Last month we wrote about opportunities for learning in unusual spaces. One group we covered put up educational conversation prompts in grocery stores; another had kids read books to their barbers during haircuts.
A few weeks ago, a number of organizations were celebrated for similar efforts—but in their case, the focus was play. KaBoom announced the winners of its “Play Everywhere Challenge” in September, awarding funds to 50 projects—including three in Pennsylvania—that integrate play into urban spaces. Among the proposals selected by the play advocacy organization: a crosswalk that doubles as a hopscotch sequence, a set of solar-lit treasure hunt clues, and a bench whose clever design allows users to sit, climb, or walk across it.
“Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn,” Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, recently told The Atlantic.
In some ways, the relationship is intuitive. Imagine a classic game of make-believe; let’s say kids on a schoolyard are pretending to get lost in the wilderness. They’re developing their creativity when they determine the shady spot under the slide is the best place to camp out for the “night.” They’re learning to regulate their emotions when they divvy up their woodchip “dinner” equally, and learning to collaborate when they hash out the story together.
Play “is a natural tool for children to develop resiliency as they learn to collaborate, overcome challenges, and negotiate with others,” according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Play not only propels social-emotional growth, research shows, but can also build cognitive skills and improve behavior. In one study, teachers reported that students who had recess breaks behaved better in the classroom.
Therein lies the challenge. As The Atlantic reports, over a third of school districts cut or eliminated recess in the wake of No Child Left Behind. (The roll-back, the author notes, coincided with new research endorsing the importance of play.)
The reduction of recess is one of several barriers to play which is faced disproportionately by kids from low-income families. In some cases, overworked parents, the stressors of poverty, or neighborhoods without playgrounds make it hard for those families to find time for free play. For KaBoom, the Play Everywhere Challenge is an attempt to, well, level the playing field. The “everywhere” piece acknowledges that low-income families in particular might have to incorporate playtime into long rides on public transit or hours spent at laundromats and doctors’ offices.
In Pittsburgh, there are many efforts underway to make playing a possibility for all kids in the region. For the past few years, the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative has worked to raise awareness of the importance of play and support public projects that expand opportunities for play. This group of local public and private education organizations takes special interest in “play-on-the-way” projects—those that make play possible without interrupting daily schedules.
Since the spring of 2015, the collaborative has worked on the Hazelwood Play Trail, a sequence of established and new opportunities for play for families walking through the Hazelwood neighborhood. Its most anticipated addition came to fruition in September this year. Volunteers of all ages gathered to erect a new playground in only one day.
Thanks to them, colorful climbing structures of various shapes and sizes now stand in an area that hasn’t had a playground in several years. Local youth have new opportunities for play and thus for creativity, invention, and problem-solving—skills that, some researchers say, are needed more now than ever.