Are you uncomfortable talking about depression and anxiety, especially with your kids? You’re not alone, but it’s something we should be talking to our kids about. A local doctor who specializes in teen depression has advice on what to do if you think your child has any symptoms — and even if they don’t.
Photo essay: Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative explores a day of play to support learning and harness creativity
This essay was written by Sarah Siplak, director of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, with photos by Nico Segall Tobon.
On Oct. 30, educators and community builders from across southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia gathered at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood to explore how play can be used to build community and support learning. The Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, a group of organizations dedicated to advancing the importance of play in the lives of children, families and communities in the Pittsburgh region, co-hosted this unconference event with Trying Together, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Philadelphia Playful Learning Landscapes.
The event was a call to action to harness play in service of building community. For many, it was the first opportunity to gather with colleagues after the mass shooting at Tree of Life Or L’Simcha synagogue. And while participants processed that tragedy collectively throughout the day, the healing power of play was present.
Nearly 100 participants spent the day playing and learning together, discovering how play unlocks concepts for young learners, helps adults find new perspective, and has enormous potential to benefit everyone when it’s used to solve problems in our communities.
What’s the creative potential of play? The process of playing your way through different possibilities, learning and discovering along the way, and producing unexpected results.
That was the heart of what keynote speaker Sarah Wolman from The LEGO Foundation called “the LEGO idea.” Did you know that a set of six 3-inch-by-2-inch LEGO bricks can be combined in over 915 million different ways?
To demonstrate this creative potential, Wolman asked each attendee to use a set of LEGO bricks to build a duck in 30 seconds. 100 different attendees each produced 100 different ducks. Some ducks could stand, others had to sit. Some looked to be in flight, others at rest. There was no model duck everyone was trying to recreate. Instead, attendees had to access their own creativity, spatial capacities, and executive function to make their own vision for the duck real. The experience reminded attendees of what it means to play to learn.
In her talk, Sarah Wolman grounded the group’s thinking in the five domains of child development: Physical, Emotional, Social, Creative, and Cognitive.
She pointed out ways that learning through play builds skills across these domains. Through physical play, children develop spatial awareness. That spatial awareness, combined with the creative, cognitive, and collaborative challenge of solving a puzzle with your peers, helps children develop spatial reasoning, an important precursor to math skills.
To make these insights real, she challenged attendees to work together to build a bridge out of LEGO bricks that could span across signs sitting in the middle of each group’s table. As with the duck-building exercise, no two groups built the same bridge. Different this time, though, was the setting and intention of the exercise. Instead of expressing just your own idea of what a duck looks like, this challenge involved learning in a social context where communication, collaboration, and negotiation were key.
To reinforce the link between play and emotional development, Sarah Wolman made special reference to dramatic play, the kind of play where children take on roles, act out scenes, and learn by becoming (also known as make believe).
“Dramatic play is a powerful way to develop tools for learning,” she said. “When children engage in dramatic play, they’re practicing the skills of being high-functioning adults out in the world, negotiating and navigating those situations.” She referenced studies showing that when children act out what they read, their reading skills “go through the roof.”
Make believe play often involves symbolic representation: deciding that one object can stand in for another. This is a learned skill that children, especially pre-verbal children, can develop through play. Before children can read or write, which requires they understand that the letter A symbolizes a sound, they start to develop foundational capacities for symbolic representation.
To demonstrate how this happens through play, Sarah asked attendees to use a random assortment of LEGO bricks to create a self-portrait.
Childhood today is different than it was 20 years ago. So what does that mean for play? That was the frame set by Jennifer Zosh, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University Brandywine Campus.
Jennifer identified children’s innate drive to play as one of their greatest assets in making sense of “today’s weird childhood and tomorrow’s unknown future.” And it’s not just kids who can use play to navigate uncertainties: adults, seniors, even animals rely on play as equal-parts coping skill and learning modality.
