04/26/2011 05:11 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2011

My Quest to Build a Playground Within Walking Distance of Every Child

I didn't have what most people would call a "typical" childhood. In 1972, when I was 19 months old, my father said he was going to unload a truck, and he never came back. My mom was left to raise eight children by herself.

She tried her best, but the bills piled up, and eventually my seven brothers and sisters and I ended up in Mooseheart, a group home west of Chicago. Many people automatically assume that my unconventional upbringing put me at a disadvantage. In fact, not only was I happy at Mooseheart, but the campus presented me with opportunities that aren't within reach for many children these days. There were trees to climb, a lake to swim in, swing sets, two playgrounds, a sandbox and several basketball courts and athletic fields. I thought all kids grew up this way.

By the time I reached my early 20s, I had come to realize that most kids aren't raised in places like Mooseheart, but I was still shocked to read a story in The Washington Post about two children who, for lack of other options, had been playing in an abandoned car and suffocated to death when they got locked inside.

I was a restless college dropout, eager to contribute to the world in a concrete way, but not sure how to get started. I had gotten my feet wet in the world of service through an Urban Studies Fellowship and a subsequent playground building project with City Year in Columbus, Ohio. I couldn't help thinking that these two children would not have died so tragically if they'd had a playground nearby.

From the back of a deli in Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., I hashed out an ambitious plan: To build a playground within walking distance of every child. As I laid the foundation for the fledgling nonprofit that would become KaBOOM!, I learned that our country's play deficit is far more serious than I'd ever imagined.

Only one in five children in the United States lives within walking distance of a playground. Our country's startling lack of places to play is coupled with social and cultural factors that have removed time to play from our children's lives. Recess, for instance, offers nearly half of the chances kids get to be physically active during the school year (42 percent), but is increasingly absent from the school day.

When not in school, children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes in front of a screen. More and more parents keep their children indoors out of concern for their safety. Even well-meaning parents, looking to give their children the best of everything, drive their kids from adult-supervised lessons to adult-coached games. The result is a radical loss of time spent playing.

The lack of play is causing severe harm to our children. Children with a park or playground within a half-mile are almost five times more likely to be a healthy weight than children without playgrounds or parks nearby. Without ample play, we continue to see a decrease in creativity and imagination, as well as vital skills including curiosity, social skills, resiliency and the ability to assess risk. Children who don't play don't learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and advocate for themselves. The lack of these skills has dramatic long-term effects. Children deprived of play show increased problems with social integration, including greater likelihood of felony arrests by young adulthood.

KaBOOM! was born out of a desire to prevent the tragic deaths of two kids, but it has become a movement to save an entire generation. By giving our children the time and space to play, we can help ensure that they grow into happy, healthy, creative adults. By depriving them, we set the stage for a future generation plagued by grave physical, intellectual, social and emotional problems.

Since its founding in the back of a deli, KaBOOM! has built nearly 2,000 playgrounds in collaboration with local communities, facilitated thousands of playground builds through our online tools and resources, mobilized over a million volunteers and helped save play for nearly 3.5 million children. I am proud of what we have accomplished, but so much remains to be done.

2011-04-25-3DBook2.jpgJoin us! In my new book, KaBOOM! How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play, I share the story of my childhood, my journey into the world of social entrepreneurship, the growth of KaBOOM! over its 15-year history, and 10 ways you can restore play to your community. Already an Amazon Bestseller, the book represents a critical opportunity to take the movement to save play beyond KaBOOM! and into the national spotlight. Perhaps not all children can have access to a lake, swing sets, sandboxes, climbing trees and several athletic fields, as I did growing up, but the least they can have is a playground.