Making Public Spaces PLAYful: A Conversation with Jen DeMelo

Q&A   07 April 2021
By Jen DeMelo, KABOOM!


We get to go into barbershops, laundromats, grocery stores, hospital waiting rooms, and more to identify areas that kids frequent…and provide playful interventions.

Jen DeMelo
Director of Special Projects, KABOOM!

We connected with Jen DeMelo, Director of Special Projects at KABOOM!, “a national nonprofit that works to end playspace inequity, for good.” Over the last 23 years, KABOOM! built or improved 17,000+ playspaces, engaged more than 1.5 million community members, and brought joy to over 11 million kids. We’re thrilled to share this powerful example of what’s possible when entire communities show up to transform their neighborhoods and cities.

Q. Let’s start at the highest level. Why is play so important, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Jen: I believe when kids see their entire community as a playground, it sparks moments of joy that allow them to just be kids. 

There are many kids suffering from toxic stress right now, especially those in constricted living spaces, which is very harmful to their social and emotional development. During this pandemic, kids are too often isolated and sitting behind a screen all day, when they really need movement. They need an opportunity to expand their thinking and creativity by exercising their minds AND muscles. 

KABOOM! is always thinking about how we can build infrastructure that provides moments of happiness, socialization, and hope to support kids’ mental and physical health. 

Play, in any form, has so many benefits for kids’ social cognition. Play helps kids develop in all the ways that one would hope. Kids also need to socialize with their peers and others and to experience new opportunities. Play really has so many layers and can be a catalyst for kids’ development, learning, health, and capacity to thrive as kids. 

Q. Why is it so important for kids and parents to have a voice and agency as KABOOM! brings play-based opportunities to communities across the country?

Jen: KABOOM! prioritizes its work in the communities that need us the most—where there’s play deficits due to the persistence of racial inequity regarding access to community spaces; where there’s historic disinvestment; and where decisions are usually made without feedback or input from community members, particularly without feedback from kids. 

For this model to be considered an authentic community-led effort, it’s critical that kids and parents have a voice. They need to be at the decision-making table and empowered to be active participants in designing and creating rich play spaces that help young people (and others) stay active and healthy members of the community. 

We know that play has added benefits for young people’s learning because it helps their brain develop, builds important creative thinking and problem-solving skills, and contributes to emotional well-being. 

We also know that our build process promotes community cohesion. We never want to come in as outsiders and design something that we think will reflect the community’s needs, desires, or wishes—and not center kids or the community’s assets and values. As an organization, we prioritize facilitating the stewardship of local stakeholders and opening up a space for a variety of voices to ideate and develop a shared plan that KABOOM! can help implement. 

The key is understanding that healthy and empowered kids will turn into healthy and empowered adults. To that end, it’s really important for us to provide the tools, resources, open lines of communication, and a participatory design process that helps kids have agency in maintaining their own health and wellness.

Q. In what ways has KABOOM! evolved since its founding 23 years ago?

Jen: Over the years, KABOOM! has learned that if we really want to scale our work, we have to do more than build playgrounds. 

In response, we’ve extended our portfolio of offerings to include new items to address older kids’ lack of access to play spaces. Now, we have large scale obstacle courses we call “adventure courses” and multi-sport courts for older kids who like to play a variety of sports on a given day. 

And, while a playground, “adventure course,” or multi-sport court can offer wonderful recreation areas for kids to play and be kids, we know not all kids have equal or easy access to such opportunities. Sometimes roadways or freeways cut right through a community, leaving some kids facing a wall of traffic they would need to navigate; or a caretaker working multiple jobs doesn’t have the free time to take a kid to a playground. 

Acknowledging these very real barriers, we invented the Play Everywhere concept. This concept encourages people to think about spaces that could become PLAYces—a laundromat, grocery store, sidewalk, bus stop. Any unexciting situation can turn into a stimulating, creative outlet for play.

If cities are really designed with kids in mind, then that needs to be reflected in a commitment to providing those moments of play and adventure in everyday spaces that reach all corners of a community. We want to try to address that—both by encouraging community members to use our Play Everywhere Playbook to recontextualize PLAYces for their kids and by KABOOM! building play installations in everyday places in communities across the country.

Over the past five years, we’ve completed over 200 Play Everywhere installations, and every single time we do them, we learn something new and identify a way to iterate on the process. 

We get to go into barbershops, laundromats, grocery stores, hospital waiting rooms, and more to identify areas that kids frequent, especially where they might experience increased levels of stress, and provide playful interventions or work with communities to customize and co-create spaces that are embracing opportunities for kids to be kids. It’s really a special part of our work. 

Q. How have you evolved to ensure you’re maintaining the community’s trust?

Jen: We’ve always used an asset-based community development model that engages community and kids very early in the process. And, while we’ve fine-tuned the community engagement process over the years, to keep kids and community plugged into the process, we’ve realized we need more project milestones and touch points to elevate community voices and participation throughout the design and planning process.

We have added an activation phase with the goal of recruiting diverse voices, which entails generating buzz about the projects, activating the broader community, connecting to existing networks, promoting design input opportunities, and deepening our understanding of community context. You really can’t rush this process; you have to travel at what we call the “speed of trust.” 

We never want to force people into a quick process. We need to design a response that meets communities where they are. During the pandemic, we’ve had to pause a lot of projects and be even more intentional about listening to community voices in order to understand their shifting needs by asking if we should move forward with a project, and if so, what’s the most comfortable and convenient path forward for them.

This has involved getting more creative, introducing more virtual communication components, and being thoughtful, at every step of the process, around how we’re engaging folks. 

