Powerful Fun

Community-built playgrounds encourage activity and improve emotional health

Oct. 10, 2017

With crayons and paper in hand, more than 20 youngsters living at the Salvation Army in Knoxville got to work.

Their assignment: create their dream playground.

They let their imaginations run free, drawing play spaces filled with rocket pads, hot tubs and monkey bars.

“Design Day was a big success,” says April Keeton, grant writer for the location, which includes a shelter for families fleeing domestic violence. “The kids gave their ideas and then it was up to us to include as many of the things they wanted as possible.”

Though a pool didn’t make it into the final plan, a lot did:

  • A tire swing
  • Three-section slide
  • A spinning vortex ride, and
  • A giant tic-tac-toe game.
kids playing on swingset
hope landing sign on playground

Since on-site counselors wanted to encourage parents to join the fun, a shaded area with picnic tables was also added. Just a few months later, the playground was ready, built in one day by residents and other volunteers.

The children love it, their parents love it, and the staff loves it, for being a safe place to play but also for much more than that.

“Coming out of a domestic violence situation, the children who stay with us have not had the opportunity to be children. They’ve spent their lives walking on eggshells,” says Keeton.

“It’s hugely therapeutic for them to have a place of their own.”

“It’s priceless that they have the chance to play outside and just be a kid.”

Get outside

Too many children across the country get stuck inside simply because they live in an area with no safe play space.

KaBOOM!, the nonprofit behind the playground build at the Salvation Army, intends to change that situation for as many children as possible, emphasizing the importance of play to healthy childhood development.

“The connection between play and physical health is a no-brainer, but people are starting to understand its benefits to emotional health as well, ” says Amy Levner, vice president of marketing and communications for KaBOOM!

“When children play, they learn how to collaborate with others and how to work out stress. Too many kids spend their free time in front of screens or running errands with parents who feel the need to watch their children closely.”

kids at bottom of slide
girl looking up climbing wall

A playground doesn’t magically change that. People in a neighborhood who decide to install a playground do, though.

KaBOOM! steps in when the community will is strong and guides both children and adults as they create a space specifically suited to their needs and vision. When all the decisions are finalized and the playground pieces arrive, those same people work together to build the play space.

A pride of ownership takes hold that helps keep the areas clean and safe.

“Several things happen once a KaBOOM! playground is in place,” says Levner. “Obviously, kids who live nearby start playing outside more. But the playground also becomes a gathering place to cement community connections that might not have been as strong previously. And it’s really beneficial for kids to see adults care about them and the neighborhood.”

Recreation, re-creation

Both residents and kids from the surrounding neighborhood use the Salvation Army playground. Every Tuesday after school, the captain who leads the on-site church takes a van out to pick up at-risk kids to come out and play.

Friendships form, new games spring from the kids’ imaginations, and nobody watching would be able to tell that most of the kids have been dealing with trauma or have spent years taking on adult responsibilities.

Playing together gives them the chance to learn how to socialize, cooperate and share.

Stress gets worked out by hopping on the spinning vortex or swinging on the tire swing.

Time on the playground allows the kids to relax and focus on having fun.

“I’ve seen the change in kids when they are able to just be a child. Two young ladies, Ariel and Diamond, were very unsure of themselves when they first arrived here,” says Blake Craft, family services coordinator for the Knoxville Salvation Army.

“If I gave one a compliment, she would hold her head down. Now both are filled with confidence. They hold their heads high.”

boy in tire swing
smiling children posing on playground equipment
a smiling girl hula hooping
girls on a tire swing

Photos by Ben Finch