Kids were hard at work building their own playground.

 Photos courtyard of Caroline Armijo

Kids were hard at work building their own playground.

The gymnasium at Calvary Baptist Church was recently transformed into a space for over 100 giggling and squealing children. A March 3 Pop-Up Play event allowed them to create their own playground.

While kids brought their play space to life with portable foam blocks, the event facilitators from Downtown DC Kids – an organization working to provide safe play spaces and activities for children – spoke with parents about the lack of open space for play in downtown Washington.

“Not a single playground exists from the West End, through downtown, the White House and the mall,” said Danielle Pierce, co-founder of Downtown DC Kids. “There is a huge range where there are no playgrounds at all.”

The Stanford School of Medicine recommends that children engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Pierce noted that museums and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library have good play areas, but there is no big, safe spaces for kids to be physical.

Peter Ufland watched his two-year- old son run alongside dozens of other children through the gymnasium riddled with life-size building blocks and bouncy balls. “Exercise and playtime is a necessity for two-year-olds to work out their energy,” he said. “It turns into anarchy if they don’t.”

Physical exercise is not the only benefit of playtime. Caroline Armijo, founder of Downtown DC Kids, said play exercises the brain and also prompts decision-making and processing. “There are all these studies about the ability to process information and learn new things, just figure out how the world works,” Armijo said. “Play is childhood work.”

The city is not at a loss for green space, Pierce said. The issue is that the land is tied up in too many departments and organizations, requiring multiple people to sign-off on the use of the land for playgrounds. Much of the space belongs to the federal government, not the District.

Residents are not the only individuals suffering for play space. Children at schools and daycare centers also require physical activity and there is no space to sufficiently provide it.

“Kids that go to school don’t have playgrounds, they have no outside space at all,” Pierce said. “Hundreds of kids go to daycare and they’re walked on strings like a chain gang for hours.”

Homeless children particularly need play space because of the added strain of living in an unstable environment. Lana Tilley, program and operations manager of Children’s Homeless Play Project (CHPP), said play provides a vehicle for expression and comfort to help children with traumatic stress issues heal. CHPP is an organization that works with children in transitional housing to reduce the effects of trauma through play.

Armijo said she hopes to partner with CHPP, which provided the play blocks for the day’s event. She believes the organization’s powerful message will strengthen the cause of Downtown DC Kids.

“I think a lot of people sometimes look at this project and think it’s just for people who are living downtown and they don’t see the homeless population as part of that. They just see it for people living in condos,” Armijo said.

“But when you go to the library and see the range of children playing there it is obviously for a whole range of socioeconomic populations.”

Armijo and Pierce said in addition to planning more Pop-Up Play events, the next step for Downtown DC Kids is to search for open spaces that can be turned into playgrounds. They have their eyes set on potential areas; it is just a matter of working through the lengthy red tape.

They hope their efforts will keep children and parents, such as Josh Gottheimer, living downtown. As he strapped his two-year-old daughter into her stroller outside the gymnasium, Gottheimer explained that the 10 children who live in his building have to be driven by car to find a playground.

“It’s a big reason why we’re leaving the neighborhood,” he said. “Exercise is essential and kids love to play. They need playgrounds to do that. It’s simple.”