But, Jennifer noted, when people think about the concept of “play to learn,” they tend to lean into their own personal vision of what play is. One person may think sports are quintessentially play. Another person may picture a board game. A third person may think of improvised storytelling. “We need to get better at understanding play as a spectrum,” Zosh said. Under the umbrella category of “Playful Learning,” she identified three main types:
- Free Play in which the child leads and learning is latent (as opposed to intentional).
- Guided play in which the child still leads, but an adult scaffolds play toward a learning goal.
- Games that are designed and/or led by adults with enforced rules and constraints.
The morning featured lightning talks from playful people from across the state of Pennsylvania.
Marilyn Russell, from left, curator of education at the Carnegie Museum of Art, shared how a visit to the art museum can be “intrinsically motivating, involving active engagement, and resulting in joyful discovery”—which just happens to be a commonly accepted definition of play. Natalie Potts, associate curator of education at the museum, described how that comes to life in the museum’s education programs, which create a space for students to question the world around them: not just a “how to” class, but also a “what if” class.
Molly Schlesinger, a postdoctoral fellow at the Temple University Infant & Child Laboratory, shared how Philadelphia Playful Learning Landscapes uses play in out-of-school contexts to infuse irresistible, convenient, and effective learning spaces right in the urban landscape: human-sized board games at the museum, rock climbing walls at the library, puzzle walls at the bus stop, and much more.
Medina Jackson, director of engagement for the PRIDE Program at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, asked the group “What’s a tired parent to do? When it’s late and your child says ‘Mama, will you play with me?’” and shared how play creates the space in which growth can happen—not just for children, but for the adults in their lives, too. She left the room with a simple mantra: “today, I will play.”
Camila Rivera-Tinsley, director of education at the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy, demonstrated the connection between environmental stewardship and play, showing how open-ended experiences in Pittsburgh’s parks have led to a more resilient, environmentally-literate population.
Over lunch, participants had a chance to get serious about their play, by (of course) playing. Members of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative partnered with Philadelphia Playful Learning Landscapes to hold a mini-Ultimate Play Day and Ultimate Block Party inside the museum’s Hall of Architecture, where participants hunted for treasure, played a spelling game called Human Scramble, tried out a new kind of hopscotch called Jumping Feet, and much more. Will Tolliver (center), Manager of Early Childhood Learning at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, visited the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s activity, where he created his own wearable art out of reused bubble wrap.
Events like these, which the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosts annually, invite community members to play together and raise awareness of the benefits of play for everyone—from birth to 199 years old. The event is held outside in a different community each year, and is a great opportunity to see the power of play in action. Stay tuned for the next Ultimate Play Day in May 2019!
Play can involve a good deal of uncertainty and a fair amount of risk. When an activity has an uncertain outcome, we’re drawn in to find out what’s going to happen. When the possibility of risk is present, we pay closer attention and focus all of our senses. Both these conditions help us take more responsibility and ownership of an experience. But according to Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and Tiny WPA, we have made our built environment so free of risk and uncertainty that we (both adults and children) are more apt to be drawn in by our mobile phones than the real-life opportunities for play that surround us.
Alex works with young people and communities who want to turn this trend around and make play an everyday possibility in our everyday lives. He shared stories of young people, families, and senior citizens finding and fixing problems in their communities by embracing uncertainty, risk, and yes, play. Alex shared stories of communities building bus stops that double as jungle gyms, dance stages on street corners, ergonomic benches for the elderly, and adventure playgrounds in public housing facilities.
The approach is all about giving young people opportunities to solve for themselves, or as Alex put it: “Play is not just our product, but a core piece of our process.”
Over the course of the day, participants were asked to stretch their minds and their bodies and to dwell in the spirit of play. Working together in teams representing communities in Pittsburgh, southwestern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, participants included teachers, librarians, school administrators, museum educators, community organizers, after-school educators, artists and builders, outdoor enthusiasts and public policy experts. What they shared in common was a belief in the power of play as a catalyst for community.
Afternoon lightning talks explored how play can be harnessed to help communities thrive.
Danny Mortensen, from left, analyst for programs and operations at KaBOOM!, described his organization’s journey in discovering that simply building playgrounds isn’t enough to foster equitable play—in order to give everyone access to play, they find ways to incorporate play activities into everyday places, from laundromats to alleyways.
