Cool, Unique Ways Cities Are Encouraging Play

Parker Barry

Tall buildings. Traffic jams. Sidewalks and people. Mention cities to many adults, and those are the images that come to mind. Maybe they even think of good food and great shopping. But play? Play may not come to an adult’s mind, but it’s always on kids’ minds, no matter where they are — big city, suburban cul-de-sac, or open country land.

Luckily for kids, play is also a priority for parks and recreation departments in towns and cities of all sizes. These folks spend their days planning activities and organizing facilities that encourage their neighbors — of all ages — to play. It’s a big job with great importance. Kids need play to hone social skills, develop resiliency, improve gross and fine motor skills, and stay healthy — physically and emotionally.

San Francisco and Austin: Two hot spots

Cities like Austin and San Francisco are hot spots — both for relocation and vacation — largely because of the recreational opportunities the cities have to offer. Both balance natural beauty with more developed opportunities for play, and they attract businesses and highly educated talent that can help perpetuate those opportunities.

Cutting-edge technology companies and startups require the nimble, creative thinking that play facilitates. So, many of the companies in these cities capitalize on that playful spirit and encourage it in their workplaces, offering flexible workspaces that encourage spontaneous play — be that easy access to a Ping-Pong table for a pickup game, gaming systems set up to encourage bonding, walls covered in white boards for doodling, or pets at work to embody a playful attitude.

Cutting-edge technology companies and startups require the nimble, creative thinking that play facilitates.

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States for many reasons, Shelley Parks, public information specialist for Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said. “But being playful has to be at the top of those reasons!” The culture in Austin, she said, is that people work hard and play hard, and the parks and rec department strives to make sure they offer something for everyone. “We are lucky to have lakes, trails and parks in all areas of town,” she said. “We have neighborhood parks, regional parks and city parks that are vastly different from each other and offer play opportunities for anyone who wants to enjoy them.”


Play Me, I’m Yours places pianos around cities as an interactive art exhibit to encourage play and a love of music. This is from the Austin exhibit. Photo courtesy of Amanda Bindel.

Barriers to play

Still, there are cities and neighborhoods that aren’t as play-friendly for families, and many kids don’t have easy access to parks and playgrounds. Families face all kinds of barriers to play with busy schedules, so much to do and so little time. Some live in what is called a “play desert” — an area that lacks enough places to play in relation to the number of kids who live there.

Even when parents realize how important play is, how can it happen with schedules exploding with errands, activities, work and life? KaBOOM!

KaBOOM! is a nonprofit whose mission is play. Since 1996, KaBOOM! has organized more than a million volunteers to build 16,300 playgrounds, serving more than 7 million kids. Their goal is to have a safe place to play in walking distance of every kid, but their plans extend beyond the playground to making play possible wherever kids are, according to Shawn Lin, KaBOOM!’s manager of research and evaluation.

Play can happen in … grocery store lines, bus stops, parking spaces, Laundromats and more.

“Play doesn’t have to happen in a multimillion-dollar park renovation,” he said. “Play can happen in moments of downtime: grocery store lines, bus stops, parking spaces, Laundromats and more. Whether it’s playing a guessing game at how much the total grocery bill will be, or making up stories about how the clothes got dirty while separating laundry at the Laundromat, parents and children can find different, creative ways to engage with one another during what otherwise seems like mundane tasks.”


The Obvious Bus Stop in Baltimore embodies a playful spirit, inviting all ages to think playfully, even at the bus stop. Photo courtesy of

A focus on playability

They call this playability, and KaBOOM! offers research and ideas to help cities and grassroots volunteers bring play to every day. They’ve created a crowdsourced Map of Play for families to search and find nearby places to play or add their favorites for other families to find. They’ve partnered with Humana to recognize and give grants to cities that demonstrate playfulness or strive to be more playful, naming them to their annual list of Playful Cities USA.

These grants and partnerships have allowed cities like Thomasville, Georgia, to put “playwalks” throughout town, giving pedestrians spots to incorporate active play, like hopscotch, balancing lines and shape hops. “These playwalks provide active play opportunities at locations such as bus stops, which are normally places where people and families are sedentary,” Lin said.

Playability in cities is like what’s happening in those startups and successful tech companies — integrating play into daily life. Making life more playful isn’t just silly fun. It’s not just a way to lighten things up or keep people happy, and it’s not a waste of time. It’s necessary for a life of health and happiness, and it’s what’s best for kids.



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