Jennifer and I were two of over 265 attendees at the 2012 US Play Coalition Conference on the Value of Play in February

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.

Nature playscapes allow children to play directly in nature

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.”

Mike Lanza's Playborhood blog and book inspire parents to bring back neighborhood play for their kids

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