NEW ORLEANS – If you’ve ever been to the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and Irma Thomas, you know that to experience New Orleans is to hear it. Summer cicadas regularly sit in on buskers’ street corner jazz sets. Music is organic in New Orleans. But Hurricane Katrina washed many of those natural sounds away. Mainstay performers who were forced to evacuate were headlining in places like Phoenix, Arizona.
The silence is my most lurid memory of Hurricane Katrina’s wake.
New Orleans – known for its sounds – was painfully quiet for weeks after the levees breeched in the storm’s aftermath. And the conspicuous absence of children’s laughter was a somber measure of the city’s score. Eighty percent of the city flooded, which obviously waterlogged schools. Consequently, parents who could keep their children away from the city did so for as long as possible.
The story of rebuilding New Orleans school facilities has received considerable attention. As families returned to the city, New Orleans Public Schools and the Recovery School District put bandages on waterlogged facilities, many of which were on their last breaths before they flooded. Five years after the breeches in the levees, New Orleans public schools reached a settlement with FEMA, which granted the city $1.8 billion to rebuild school buildings in 2010.
But children don’t live wholly in schools. Before a settlement had been reached, the volume of pitter-patter of little feet was still low. Education reform put a rigid focus on academic achievement, which too often framed play as a luxury that children couldn’t afford. Consequently, a laser light focus wasn’t placed on playgrounds.
Playing is learning. Young people also need developmentally appropriate spaces to learn, socialize and play – in school and out. Playgrounds and recreational facilities are critical components of an educationally and socially rich community.
A story that’s not often told is the efforts to bring playgrounds back to New Orleans before the districts’ leaders completed the broad plan to refurbish and rebuild schools’ main buildings.
KaBOOM! answered the call from families in New Orleans and other impacted areas.
KaBOOM! is a national non-profit organization that creates public-private partnerships, which garner funding and the helping hands of volunteers to build play spaces in communities and schools that need them. Corporations pay for about 90 percent of the projects and the community contributes the remaining 10. Play spaces include playgrounds and recreational spaces.
Prior to Katrina, KaBOOM! constructed two play spaces in the Gulf Coast region. Today, there are 194 including 173 that are playgrounds. KaBOOM! reports that one in seven elementary schools affected by Hurricane Katrina received a new playground.
“Families had lost homes, lost jobs, lost lives and neighborhoods were destructed,” said Kate Becker, Chief Mission Officer & COO for KaBOOM!. “If [children] are not able to get outside and play and be active that stress will manifest itself in negative ways for the child. So Play is just critical way of the child’s ability to process.”
KaBOOM! recognizes the developmental and community benefits of serviceable play spaces. The “playground builds” are community events. I participated in one such playground build. On December 6, 2008 more than 200 volunteers including Capital One Bank employees, school parents and neighbors of the school joined organizers from KaBOOM! to build a new playground at Gentilly Terrace Elementary, one of the schools in the Capital One-University Charter Schools Network (now New Beginnings Schools Foundation) that I managed.
The celebration was embedded in the building of the playground. (I earned the “most spirited” pin.) We proved diverse community members can have fun working together. And as happy as that build day was, it was exceeded by the students when they returned to see their new play space.
Sounds of student growth were back in that neighborhood. The sound of city progress was being measured in decibels.
Laughter should drown out gunshots. In cities beset with violence like New Orleans, Baltimore and Chicago, we probably need fewer punishments, curfews and criminal justice solutions and more playgrounds. Becker and KaBOOM! are looking to insert play spaces in mundane areas we don’t typically consider playgrounds – like bus stops.
Unfortunately, many schools lock up their playgrounds after school hours. School leaders will cite insurance liabilities and the threat of damage as reasons for blocking access to playgrounds. However, not trusting community members is hurting cities’ productivity and overall safety.
The shoe giant Nike is making the case that an active city is a productive city. Their funded research found that physical inactivity will cost one week per person per year in lost productivity. “Most tragically, physical inactivity will kill some 9 percent of the overall population — as many people as smoking,” according to the research.
“We definitely would like to see schools unlock their playgrounds,” said Becker who pointed to opportunities for collaboration between cities’ recreation departments, schools and parks through joint sharing agreements. Becker continued, “We sometimes talk about the health of a city. A good signal for that is are kids present and can you hear kids laughing.”
Children will make the sounds of progress. If New Orleans really wants a safer, more productive city, she should be known less for being an adult playground and more for bringing play to where children are.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.