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The Buffalo News (New York)


It's not play money, but people could be excused for thinking so.

Some $5 million is being provided by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation in Western New York to build small, innovative play spaces, custom-designed playgrounds and skate parks in Western New York. The same amount is also being used in Southeast Michigan, bringing the Wilson Foundation's total investment to $10 million.

The purpose: Create play opportunities for young people who are more sedentary than earlier generations, leading to enhanced physical and mental health. The Wilson Foundation is partnering with the nonprofit KaBOOM! to create the play spaces and the Tony Hawk Foundation to build skate parks.

"Our vision with 'Built to Play' is to create more opportunities and places of recreation that are owned and embraced by the kids and families they serve," said Jim Boyle, the Wilson Foundation's vice president of programs.

"We look forward to the day that more children within these communities can make active play a part of their daily life through these play spaces and skate parks," Boyle said.

The money will be used to create up to 20 play spaces and 20 skate parks combined in the Buffalo and Detroit areas, and two "dream playgrounds" in each region.

The "Built to Play" initiative is based largely on the "State of Play" report the foundation released in 2017 in conjunction with the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program.

The report noted about 18 percent of all children are physically inactive, with nearly one in three in families with incomes under $25,000, and one in five with incomes under $75,000. Team sport participation also declined in larger numbers by income level for ages 6 to 12 in the survey.

The report's recommendations included more free play areas, including in unlikely places.

"It could be a swing at a bus stop that's kind of odd and magical and gets the kid off the bench and moving around," Boyle said. "Or you could be at a laundromat and have a four-square court. These are the kinds of things KaBOOM! has done. We're just bringing that type of innovation here to get kids in motion."

KaBOOM!'s process involves the public from start to finish in the actual design of the play space and planning how it will come to fruition, said Roxane Rucker, a company vice president with the Washington, D.C., company.

"Then, people roll up their sleeves and put in the sweat equity to actually build these innovative play spaces," Rucker said. KaBOOM! will award $720,000 in grants through the Play Everywhere Challenge, ranging from $10,000 to $80,000.

Both partnering organizations have proven track records. KaBOOM! works with hundreds of communities across the country and builds around 150 playgrounds annually while awarding grants for creating spaces with creative play products. More than 3,000 playgrounds have been built throughout the country with its help.

The Tony Hawk Foundation focuses on promoting high-quality, public skate parks in low-income areas and has helped build more than 500 skate parks across the nation.

Miki Vuckovich, the Hawk Foundation's executive director, said there is a great need for more skate parks in Western New York.

"Many of the athletes skate parks attract are kids not particularly interested in the formality of team sports, but they are athletes nonetheless," Vuckovich said. "Skating offers them a physical outlet that is also very creative. The skate park offers them a space to do that safely among others that share their passion."

The Vista, Calif., organization gave small seed money to help jump start the Amherst skate park named for Alexandria "Alix" Rice, an 18-year-old who died in 2011 when she was fatally stuck by a drunken driver as she was riding a longboard.

"This opportunity funded by the Wilson Foundation is unprecedented anywhere in the country," Vuckovich said. "We're excited to be a part of it and help benefit the youth in the region."

The "State of Play" report noted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an hour of activity a day for kids, a goal for which many children fall far short.

"It was only 16 percent in a study on the Buffalo region," Boyle said. "This is about more than about healthy bodies and healthy minds, though it's that, too. When children are more active their cognitive abilities are increased and they do better in school," he said.

The report also mentions other needs, including getting more coaches in age-appropriate ways for organized sports, and giving kids opportunities to sample different sports instead of being locked into one at an early age.

Boyle said skate parks and action sports are growing, and the foundation saw the need to also create play spaces for those kinds of activities as well as creating state-of-the-art playgrounds.

"We really put a premium in design, and KaBOOM! is working with designers from around the world," Boyle said. "We hope these will attract excitement from the kids."

Boyle said that the Foundation will promote other programs for youth and sports recreation in the future beyond the ones announced. "More is to come," Boyle said.

KaBOOM! is expected to work with grass-roots groups, nonprofits and municipalities over the next several months to help them through the application process, which was launched Monday.

The Hawk Foundation will issue several matching grants of $250,000 for the construction of new concrete skate parks, with more information to be announced in April, Vuckovich said.

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