Aurora Ortiz, community engagement coordinator for All for All, shared how play can be used to break down cultural barriers, describing her own experiences as an immigrant and the ways in which play helped her build connections that bridged language differences and cultural chasms.
Ernie Dettore, education consultant and a longtime advocate of play, described how play can be used to promote health and wellbeing not just for youngsters, but throughout the adult lifespan. Adults have the opportunity to reframe their free time and play time to make play a lifestyle choice.
Sarah Siplak, director of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, shared their unique model for advocacy—harnessing the collective power of organizations to advance play for and with communities. Sarah shared lessons learned from recent Collaborative projects, including the Hazelwood Play Trail and the Recess Advocacy Team, and offered the Collaborative as a resource for attendees looking to use play to make change.
At the end of this inspiring, informative, and playful day, participants put their new knowledge and perspective to work by answering the question “What’s your Big Playful Idea for making change?”
Teams of participants worked together to imagine how play could be used to improve their community. Completing posters together, they explored how their “Big Playful Idea” could help their community, what partners they might need to make it happen, what potential challenges they might run into, and what the next steps would be for making their idea real.
The change-making didn’t end when participants left the museum! At the end of the day, the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative announced the Play for Change Grant opportunity, a brand new grant program to help conference participants take their Big Playful Ideas and make them into real change in their communities. Grant funding of up to $7,500 is available for conference attendees for projects that are collaborative, playful, uplifting, and accessible.
Some of the best gifts come in the smallest boxes. They might even show up in a flat envelope. But make no mistake: These presents can fill kids with excitement and provide memories for many years to come.
Sorry, Santa, but trendy toys come and go and are quickly forgotten. Game pieces are lost, electronics fail and – oops! – that one is the double of a past birthday gift.
That’s why more and more moms prefer that all those generous grandparents, uncles and aunts think in terms of gifts of experiences this year.
It’s a great idea for the gift givers, too, who will have the satisfaction of knowing they get the credit for all those trips to the zoo, swimming lessons or theater performances. Gift givers can be a little selfish – no judgment here! – and include themselves in the gift experience to build deeper relationships with their favorite kids.
Here are some fun ideas to get your kids’ wish lists started. We’re sure you can add to it, depending on ages and interests. (And to help get the message across, feel free to share this story with gift-giving relatives on your social media.)
Museum memberships offer unlimited visits, plus lots of perks, including special member-only events and discounts to museum shops and cafes. An added advantage for those who travel on vacation or to visit families: Memberships include reciprocal agreements for similar organizations in other cities.
Membership levels at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh consider the many forms of modern families, including single parents, extended families and the ever-popular grandparents category. You can also pair a Children’s Museum membership with the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, located just a couple blocks away. If an entire year’s membership doesn’t fit the budget, gift cards are available from $15 to $150 to contribute to a day of play and exploration.
Dinosaurs, robots and hands-on Factory art projects are just the beginning. A Carnegie Museums membership is pretty cool because it includes all four very different and very appealing museums – the Science Center, Natural History, Andy Warhol and Museum of Art. A family membership includes two adults and up to four kids, plus admission for a caregiver. If you visit any of these museums twice over a year’s time, that membership turns into quite a bargain. Special exhibits and events – like the LEGO “Art of the Brick” and museum sleepovers – are priced at a discount.
Becoming a member of Senator John Heinz History Center is another terrific package of four museums. In addition to the History Center, the deal includes Fort Pitt Museum, Meadowcroft Shelter and Historic Village, plus the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Kids from preschool to high school can learn local history through interactive exhibits, events programming and reenactments. With the history center’s Smithsonian partnership, Pittsburgh is privy to national traveling exhibits, like “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission,” currently on view.