We’re always changing our design process to ensure there’s opportunities to iterate, listen to responses, and iterate again. That means adjusting timelines and the overall process to allow for more community input.

Q. We’ve talked about the importance of amplifying the voices of young people and their families. Why is it important to also engage other community stakeholders?

Jen: With building community as one of the goals of our process, KABOOM! can’t work in a silo and be successful. And, oftentimes, the most impactful projects are also the most complex. Other key stakeholders must be included if the community is going to identify and secure all the resources for getting tools and food (for Design Day and Build Week), recruiting volunteers, leveling the construction site(s) in many cases, and much more.

We’ve learned it is important to engage a variety of community stakeholders as early as possible, so that momentum builds. The earlier we get community buy-in and participation, the less likely we’ll encounter delays. And, if we decide (or the community decides on its own) to pursue future local projects or initiatives, it’s a much easier lift when the partnership pieces are already in place. 

Sometimes, the foundations for partnerships are already in place, and our role becomes identifying the right leverage points to help them evolve. Though, it’s often the case that partnership formation is a massive challenge because entities are so used to operating in isolation.

In that case, our role is to help break those barriers down by illuminating the future benefit of having a cohesive group of actors committed to helping a community grow and the kids in it thrive.

Q. What’s an example(s) of this local partnership growth in action?

Jen: We’re working on two projects in the Bay Area where maximizing our potential impact is dependent on the continued growth of local partnerships. Both projects involve creating some nature- and play-based experiences within dense urban environments.

In particular, our project in Oakland with Franklin Elementary School is a complex play space project that includes a garden, playground, and sport court. Making this all happen has required that we bring in expert gardeners; facilities, building, and grounds crews; the Oakland Mayor’s Office; and other key stakeholders to help us grow relationships.

Because these diverse stakeholders are engaged together on this project, they now have a foundation of relationship from which to take on other transformation projects with or without the involvement of KABOOM!

On the surface, KABOOM! can sometimes be seen as an organization that simply identifies a location for a new playground and a local group to partner with in getting the project completed. But, it’s way more than that.

When we work on a project, its scope is driven by the goals of a particular community, and can vary widely depending on what opportunities and resources are available. We see part of our role as being a connector to line up the right partners to make these goals a reality.

In order for us to be successful, we have to plan alongside parks and recreation departments, non-profit organizations, extended learning sites that serve kids, and most importantly, any community surrounding the space to ensure they are on board with the project and have a voice in the design.

Q. Given that KABOOM! works with schools, what role does KABOOM! see itself playing in inviting school communities to reimagine where and how learning happens?

Jen: I’ve learned that it can be hard for people to think outside of the box when it comes to school. But, thinking outside of the box is what we do. 

COVID-19 has taught us a tremendous amount about the settings where learning lives. In a conventional school, you typically have indoor classrooms, some recreational areas, and maybe a garden or two.

As we emerge from this moment, it’s really important for more schools to think about how their infrastructure can lend themselves to playful opportunities that also support kids’ learning. There’s opportunities both big and small that could be taken advantage of. 

For example, smaller play interventions can be placed outside of the school perimeter, such as along streets and sidewalks—places where kids are already gathered to wait for a bus. This then opens up thinking around what elements exist (or could exist) at a bus stop to keep kids engaged.

Also, maybe schools can use their outdoor space to install a chalkboard or take kids outside to engage in scavenger hunts that include a learning element. It’s about thinking beyond what’s typical. And, I’ve already started to see these activations pop up organically in the Bay Area, with people adding more play infrastructure elements for kids in public spaces. 

I hope, post-pandemic, these are replicated. I think we’re starting to see a trend of schools utilizing more outdoor classrooms, and there’s a lot of potential for those to turn into really rich learning spaces by infusing different elements like nature and play.

Q. Over the last year, how have you seen communities respond to ensure play remains accessible to kids?

Last March, the moment playgrounds shutdown, it really hit home for a lot of people just how important they are to help kids cope, which led to a lot of activism around opening them back up.

This past November in the San Francisco area, this realization created a massive movement of caregivers, kids, and community members pushing for the reopening of playspaces, including people writing editorials. Because of that, there was an evaluation done and playgrounds were eventually deemed safe to reopen, and they’ve been open ever since. 

I’ve also seen a lot of innovation take root, by necessity, such as turning streets into play streets and community spaces, which immediately improved kids’ behavior. In those cases, communities realized kids just needed safe spaces to walk, run, and ride their bikes. 

And, I look forward to the emergence of more permanent pedestrian friendly spaces, even as some of the pandemic street closure measures pass. In these new spaces, I believe we’ll start to see more infrastructure augmented to provide play opportunities for kids. It’s a great entry point for reimagining the use of urban environments.

In many ways, this moment has accelerated the implementation of local play interventions that normally took months of planning and tons of permitting dollars. It’s becoming easier for people to design and bring innovative ideas to life that have widespread impact in a community. 

In a lot of communities, we’re seeing parks and recreation groups collaborate with community-based organizations that are unable to provide their usual programming, like the YMCA, to enhance play streets and coordinate food distribution. This also includes libraries and museums, which are moving their programming outside to be responsive to the challenges that we’re experiencing around closures and social distancing measures. Hopefully all of these shifts persist even as we are able to be together again. 

Kids are entering public spaces that weren’t originally designed with them in mind (because there’s not a lot of other places for them to go). I’ve been really impressed with people’s ability to collaborate and accommodate that shift. 

I think this increased cross-sector collaboration is going a long way to reducing the silos that had previously existed in communities between public, private, nonprofit, and municipal entities, all in service of our kids’ playing and thriving together.

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