August 2nd, 2011
12:15 PM ET

Human Factor: Building community with a space to play

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship –- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week Darell Hammond shares how his tough childhood led to a drive to nurture community.


I didn't have what most people would call a "typical" childhood. In 1972, when I was 19 months old, my father said he was going to unload a truck, and he never came back. My mom was left to raise eight children by herself. She tried her best, but the bills piled up, and eventually my seven brothers and sisters and I ended up in Mooseheart, a group home west of Chicago.

To be honest, until the release of my recent memoir, "KaBOOM!", I never talked much about my childhood. I knew my earlier years weren’t “typical,” but I rarely saw myself as “underprivileged” or “disadvantaged.” Mooseheart provided me  two things that I believe proved formative in my career: a strong community and lots of outdoor space for playing.

If there is one thing that I want people to take away from hearing my story, it’s that community and free play are absolutely vital to a happy childhood—helping kids to enjoy a sense of stability while developing social, physical, emotional, and cognitive skills that will ensure their future success. Even so-called “privileged” children today don’t get enough of either.

When I founded the national nonprofit KaBOOM! in the back of a deli in 1996, I saw community-building as our primary mission. Each of the 2,000 playgrounds we’ve helped build over the past 15 years is a tangible, intergenerational project that a community can rally around, raise funds for, and ultimately construct with their own hands.

Our motto is, “It starts with a playground,” because the idea is that this project sets the stage for a stronger, more empowered, and more activated community. A great example of this is the work we did on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, one of our initiatives that I’m most proud of. When we embarked on “Operation Playground”—building 100 playgrounds in the hardest hit areas—a lot of people questioned our intentions. Why build playgrounds when there were so many other needs down there? But we found that these playgrounds became the first visible, transformational piece of hope coming back to a community.

As KaBOOM! grew, I started to learn more about the importance of play to a child’s development and its shocking disappearance from our children’s lives. The problem is not just a lack of playgrounds, but also overblown fears surrounding lawsuits and safety, sterile play environments, canceled and reduced recess periods, overindulgence in electronic media, and excessive structured activities during children’s so-called “free time.”

The extent of our nation’s Play Deficit has been—and continues to be—a huge surprise to me, and it makes me appreciate my childhood Mooseheart all the more. Since our early years, our mission has evolved from a stricter focus on community building into a broader movement to save play. Our largest challenge lies in convincing people that play is not a luxury, but a fundamental human right.

Join us! Get started by mapping and reviewing the playgrounds in your community to help us identify areas of need. Visit playspacefinder.kaboom.org or download our iPhone app at kaboom.org/mobile. For other tips and ideas about saving play in your community visit: kaboom.org/take_action

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soundoff (18 Responses)
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    This sounds like a wonderful project. I'm glad someone's taken it on.

    August 8, 2011 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.