Playful Cities Can Build A Path to Health

An Interview with James Siegal, CEO of KaBOOM!

Activating the South Bronx’s “step streets” with colorful public art and interactive community programming that invites play, promotes physical activity, and sparks social interaction.

Play is vital to healthy childhood development. And beautiful playgrounds abound in many cities across the United States. Still, it’s not easy for every family to get to a playground every day — maybe they don’t live near one, they don’t have warm enough clothes to dress their kids in, or they are working shifts and just don’t have the free time. Too many kids miss out on the chance to play, because it is not easy enough.

Now, 50 cities spanning the country are transforming places parents and kids encounter in their daily lives, as they commute to school or accompany their parents on errands, into opportunities for play. Thanks to the $1 million Play Everywhere Challenge, sidewalks, bus stops, laundromats and other unexpected places are being transformed into spaces for fun. The Challenge was hosted by KaBOOM!, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (@RWJF), Target, Playworld, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

RWJF is dedicated to considering new approaches and ways of thinking to help build a Culture of Health in the United States. James Siegal shared his thoughts with me on why making active play part of all kids’ daily experience is a critically important step on the path to building a national Culture of Health.

Lori Melichar: It is easy to see the physical benefits of play when kids are skipping, jumping, sliding, and swinging. But why do you think play is so important to ensuring the success of America’s kids and to building a Culture of Health?

James Siegal: KaBOOM! believes that the well-being of society begins with the well-being of kids — and play is a critical component of their ability to thrive. Play is the business of childhood: it’s vital to brain development and how kids learn problem-solving, conflict resolution and creativity. Evidence shows that missing out on the chance to play puts kids at risk for challenges ranging from obesity to anxiety to trouble adjusting in school. Our country can’t build a Culture of Health if its youngest citizens aren’t getting the opportunities they need to build strong bodies and minds.

“Our country can’t build a Culture of Health if its youngest citizens aren’t getting the opportunities they need to build strong bodies and minds.”

Melichar: How can play help us tackle inequity?

Siegal: Play truly is a one-stop shop for a healthy future. It helps all kids develop their critical thinking, creativity, and the social and emotional skills they need to thrive in school, in careers, and in society.

But while play is critical to a child’s health, happiness and ability to thrive, too many kids are missing out on the childhood they deserve. That’s because play is often forgotten or the first thing to go in families who struggle to make ends meet, because parents are juggling too many demands or lack safe places for their kids to go. Access to play is a critical equity issue, and one our country must address.

Houston, Texas, is incorporating play into apartment complexes, re-purposing parking lots and paths for active play, planting community gardens in empty courtyards and transforming gates into murals.
“Play is often forgotten or the first thing to go in families who struggle to make ends meet.”

Melichar: The Play Everywhere Challenge really challenges conventional thinking about what play is and where it happens. Can you share some examples from the Challenge that bring play to unexpected places?

Siegal: A few winning ideas include the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design in Detroit, where the community is re-imagining a broken sidewalk as an illuminated running, play, and exercise track. In Philadelphia, Tiny WPA is building a network of playable planters, benches, and bike racks. In the Bronx, the Fund for Public Health in New York, Inc. is transforming iconic neighborhood step streets into colorful sites of play.

Kids (and adults) can test their personal speed limits on this section of a broken sidewalk in Detroit’s Brightmoor community which will be transformed into an illuminated running, play, and exercise track.

Melichar: Why did you take this prize approach versus a more traditional demonstration project approach? How did you come up with this idea?

Siegal: We decided on the prize approach, which was a collaborative effort between KaBOOM!, RWJF, Target, Playworld, HUD, and NEA, because we wanted this to be a Challenge that would inspire the most creative ideas and innovative thinking. We knew we had a limited time period, and prizes often bring out the best ideas in the shortest amount of time!

Melichar: What do you hope the Play Everywhere Challenge will achieve? What comes next?

Siegal: We hosted the Play Everywhere Challenge to help cities make play a way of life — to integrate it into everyday and unexpected places, from sidewalks, vacant lots, bus stops, and beyond. We want more kids and families to have spaces and opportunities that make play accessible, easy, and fun. We hope that the amazing PLAYces dreamed up by our 50 winners, will inspire other cities to innovate and replicate the best play everywhere ideas. Look at the growth in biking infrastructure we have in urban settings today — a handful of cities innovated and now hundreds are competing to be the most bikeable. We hope to spark a similar national conversation and effort to provide play solutions for kids and families, no matter where they live.

“Play truly is a one-stop shop for a healthy future.”

Melichar: As the challenge winners implement their ideas, what do you expect to be (or what have you been told will be) the biggest challenges to turning places of drudgery and waiting into opportunities for play?

Siegal: We think the biggest challenge will be changing people’s routines and encouraging them to re-imagine a space they’ve probably passed hundreds of times in a new, playful way. We think the incorporation of playable elements — color and whimsy — will certainly help them to see things in a new way, but anticipate this might be a learning curve.

A laundromat theater in downtown Randolph, VT. Transforming an ordinary errand into an opportunity for play and making families’ lives easier and more fun.

Melichar: What are the ingredients to playability?

Siegal: There are three components of playability:

  1. EASE: integrate play everywhere where kids and families are already spending time, transforming everyday spaces into vibrant PLAYces.
  2. SCALE: build kid-friendly cities by driving solutions that meet the needs of the entire community.
  3. EQUITY: focus first on the kids who need it most, particularly kids growing up in poverty.

Melichar: The Play Everywhere Challenge aims to integrate play into kids’ daily life. How could we be doing a better job of integrating play into the school day/environment?

Siegal: We firmly believe that play is critical to enabling kids to learn. We have been fortunate to have some excellent community partners, including the Safe Routes to School National Partnership’s Walking School Bus. Play can and should happen within school walls and outside of them, so why not incorporate play on the way to school as well? The Walking School Bus uses a parent or adult to supervise and walk kids to school, picking up students along the way and playing games as they walk. This method encourages kids to be creative, playful, and exercise their bodies before they even step inside the classroom.

Check out the gallery of winning projects at and tell us how your community is taking creative steps to become more playful and ensure kids get the healthy childhood they deserve.