearly one-third of the city’s census tracts and 40% of early childcare providers do not have access to a playspace. KABOOM! created a list of 15 priority neighborhoods to target future playspace investments. Part of this effort includes “playful learning” spaces, a research-backed approach to infusing play and learning goals into the built environment. As of November 2022, together with partners, KABOOM! had constructed 42 playful learning spaces throughout the city.
“Philadelphia, under the Kenney administration, has clearly prioritized investing in its families, particularly its youngest children,” says Sean Perkins, chief of early childhood education in the Philadelphia Office of Children and Families. “We are excited to continue our partnership with KABOOM! to identify areas of the city that most need playful learning environments by both meeting with residents and using available data.”
Looking ahead, KABOOM! plans to not just identify where new playspaces should go in cities like Philadelphia, but then measure their usage after. Ultimately, KABOOM!’s multi-pronged approach to closing the playspace inequity gap will have lasting impacts on the communities it serves. “With the PIPI data, we can change the conversations surrounding inequity,” Coyne says. “Now it’s easy to highlight the disparity and it improves our ability to advocate for high-quality playspaces.”
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.