After the civil unrest spurred by Freddie Gray’s death and controversy over excessive police force, Baltimore needed a way to heal and restore peace in the neighborhood. The “Play More B’More” initiative was undertaken by the city, engaging youth from underserved neighborhoods as interns and volunteers to promote the playability of their city. KaBOOM!, “a national non-profit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids (particularly those growing up in poverty in America)” partnered with several local multi-sector organizations to build a playground near the site where Freddie Gray was arrested. “When you live in a community like this, where children see and feel the impact of violence, [a playground] can become an outlet where they can work off that negative energy — but also a place where children can feel safe,” said Bronwyn Mayden, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
In times of high stress and social unrest, children need a safe haven where they can just be kids again. From a psychological perspective, the self-directed nature of play is crucial to cognitive and socioemotional maturation. That is, by learning that they can manipulate their environments according to their imagination, children develop an internal locus of control. Research demonstrates that an external locus of control, where the child believes that outcomes are not contingent upon their efforts, is a determinant of anxiety and depression. Oftentimes, children growing up in neighborhoods plagued by violence lack access to a safe play area, where they can exercise not only their physical bodies, but also their growing minds.
Clinical questionnaires have assessed the psychological states of high school and college students since the 1950s, and the results are astounding. Peter Gray, a renowned psychology researcher, gives his interpretation of research from literature in a TedTalk: children are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious today than they were during the Cold War. These conditions are reflected in the increasing rates of suicide and diagnosis of general anxiety disorder, narcissism, and depression over the last 6 decades. Experts in developmental psychology have suggested that the decline of play is a reason for these psychopathologies; the last 6 decades have also been marked by the decline of recess and access to safe play spaces, as well as the growing prominence of computerized play, childhood obesity, and concern for safety.
In an effort to promote physical development, parents often consider recreational sports as a satisfactory form of play. However, in the organized play setting, children are supervised, governed by rules imposed upon them, compelled to compete for praise or a reward; altogether, these conditions suppress the underlying psychological benefits of play. On the other hand, organizations like KaBOOM! recognize the true value of play in childhood development. Last semester, KaBOOM! partnered with KIPP St. Louis and the McKesson Corporation to fund a playground for KIPP Wisdom Academy in Fox Park.
Community members from across the region gathered in an empty lot just outside the school and chanted a popular cheer (complete with hand motions), led by the principal: “This is the room / that has the kids / who want to learn / to read more books / to build a better tomorrow”. I joined the hundred volunteers from Washington University in St. Louis in helping to assemble the playground area in just about seven hours. While we shoveled, drilled, or hammered away, we engaged in conversation with those around us. Parents expressed their concern about the safety of existing neighborhood playgrounds, and children were excited to see their new play space materialize just as they had envisioned. It was clear that this space would be highly cherished as a safe outlet for the children of this neighborhood to do what they enjoy the most: play.