Last year Jaime and I attended the US Play Coalition Conference on the Value of Play at Clemson University, where we marveled at the world of play advocates surrounding us – the academics, the preschool and K-12 teachers, the doctors, the athletes, the parks and rec professionals, the psychologists, the landscape architects, the child advocates and the nature advocates.

It was incredible to be surrounded by people who understand that play is critical to our society. They know it’s a big part of the answer to major problems of our time: obesity, critical thinking and creativity deficits and stress  –  to name only a few. Last week the 2013 conference took place without us. But I had to see what I was missing, so I checked out the online program of events.

Nature discovery at Seedlings

Nature discovery at Seedlings

This year’s theme was Taking Action. The work being done in the play movement, which is closely linked to and intertwined with the nature movement, is so profoundly hopeful and upbeat. North Carolina has an Active Play Alliance, a physical activity initiative focused on providing support and resources to individuals caring for young children there. Nature Playscapes and other innovative play spaces are being built across the country through broad-based community efforts. Teachers are proposing a Playful Learning Lesson Plan Exchange. Chicago Park District programs brought nature play to over 7,000 children last year through play camps and evening programs – engaging parents along the way. New research indicates that playfulness is positively correlated with social competence, emotion regulation, and resilience in preschool aged children.

But I’m a realist as well as an optimist, and some of the session descriptions speak to the national trends the play movement seeks to combat: the lack of playful learning and recess in public schools, the mistaken attitudes of many preschool teachers that play is separate from learning, the fact that only 20% of US children can walk to an outdoor play area, our increasing inability to get away from technology, even briefly, to play with our kids.

But what I find heartening is the clear passion these advocates possess. They won’t give up on any arena – schools, preschools, daycares, parks, neighborhoods, cities, Universities – play needs to be there.

In the March issue of Scientific American, the Executive Director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco states in a matter of fact way that it’s a good thing we have museums and other informal learning systems to teach critical thinking, because it’s not being taught in schools.

Granted, his piece was about precisely how well museums can teach critical thinking, and I agree they can and do, but I couldn’t get past his blasé statement about our schools. (I know there are some in Texas who would be quite happy if schools abandoned teaching critical thinking skills, but it’s hard to believe that view will spread far). I bet the Play conference attendees would be right there with me. We can’t just accept that status quo. We have to take action!

Learning through experimentation and play

Learning through experimentation and play

Play cultivates the ability to ask the juicy questions that are the cornerstone of critical thinking. Play teaches us experimentation and how to learn, – it provides a vehicle for us to understand not only the world around us, but ourselves as well

Corporations are already worried that the next generation of workers, raised in our test driven educational system, won’t know how to think, innovate or collaborate.

The U.S. Play Coalition formed to have an impact on our culture, our policy makers and our educators – to make it clear that play is vital to the physical, emotional, social and cognitive health of all people of every age. I’m delighted they chose to focus on action this year, and I’m proud of Sunflower’s 20 year history of action (our classes and programs!) in support of play. Hope I can be there again next year. 🙂

© Jennifer Ligeti and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2013
Photos ©  Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2013

More posts by Jennifer Ligeti.