KaBOOM! founder Darell Hammond built movement to save play – and create hope

Darell Hammond founded KaBOOM! in 1996.

Darell Hammond founded KaBOOM! in 1996.

Two young children left their apartment in Washington, D.C., on a hot, humid day in 1995 to find a place to play, a place to imagine, a place to have fun. They never came home. Their neighborhood offered no good options for play. There was no backyard, no playground, no ball field. They chose to explore the only option they saw, too young to recognize the hidden dangers. They climbed into an abandoned car in an alley, got locked inside and suffocated.

Darell Hammond, a young man living in Washington in 1995, was planning a playground construction project a few miles away through his job with Youth Service America. When he heard about the tragedy and the fact that there was no playground within three miles of the apartment complex, he was determined to find a way to build another safe place for kids to play. He did more than that. He built a national movement to save play. Eighteen years later, Hammond and KaBOOM!, the organization he founded in 1996, have worked with community partners throughout the country to build thousands of playgrounds, enriching and changing countless lives.

That 1995 tragedy would seem to be reason enough to understand why Hammond takes play so seriously and is passionate about ensuring all children have a safe place to experience the pure joy of play. But he was inspired to help others at a much earlier age. Hammond and his seven siblings grew up at Mooseheart, a group home near Chicago where he learned the power of a strong community and the importance of reaching out to help.

“Philanthropy raised me,” Hammond said in a recent interview. “When my family circumstances changed when I was 4, a community gave me and my family a bear hug.” Hammond has been passing that same emotional support along to others ever since.

Hammond said his childhood was happy and healthy thanks to the supportive environment at Mooseheart, which also provided plenty of opportunities to play and explore on its 1,200 acres that included playgrounds, ball fields, trees and a lake.

How important was it to Hammond to have that safe environment to play and explore? To him, it was essential and profound. In the book, “KaBOOM! – How One Man Built A Movement To Save Play,” Hammond points to research that indicates play is fundamental to social development and brain formation and an essential element in building a successful, healthy life.

“Play is how we give kids the childhood they deserve,” he said. “Play should focus on the whole child, not bits and pieces. Studies suggest that instead of trying to focus on one aspect or subject and building elite athletes and elite brains, we need balance, and we get that opportunity through play that involves physical activity and activity for the mind. We need it from the youngest age to young adulthood to the last years of life. It keeps us vibrant – physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.”

Community is also important to Hammond, whose organization puts a priority on involving children, parents, grandparents, local organizations and local residents in every aspect of each playground project. It begins a few weeks before the actual build with a Design Day, where the children and adults who will use the playground design it in a way that fits their own specific needs. Hammond firmly believes that change is more effective when events and projects, such as a playground build, are planned and executed by a community working together and not done for a community by others.

Hammond said partnerships with local organizations, other nonprofits and corporate sponsors, such as Humana and the Humana Foundation, have been essential to the success of KaBOOM! and in helping build stronger communities. He expresses deep gratitude for the support of Humana and its associates, who come out in force to volunteer at each build. Humana and KaBOOM! formed a three-year partnership in 2011 that will result in 50 new playgrounds being built around the country. Additionally, the Humana Foundation sponsors the KaBOOM! Playful City USA initiative.

“Strong bonds are formed and last beyond the playground builds,” he said. “We see continuing volunteerism and a tremendous ripple effect through the community because of a profound shared experience. It shows that we are all better together.”

Hammond said there is no better illustration of the importance of play than the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf region, on the East Coast after Sandy or the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. There was some hesitation from communities in the Gulf when approached about building a playground because that seemed a low priority given the devastation in the region. But Hammond was convinced that the therapeutic effect of a return to play was vital. He came back to the region a couple of years ago to tour the dozens of playgrounds that had been built after Katrina and was profoundly affected by the stories he heard about the positive influence of the playgrounds.

“I am particularly proud of the work we have done to address post-traumatic stress,” he said. “The perception is that kids are resilient and bounce back, and often they do not, but play helps them deal with traumatic stress. I was told of instances where children had suffered such trauma that they talked of harming themselves, but there were much fewer instances of that in areas where the playgrounds were built. It moved this work from nice-to-do to absolutely necessary to do.” Hammond emphasized that it is equally urgent to accelerate the pace and put more focus on the effects of long-term toxic stress on the 16 million children living in poverty – before it is too late.

The effects of planning and building the playgrounds went beyond the return of play and children’s laughter in the Gulf. The accomplishment of the builds “changes our mood and gives a sense of pride and hope for what is possible,” said Hammond. “We didn’t do it for them; we did it with them. It is this lasting change that we want to leave behind.”

(Watch the video below about a recent playground build in Columbus, Ohio.)

Other related articles, videos and resources:
Playful City USA Summit: Championing the power of play
Playful City USA Leaders’ Summit Highlights Reel 2013
Humana, KaBOOM! to build 9 more playgrounds across U.S. this fall
Video: Mirage in the desert – Building a Multigenerational Playground
Humana Foundation helps community, refugees build a safe place
Louisville community volunteers see ‘hope realized’
When Good Is Not Good Enough (Stanford Social Innovation Review)