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Creativity & Social Innovation

How Childhood Play Fosters the Creative Workforce of Tomorrow

By Andrea Newell

Seeing children at play makes most people smile. In a world dominated by electronic entertainment, it's harder than ever to get kids to be active and use their muscles. But the benefits of play extend much further than improving children's health.

There is a critical connection between play and 21st-century skills like creativity, problem-solving and collaboration, says James Siegal, president of Kaboom!, a nonprofit organization that has built more than 2,400 playgrounds nationwide since 1996.

“Play is critical for building higher-order cognitive and creative skills," Siegal told us. "Imaginary play is them creating whole worlds; it’s them figuring out how to make sense of the world around them and how they do that in collaboration with others ...

"... Behind that play is the critical element of how early brain development happens. It enables kids to grow up and continue to be creative throughout their lives."

While 2-year-olds are creative, he explained, young adults entering the workforce are less so. Continued play is crucial for children to exercise their creative muscles well into adulthood.

Creativity and the business case for play

Siegal is not alone in making this correlation. At the 2013 Lego Idea Conference, Lego Foundation CEO Randa Grob-Zakhary talked about the steep drop in creativity in adults. We as a society lack the vision and outside-the-box thinking to tackle important problems. Grob-Zakhary believes that creativity is crucial to problem-solving, and helping people be more creative can help us all realize our full potential.

There is no shortage of experts lamenting the lack of exercise and playtime kids are getting these days. Kaboom!’s mission to bring play to all kids is an easy one to get behind. Indeed, the organization has rocketed skyward with an annual budget of $27 million in under 20 years and a long list of corporate supporters lining up to fund their playground projects and supply volunteers to lend a hand.

Over 1 million volunteers have helped Kaboom! build play spaces in 200 cities, impacting more than 7.4 million children. They are excited to participate in the building of playgrounds, and since it is such a wide-reaching program, employees in several locations can participate. That is the attraction for CarMax, one of Kaboom!’s corporate partners.

“Thousands of CarMax associates have poured concrete, spread mulch, painted murals, put together swing-sets and slides, and built springy cars.

"As a growing company, our foundation's leadership wanted to have a focus and national partnership that would allow for a common experience for our associates across the country. Associates who have built in cities like Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta and Richmond, all have a common experience that connects them in helping kids live happier, healthier lives nationwide,” said Mac Stuckey, CarMax Foundation president.

While employees are gaining satisfaction during the actual process of building a playground, they are not only adding value to the community, but they are also adding value to their own company by making the community more attractive to prospective employees and also helping to retain current colleagues through a positive volunteer experience and stronger community infrastructure.

Now that Kaboom! has ample manpower and passion, it is looking to municipalities to get on board. Just as cities are now realizing the benefit of bike lanes and walkability, Siegal explained, Kaboom! wants them to also realize the importance of playability.

While the bike-lane movement has improved health and local air quality by reducing traffic, bike lanes are of limited use to kids. Siegal pointed out that 80 percent of the population in the U.S. is in urban or metropolitan areas, and that's only growing. The percentage of kids is even higher than that, at 82 percent.

"We look at that demographic trend, alongside the great momentum that biking and walking initiatives have gotten, and our concern is that when we are doing large-scale planning at the city level, we are missing out on a huge opportunity to provide kids with the exact things they need to be successful in life because we're not focused on development from a family and kids perspective," Siegal explained.

By focusing on childhood development with play-based initiatives, communities can improve health outcomes for children and set them up with the critical thinking skills that will be necessary in tomorrow's workforce.

Recognizing (and overcoming) the barriers

The tough thing about play is that, in most instances outside of a green space attached to a dwelling, it has to be planned. The playground is a destination.

Walk by a neighborhood park and see benches full of parents and caregivers who had to decide on a playground outing, carve out time in the day, pack snacks and appropriate clothing, travel to the playground, scout out bathrooms and then, finally, play. Although the end result is beneficial, Siegal said, the barriers are real, especially for lower-income families who might have less time outside of work, use public transportation or have to travel farther to find a playground.

Siegal believes that play should be integrated into daily routines, so it isn’t an activity that has to be planned. It should be available where people already are. Kids should be able to play not only at playgrounds, but also at bus stops and doctors' offices. Take a time or space where parents struggle to entertain their children, and give them the opportunity to play. Solve a problem for the parent and turn it into a playable moment.

Adding more playable space to cities makes them more attractive to families, which are a big economic factor in cities.

"A lot of cities have done a great job of attracting millennials and it has been a critical component of economic revitalization. But what we hear from mayors is that, while that has been crucial and essential, it is not sufficient for the sustainability of their cities, and they need to keep families in cities," Siegal explained.

This ties back to corporations in an important way. Cities rely on corporations to support their tax base, which means corporations can play a big role in shifting the cities where they reside.

"It's in the early stages," Siegal says, "but it's one of the things that gives me hope and optimism that the corporate community can be a critical driver for the change that we want to see in cities, and it aligns so fundamentally with their business interests, which to me is an indication that there is the potential for true sustainability."

Add in corporate volunteers to build these playgrounds with the help of an NGO like Kaboom! and it comes full circle as communities, companies, brands, volunteers and families all benefit.

Kaboom! began by building playgrounds for children, but as the intersection between individuals, companies and communities it has become so much more.

Image credit: Kaboom!/Facebook

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell