Sunflower Managing Director, Jennifer Ligeti, and I recently attended the US Play Coalition Conference on the Value of Play at Clemsen University. We came back with heads full of practical information from the leading thinkers and advocates in the world of play.
Here are some highlights from the conference.
Good News: We’re all on the same page
The best part of attending the play conference? Being with a group of over 265 other like-minded people (parents, play practitioners, educators, medical professionals, landscape architects and others with an interest in play) who all ‘get it’ when it comes to the benefits of play for people of all ages.
The message we heard over and over from researchers, educators and child development experts should be a familiar one to Sunflower families: young children require experiential hands-on learning through play–including self-created/self-directed experiences and opportunities to play with open-ended “loose parts,” as well as significant time (at least an hour) outside each day, for healthy physical, social, emotional and intellectual development. In fact, play is not just a ‘nice extra’ supplement to children’s academic work; it’s a basic biological drive, on the same level as eating or sleeping. Of course, older children and adults are no different: play is crucial throughout the lifespan.
The future of outdoor play
Speaking of outdoor play: it’s getting harder and harder for children to get enough of it. There are probably several reasons for this, from fears about children’s safety and cuts in school recess to our ever-growing daily absorption with technology.
As a parent, I know I’ve often lamented the fact that the outdoor play experiences of my childhood are not available for my own children. In his keynote speach, Dr. Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State University, put this thought into stark perspective. In his opinion, “the old forms of play we grew up with are unlikely to come back.” I heard this echoed a few times throughout the conference: the world is different today than it was when we were children. We’re at a new starting point, so let’s acknowledge that and move on from here. Instead of getting lost in nostalgia, we need to adapt today’s world to fit our human need for nature and play.
That means playground and community design that integrates nature back into our everyday lives. Nature playscapes (where nature is the focus, not human-made elements) are a huge new trend in playspace design. These playscapes allow children to experience nature, and natural loose parts, firsthand, with all their senses. Not all natural play spaces are built environments. In one session at the conference, I learned about a program at North Carolina State University that is training interns to be play workers* in wildlife refuges, giving children the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in these wild environments.
*Play worker, just as a concept, is on my personal short list for Best Job Ever.
Parents and Play
Of course, as parents, the job of turning off the technology and getting our children outside and interested in the natural world is uniquely ours. For better or worse, we are the gatekeepers to our children’s play.
In a fascinating session presented by husband and wife team, Dr. Kathleen Burriss and Dr. Larry Burriss of Middle Tennessee State University, I learned of a study that described parents’ understandings and concerns regarding children’s outdoor security and activity. The conclusion: parents’ anticipated danger for children’s safety (from injury or abduction) does not appear to balance realistically with potential risk factors. According to Kathleen, whose background is in early childhood education, children who are denied the opportunity for free play tend to lack initiative, are less willing to accept responsibility, less able to relate to others, and may experience extended emotional and psychological dependency. The challenge for today’s parents is to have the courage to do our own risk-benefit analysis (based on facts, not fear) and allow our children the freedom to take their own risks. “Kids need to go outside and explore for themselves,” said Kathleen. “Emotionally, you can’t give that to them. They have to get that for themselves.”
Which is where blogger (and fellow KaBOOM! guest blog finalist) Mike Lanza comes in. “I’m a father,” he explained in the session he presented, Neighborhood Play Everyday. “so I want solutions.” Mike’s book Playborhood, coming out in April, promises to be an inspiring look at exactly how parents can bring play to their own neighborhoods.
“[The decline in children’s outdoor free play] is a social problem,” said Mike. “So it needs a social, not an individual, solution.” Thinking big picture sometimes means stepping out of your comfort zone (Mike and his kids went knocking door to door in their neighborhood, making new friends and inviting them to come out and play. At least one family didn’t answer the door, he says, because they never imagined that somebody they wanted to talk to would be knocking!), other times it’s more about being in the right place at the right time (“play in your front yard where your neighbors can see you!” Mike advises).
Play advocacy (we’re all play advocates)
Yes, that means you. If you’re reading this blog, if you’re a parent or an educator, then you care about children and the future of play. If you know there’s a problem, then you have a responsibility to be a part of the solution. As a parent, that has been an extremely empowering message for me, a message that was only reinforced at the play conference. There is so much I can do to make the world a better place, just by making sure I’m educated and speaking up. You can too. Go play!
© Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Reblogged this on discovered in play and commented:
Just a tiny fraction of all the amazing ideas I heard about at the US Play Coalition conference back in February. Thanks, Sunflower Creative Arts, for sending me!
Overwhelming evidence for the necessity of play for children’s development… the future of outdoor play… our role as parents in saving play for our children… and what sort of person makes a great play advocate (hint: they’re a lot like YOU!)
One more exciting bit of news from the conference is that Michael Patte, Ph.D. of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania is creating a Playwork concentration at the University. I believe it will be the first of its kind in the U.S.!
Thanks for your mention of Playborhood, Jaime. Boy, I’m saddened, but not very surprised, by what Professor Godbey said in his keynote (fortunately, I wasn’t there), and I hope I can nudge you away from that attitude a bit. Sure, 2012 is different in many ways from 1950 or 1960, but kids are born with the same genetic makeup, and deserve a childhood suited to them. If that means they should have childhoods that resemble Beaver Cleaver’s childhood more than that of most kids today, then so be it.
I’m confident that kids below the age of 10 can safely play unsupervised today in most neighborhoods in the US because I’ve seen it happen in many places. In my neighborhood in California, for instance, my 7-1/2 year old roams many blocks from our house on his own routinely, and my 4 year old rides his bike or scooter on the street often (daily, in good weather) without an adult hovering over him. I’ve seen many other examples of neighborhoods like this throughout the US.
Are these cases rare? Sure, they are. However, they’re *very* possible, and because they are, childhoods like these should be our goal. Otherwise, I believe, we’re shortchanging our kids.
It was a great conference — and I am so happy to see it get bigger each year!
Viva #playoutdoors! – Bethe aka The Grass Stain Guru
Thanks for the comment, Mike. I agree with you; kids today are no different than they were 50 years ago. But it’s hard to deny the fact that the world is vastly different.
What used to happen organically (neighborhood kids meeting and playing) now has to be planned. What was once just life can now be seen as more of a ‘radical’ choice, depending on where you live. Today’s parents need to be proactive, and a little strategic, if we want to provide unsupervised play environments (aka normal healthy childhood experiences) for our kids. I think your story of going door to door with your kids is a great example of that. My parents certainly never had to do that when I was a kid–and I’m sure yours didn’t either.
As I told you at the conference, your work to bring play to kids on the neighborhood level is extremely inspiring. The heart of the social change you spoke of lies with us parents. Thanks for helping us see what is possible!
It certainly was a fantastic conference!
Bethe, I believe Jennifer and I sat at a table with you during one of the general sessions. We look forward to seeing you next year or before. Go play! 🙂
Definitely exciting news!
Jennifer, I know you and I both were sorry we had to miss the mini playwork conference after the main conference. If any of you fellow conference attendees has more info on this program, we’d love to hear about it!
Jaime – Certainly, I’ve been involved quite a bit at times, but as my oldest (7) becomes more independent, his play has become mostly organic. I still arrange over half of his play sessions – i.e. “play dates” – but that percentage is diminishing, and in any case, once any of his play sessions starts, we have absolutely no idea what he does. My two younger boys, 4 and 2, are definitely destined to follow in his footsteps.
So, after some initial arranging by me, my boys are transitioning toward precisely the kind of totally unsupervised play of decades ago.
Absolutely, it shows that kids just need the opportunity for unsupervised play. They’ve got it covered from there!
My daughters are 4 and 7 (and I’m working on making my neighborhood more play friendly). I’m definitely still in the ‘arranging’ stage, so what you say is encouraging. 🙂