Playgrounds with a purpose

KaBOOM! builds community unity while constructing playgrounds


Anne Halliday

Pouring rain leaked into plastic ponchos and gym shoes squished and squelched across the pavement, but this construction crew wasn't about to throw in the towel. The team was just getting started building a dream playground for Grace Lutheran School in Little Village.

"Rain or shine, we always build," says Anel Ruiz, project manager for KaBOOM!, the nonprofit group sponsoring the playground construction.

The team, made up of volunteers from the community, PepsiCo and KaBOOM!, filled a paved lot next to Grace Lutheran with 175 cubic yards of mulch and installed a 2,500 square-foot playground, complete with a "twirly" slide and climbing wall.

"Little Village has the highest number of children and the least number of playgrounds in Chicago," says Ruiz. That's why KaBOOM! chose to build there, she says.

KaBOOM! completed the Little Village project in May and will be building a second playground Sept. 29 at Tots Express Learning Center, 8940 S. Cottage Grove Ave. in Chicago.

The kids are involved in every level, from planning to building to playing. KaBOOM! asked students in kindergarten through eighth grade from both schools to draw their dream playgrounds and then used the pictures to design the playgrounds.

"There is an entire two-month-long planning process," Ruiz says. "What we are building is actually their dream playground.

Drawings for the September build feature a rock wall, slides, trampolines, monkey bars and a castle. The kids also request that KaBOOM! help them improve the center's vegetable garden, says Sarah Pinsky, spokesperson for KaBOOM!.

"We see it all-skydiving pads, pools of M&Ms. What we do is take the drawings and try to incorporate the meaning behind it. With the skydiving pad, obviously the child is interested in flight or movement, so we add swings or a monorail," Pinsky says.

In addition to creating play space for kids, KaBOOM! aims to develop unity and leadership in communities by recruiting kids, parents and other volunteers to help.

"I'm helping because I want other kids to have fun-especially little kids," says Tony Ortega, 13, of Little Village. Ortega spent the rainy May day picking up garbage, laying mulch and cleaning rusty gates with Manuel Torres and Eric Reza, both 12. The three boys are students at Eli Whitney School.

The younger children got creative inside, making mosaics that would be used as a walkway through the playground.

The Little Village project created unity between the school and the community and involved the parents, says Beatriz Estrada of Burbank.

"They're happy because we all got to see it go from top to bottom," she says. "They got to choose what they liked."

Estrada's 5-year-old son, Trevor, is especially excited about the twirly slide, she says.

In the past 10 years KaBOOM! has built more than 1,000 playgrounds across the country. This year, they will lead construction of 213 more, 12 of which are sponsored by PepsiCo.

Each KaBOOM! project costs between $55,000 and $65,000, but Ruiz hesitates to put a price tag on the playground.

"When you see the kids' faces, you'll know how much it's worth," she says.

Editor's note: If you need a playspace in your area visit

Anne Halliday is intern coordinator at Chicago Parent and a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Liz DeCarlo is calendar editor and Chicago Parent Going Places editor.


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