Investing in Children Makes Economic Sense -- in the Gulf and Beyond

"The people in the Gulf don't need a playground. They need two-by-fours. They need generators."

So I was told when my organization, KaBOOM!, sought financial assistance to build a playground 14 weeks after Hurricane Katrina. With so much devastation, why invest in something so 'superfluous' when residents were still struggling to get basic necessities?

Yet I have long contended that playgrounds are not superfluous, regardless of when and where they are built. As former CNN Correspondent Kathleen Koch, points out in her book, Rising from Katrina, adults in the Gulf "were busy trying to replace physical objects -- lost homes, cars, and possessions. [But] there was nothing anyone could do to recapture a lost childhood."

In the end, KaBOOM! didn't build a playground in the post-Katrina Gulf -- we built 140 (and counting). I still consider Operation Playground, as we called it, one of my organization's greatest accomplishments. In a region devastated by disaster and paralyzed by bureaucratic bungling, our efforts helped restore opportunities for communities to gather and for children to play.

But seven years later, kids across the country remain in danger of losing out on their childhoods -- and hurricanes are not to blame.

Just as playgrounds didn't even make the priority list of most of those responding to Katrina, they all too often slip off the radar of those building our schools, designing our neighborhoods, and drafting government budgets. Only one in five children in the U.S. lives within walking distance of a park. Many more lack access to a quality early childhood education that provides ample time and space to play.

Despite the fact that childhood poverty is on the rise, affecting 15.5 million children in 2009, total federal investment in children -- we're not just talking about playgrounds here -- comprised about 1.6 percent of the GDP in 2006.

Why should we be investing more? And why, specifically, should we be investing more in play opportunities? The obvious answer is that play makes kids happy and healthy, and happy, healthy kids make for a happier, healthier society.

The flip side is more ominous. A recent study by Oregon State University found that the key social and behavioral skills that play helps to develop -- such as paying attention and persisting with a task -- are better predictors of whether or not a child completes college than his or her academic abilities. Kids who don't play are not just at greater risk of falling behind academically, but also of becoming overweight or obese, failing to integrate socially, and even engaging in criminal activity.

Play also makes kids more resilient -- a hallmark trait of Gulf residents who have rebuilt their lives and their communities in the wake of Katrina. After we built a playground at a school in Kiln, Miss, the principal wrote us a letter:

"The psychologists in our area have been doing studies on kids in the schools in our district, and they reported seeing things... like thoughts about suicide, murder, and other types of violence -- truly terrible things. But, they also reported that they didn't see those things in the kids at North Central Elementary and they attribute a lot of that to the playground."

When we fail to invest in our children early on, we end up paying the price. Literally. Society pays the cost of remedial help, public benefits and even incarceration. On the other hand, investments in early childhood education -- typically full of play opportunities -- have a substantial return on investment.

According to Science Daily, a longitudinal study revealed that "for every $1 invested in a Chicago early childhood education program, nearly $11 is projected to return to society over the children's lifetimes." The study also found that early education "resulted in significantly higher rates of attendance at four-year colleges and employment in higher-skilled jobs and significantly lower rates of felony arrests and symptoms of depression in young adulthood."

Undoubtedly, building playgrounds in the Gulf after Hurricane Katrina was a feel-good experience that benefited the region's children emotionally, intellectually, socially, and physically. But even for those who can't be convinced by a child's smile, all the numbers indicate that investing in children makes economic sense -- particularly for children in disadvantaged areas.

Our society spends a lot of money on prison bars. For the sake of our kids, let's invest in monkey bars.

For more on Operation Playground after Hurricane Katrina and other formative moments in the movement to save play, check out my book, KaBOOM!: A Movement to Save Play -- coming soon in paperback!