Interview and photos by Jan Osborn.
Carter’s Kids, a nonprofit founded by TV star Carter Oosterhouse, and Chuck E. Cheese, the ultimate destination for kids’ birthday parties and everyday fun, recently partnered to build a colorful, long-lasting new playground for the more than 400 children who attend KIPP Destiny Elementary School in Dallas. Carter’s Kids builds and develops community and school playgrounds and parks in underserved areas to encourage physical fitness and ensure that every child has access to a fun, safe place to play. Since Carter’s Kids was founded in 2006, the organization has enriched communities all over the country by building almost 90 long-lasting playgrounds in 22 states. Providing recreational spaces for kids to have fun, be active and create new friendships and memories, Carter’s Kids playgrounds are enjoyed by thousands of children every day across the country. This is the 86th playground built by Carter’s Kids since Oosterhouse started the nonprofit in 2006.
Dallas Doing Good had the opportunity to interview Carter Oosterhouse at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, May 20.
Tell me where you’re from, and how giving back was part of your family dynamic.
I grew up in Traverse City, Michigan, about four hours north of Detroit. My dad was a farmer, so we were always working around the house with a lot of places to play and run around and just be kids. After going to college, I started realizing a real world existed outside of Traverse City. I saw that there are so many concrete jungles, so many areas that are just sprawled in this urban scape that don’t have play spaces for kids. When I started working on TV as a builder, I realized I could give back by building playgrounds for kids because I felt like a big kid myself. I then realized it could be done on a larger scale, so I asked my sister if she would help. After meeting with partners like Chuck E Cheese, we found others who wanted to build playgrounds for schools that didn’t have playgrounds. The beauty of it is that I still get to be a big kid myself, and after we build it, I still get to play on the playground.
Carter’s kids is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and promoting awareness of fitness and self esteem for America’s youth. What was the catalyst for founding this organization?
The catalyst was really because kids can be very stagnant in today’s world, which is full of phones and laptops, computers and iPads. The idea was to keep kids not off of them, but at least to have an alternative space like this to play. Kids are 400% more likely to be physically active if they have something to attract them into play. So when kids have a space that is beautiful, that is wonderful, that’s colorful, that is different. They’re going to stay away from the phones and TV’s, and they’re gonna play. It’s not just the physical activity they have, but it’s also the cognitive; it’s getting across those monkey bars, maybe not the first time but the 10th time, and that is a huge development for kids.
You and your team collaborate with the neighborhood kids while planning and executing a playground or youth center. What do you think’s the most important part of this process?
The most important part is collaboration because it’s not just us coming up with the concept and building the playground, but it’s also a community that helps. I don’t live here in Dallas, and I don’t live in the majority of the places where we build playgrounds. But when we go home, we go back to our home and somebody else is taking care of this. The community helps out with building, planning, and then maintaining because these playgrounds happen in areas that are just wide open and anybody can use them, and you want to make sure that the community takes care of it and represents it.
This is not your first project in Dallas. Can you tell us how you got involved? With the Boys and Girls Club of Dallas to renovate a gymnasium?
Oh, man, I’ve gotten involved in so many projects here in Dallas, which is so funny because my brother lives here. And lots of times we will do playgrounds. I think this is the seventh playground we’ve done here in Dallas and Fort Worth. For the Boys and Girls Club, we did a gymnasium, and we’ve been able to partner with a lot of people. I started this nonprofit in 2006, and since then, we’ve been able to partner with a lot of different organizations and people, and Dallas seems like a place we always come back to.
Tell me about your partnership with KIPP Destiny Elementary School and Chuck E. Cheese.
We started working with KIPP schools around Texas, and then this is our first one in Dallas. They’ve been great because a lot of schools need assistance in various things. It’s not only textbooks, but schools need a lot of things, and a playgrounds is one of them. They have been great to identify an area that is in need. Chuck E. Cheese has been an awesome partner. They’re expanding outside their four walls, which is really cool to see because they’re known as a place for kids to play with pizza, right? So in addition to a kid’s memory of that, we’re building a playground with them. So many kids will create lasting memories and some for generations, for 25 years, at least. So many kids are going to be able to partake, and even though we won’t see these kids personally, we know they will be creating those memories.
What has most impacted you during your time working with these communities?
Sometimes we will build all-inclusive playgrounds for any child, a child who’s in a wheelchair or who has special needs. They’re all fun playgrounds to build, but those are the most impactful because it gives kids who otherwise would not have the opportunity to swing on a swing or go on the monkey bars, the opportunities to do it. Those playgrounds are a bit trickier to build because they’re a bit more pricey. But when you can build a playground like that and see the smiles– the smiles on their faces are undeniably infectious. They’re just kids being kids, and that’s the most important part. You know, as adults we can, can get lost in our own minds, but when kids see a playground, it’s just pure fun.
You and your wife, actress Amy Smart, have a five year old daughter, Flora. How has she influenced your mission and vision for Carter’s Kids?
Seeing the playgrounds through her eyes is definitely different because like I said, I started this in 2006. We’ve been building playgrounds for a long time, and as I said, I’m a kid myself, but now she wants to test it. If you noticed when you first got here, she said, “I tested the slides, and they both work. The kid’s job is to make sure that it’s not just solid, but right, and that’s what she’s doing.
Can we look for you to return to Dallas for The Great Christmas Light Fight?
We shoot a year in advance, so we would have shot it already. Maybe we have shot it already, but I can’t tell you.
Dallas Doing Good then asked sherri Landry, Entertainment Chief Marketing Officer, Chuck E. Cheese to tell us how Chuck E. Cheese got involved with Carter’s Kids.
Chuck E. Cheese is the place where a kid can be a kid, and we believe that kids should always have a fun, safe play space. That’s always been our mission. One of the things that we’re most known for is safety. As we think about growing the business and growing the brand, we want to make sure that we have an impact on kids around the globe. It makes sense for us to extend, run and play outside of the four walls. About a year and a half ago in the middle of the pandemic, we thought, “How can we make sure that in every community that we serve, kids have an opportunity to play, not just inside the four walls, but outside the four walls safely?” Because play really triggers a lot of things like social development, confidence, community involvement, memories and just fun. A playground seemed like the right thing for us to do for kids who are in elementary school specifically, because those are the most important developmental years. So we had this idea of creating a wonderful, tremendous purple playground in neighborhoods where we are that could extend that play. Carter’s Kids has that same mission. As we were looking for partners, they seemed like the perfect fit, because they were looking for business partners to help them fund their charitable organization that designs fun, safe places for kids to play. This perfect partnership resulted in the first ever Chuck E. Cheese playground right here in Texas.
Chuck E. Cheese is expanding play beyond its four walls to provide a fun, safe, inclusive place Where Every Kid Can Be A Kid. KIPP Texas Public Schools is an open-enrollment, public, tuition-free charter school network of 59 schools with nearly 32,000 pre-K-12 students across the state. To learn more about Carter’s Kids, go to Carter’s-Kids.org.