The Play Everywhere program is designed to bring play into the lives of kids in low-income neighborhoods. (David Gorn/KQED)
For children in low-income urban neighborhoods in California, there's often no safe place to play.
Building playgrounds is a start, but a pilot program in Los Angeles wants to take a different approach: putting play where you wouldn't expect it, and where kids can use it.
"Let's Play Everywhere Los Angeles" is launching this summer in L.A., aiming to convert some of the urban spaces that children visit every day -- like vacant lots, bus stops or laundromats -- into places where they can play. It's the brainchild of KaBOOM, a nonprofit that will build 10 such projects in the city.
"Sometimes single-parent families don’t have that luxury to drop off their kids at the park," said L.A. Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero, who is tasked with expanding parks and play opportunities in the city's underserved neighborhoods. "So how do we build interim play areas for kids who can't get to a park?"
In other cities and states where KaBOOM has rolled out projects, people have come up with a variety of answers: A laundromat in Vermont became a puppet theater for kids; a bus stop shelter in the Central Valley was transformed into an interactive game station.
Many people think of play as a luxury, but for kids it’s a necessity to build the social, physical and emotional skills they need to become healthy adults, said Jen De Melo, of KaBOOM.
De Melo builds traditional playgrounds across the country, but she said they aren't the only answer.
"Playgrounds are great, don’t get me wrong, I love them," she said. "But there’s equity issues around play, and sometimes it’s not the easiest choice or the easiest option to take your child physically to a playground."
For Janice Galindo, a single mom to a 3-year-old boy, it's not a question of nearby access to a park or playground, it's being able to find the time for kids to play there. She's concerned about safety, too.
But she does see the benefits of having a space where her boy can play: On a recent day at Ruben Salazar Park in east L.A., she watched him play with two other kids, which also helps him to improve his social skills.
"Within five minutes, he had two little girlfriends already," said Galindo, 26. "And I was like, 'Wow. This is fun for him.' "
Galindo grew up a few blocks from Ruben Salazar Park, but she almost never played there.
"I didn’t really play at a park because my parents worked a lot," she says.
That gets to the heart of the Play Everywhere pilot project: Kids often have to tag along with their parents on errands, or join them at work -- meaning play opportunities at playgrounds are limited.
That’s the case for every family in her neighborhood, Galindo said. Even though a traditional playground may be just down the block, that doesn't mean kids will use it.
Back in her office in L.A.'s city hall, Romero said "Let's Play Everywhere" is an idea that might ripple out and take on a life of its own.
For instance, if one laundromat with a puppet theater or dress-up play stage starts to draw more parents to it because of its imaginative play area, other laundromats might start installing their own.
"Change needs to happen," De Melo said. "Really making play an easy choice by having it in lots of spaces, not just playgrounds."