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Essence Bennett paints a snail design on a table in a courtyard outside North Bend Elementary/Middle School, part of a project by Kaboom to build a playground. This is the nonprofit's last until a study to determine what areas have the most need is completed.
Essence Bennett paints a snail design on a table in a courtyard outside North Bend Elementary/Middle School, part of a project by Kaboom to build a playground. This is the nonprofit's last until a study to determine what areas have the most need is completed. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Childhood is supposed to be a carefree time of exploring and running around outside with friends. Yet, the simple childhood pleasure of outdoor play is not in easy reach to many of the children in Baltimore.

In too many neighborhoods, barren lots, dirty alleys and vacant homes are more the norm than swings sets, monkey bars and sandboxes. Some parents feel forced to keep their sons and daughters in the house to avoid the dangers of neighborhood life. We were reminded once again this weekend that not even children are safe from the city’s unceasing violence when a 2-year-old was shot in the stomach in what police believe was an act of road rage. We’ve all read one too many stories of children caught in the crossfire walking down the street or sitting on their porch.

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The nonprofit Kaboom understands all too well the importance of outdoor play for children. It has worked for nearly two decades to bring safe playgrounds to cities across the country, including 41 in Baltimore. Now, as The Sun’s Meredith Cohn reported, the group is taking a more strategic approach with an equity study in Baltimore to determine which neighborhoods have the greatest need for a playground. They hope to in effect erase the racial disparity that exists in whether or not a child has access to a playground or other recreational activity.

The inequity is rooted in the Jim Crow area when African Americans were segregated from publicly funded pools, parks and even school athletic activities, shepherded to facilities that were subpar to those in white communities. Over they years, many of these already inadequate facilities and equipment fell into further disrepair.

The result is poor, black children, by no choice of their own, have missed out on the full benefits of play, which have been studied and outlined extensively — so much so that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has declared it a right of every child.

Obviously, physical activity is good for heart health and keeping kids fit and at a healthy weight. Free, uninhibited play also allows kids to use their imagination and develop dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. Kids who engage in active play decompress and release stress, an important coping mechanism for have who have built up anxieties caused by the trauma of living in unsafe places. The same goes for pent up anger, which might otherwise manifest itself in bad behavior that can get kids in trouble at school. Really, it’s no different from adults who use a nightly run or spin class to keep their stress levels in check.

At another level, playgrounds fill idle time so that bored kids don’t turn to the wrong activities to occupy themselves. The same can be said of recreation centers, which we’re glad to see Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young made a priority earlier this year.

But it’s not enough just to build the playgrounds. New shiny play equipment doesn’t erase the state of the surrounding community. Even walking a few sketchy blocks to get to a fairly safe play area may seem too risky for some parents. And there is always the danger the problems in the neighborhood spill over to playground. You never want to see drug activity or find heroin needles at a place that is supposed to be sacred for kids.

Part of Kaboom’s new strategy is to locate playgrounds at schools, which are still, for the most part, considered safe space for kids. That will also allow for more productive recess time. Kids need a break in the day to burn off energy so they can better concentrate throughout the day. It is as important as having a nutritious lunch and breakfast.

We would also encourage more community policing around playgrounds to build relations between police and kids and their parents. Neighborhood patrols could also make safe playgrounds a priority. Communities can play a vital role in creating spaces where people aren’t afraid.

But most of all we want those involved in criminal activity to get back to the point where children are off-limits. There used to be a time when certain things were sanctified, especially young and old people. Now, shootings have become eradicate and indiscriminate. Everyone is in danger in this era of crime.

Allow kids to enjoy the innocence that comes with being young. Give them safe playgrounds so that they can escape even the most dangerous environments. Make the joy of a playground available to all kids.

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