Ed Barker of Chicago likes building playgrounds.
It’s not his job, but Barker enjoys it so much that as of this past weekend, he has helped to build 60 community playgrounds across the US.
It all started in 2007 when Barker, a senior account manager for Fannie Mae, attended a company sales meeting in New Orleans. He learned that as part of the meeting, Fannie Mae was partnering with a group to help build a children’s playground in a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They wanted volunteers. Barker thought it sounded fun.
“It was a great opportunity to help a community, and when I arrived to work on the playground, I saw how badly that community was hurting,” says Barker. “You can’t believe how humbling it was to think about the comfort of my hotel and see the complete devastation. You work that much harder to get this thing done and do it right. You work harder to motivate people. You work harder to have fun, too.”
Barker loved the experience. From the moment he and the other workers showed up to break ground on the project, community members appeared from everywhere to offer help.
“Some of them joined in on the construction, others brought food, and before long, a jazz band set up and started playing,” says Barker. “It helped me to understand that we sometimes think backwards about community-building. We assume that in a strong community, people build playgrounds. But what I witnessed, and have continued to witness, is that when you build playgrounds, you yourself help bring the community together and strengthen it.”
Barker learned the partnering organization he and other Fannie Mae employees were helping was KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit with the lofty goal of building a playground within walking distance of every child in the US. As of 2013, KaBOOM! has built more than 15,000 playgrounds serving more than 6.6 million children—with the aid of more than one million volunteers. Barker decided to stay in touch with KaBOOM!, and six years and 60 playgrounds later, he still loves the volunteer work.
“It’s a great way to take action to take action to help tomorrow’s adults,” says Barker. “A playground teaches many things, and fosters children’s growth in many ways. There’s the physical activity, exercise, and competition, but there’s also fun, play, and learning social skills.”
What Barker especially enjoys about KaBOOM! is that every playground in unique, and local children have a hand in the design.
“When KaBOOM! meets with a neighborhood about a playground project, the first thing it does is ask children to sit down and draw their own images of an ideal playground,” says Barker. “Later on, when the engineers and planners meet to develop a design, the first things they study are the kids’ drawings.”
Barker has worked on multiple playgrounds in his native Chicago area, and recently recruited his wife, daughter and son to volunteer.
“I’m having too much fun to ever stop doing this,” says Barker. “And I’m committed to keep sending out the message that we need to encourage play. I think we place too much emphasis on muscle in physical education. Innovative play encourages the mind.”