The Wild Life
A hike through Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is like a walk around the world. Sharks, a family of tigers, elephants and gorillas are part of the adventure. The zoo offers a menu of memberships to include an assortment of family styles and sizes. Some include guest passes so kids can treat friends on an outing. Members get discounts on cool activities like Wild Encounters and Wildlife Academy events. With unlimited visits, it’s so nice to pop in for just a few hours rather than spend an exhausting day trying to fit it all in at one go. It’s so fun when kids develop a familiarity, map in hand, and take over as the leader.
Gifting a membership to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh provides year-long free admission to spaces like Penguin Point, Tropical Rainforest and Condor Court. Hand-feeding Lorikeets and Free-Flight Bird Shows are part of the appeal. And don’t forget about that membership pairing with the Children’s Museum.
Performing arts live on stage
Tickets to live shows can be a real treat and a perfect present for engaging kids. Entertaining stage experiences for all ages and interests are abundant in this theater-filled city. Some highlights:
Younger kids will have a laugh at “Your Alien,” part of Citizens Bank Children’s Theater Series. Based on the Tammy Sauer children’s book about a boy who befriends a stranded alien. The pals enjoy lots of fun together until the alien begins to miss his home. “Flight School the Musical” and “Rosie Revere Engineer” are among this charming Cultural Trust series.
Penny Arcade’s shows for kids give them the chance to participate in creating and performing. These hilarious improv comedies, designed for ages 5 to 12, are planned on Saturdays twice a month, but sell out fast.
Tweens will prefer works from the Bridge Series, like “Moon Landing.” This piece recreates the Apollo 11 moon landing with seven actors squeezing into a space about the size of the Mercury capsule.
Circus arts are a blast for all ages. At the Byham Theater, “Cirque Mechanics” will present a mechanical menagerie in a 42-foot circus ring, including a galloping metal horse and a rotating frame with human aerialists, strongmen and acrobats. A large-scale production – 51 acrobats, musicians and singers – takes over PPG Place Arena with Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo,” a joyous parade imagined by a clown.
Keeping kids physically active contributes to their health and helps build confidence as they develop strength and agility. It’s lots of fun, too!
Swimming lessons come in all levels of age and ability, from parent-and-baby classes to lifeguard certification courses for older teens. Check out the offerings at area YMCAs and places like Goldfish Swim School. Bonus: Learning to swim teaches kids life-saving water safety.
Consider outings to ice skating at local rinks, like Schenley Skating Rink and MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at PPG Plaza. Season passes and gift cards are available for Allegheny County rinks in North and South parks.
For those who need a little more confidence on the ice, kids can start skate lessons as young as 3 years at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center. Hockey lessons for kids begin at age 4 through 16 years. The Learn To Skate programs at UPMC Lemieux Complex range from toddler lessons to hockey classes, speed skating and Special Olympics curriculum.
Indoor training for outdoor sports can be found in facilities such as Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena, where kids can develop lacrosse skills in Li’l Laxers, get a head start on Tee ball essentials or improve technical ability in soccer.
This is a sweet and effective way to teach kids to learn about giving to those in need. Give them an appropriate amount of money and let them choose the charity they care most about. Help kids explore local non-profit organizations and ways they use donations. It’s a lovely way to share the season’s spirit of giving.
The holidays are in full swing, and kids are making their wish lists as we speak. Toys, devices, and video game consoles make the list every year. Not sure where to start? Check out this list of recommended game consoles for you and your family. – Jennifer Ehehalt, Pittsburgh Regional Manager at Common Sense Media. You can find her on Twitter @Jehehalt.Common Sense Media.
By Caroline Knorr
Common Sense Media
If your kids are at the age where you’re considering buying a game console, now might be the right time. Whether you want the immersive virtual reality of the Sony PlayStation or the portability of the Nintendo Switch, today’s consoles offer more realism, interactivity, and flexibility than ever before. The question still remains: Which console is best for your family’s needs?
Best for Families with Young Kids:
With games such as Super Mario Party, Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate, Octopath Traveler, or Mario Tennis Aces, as well as cool activity packs such as the Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit, Nintendo maintains its position as the best option for families to use together. The Switch works both as a stationary console that plugs into your TV and a portable gaming device with two built-in controllers and a touchscreen. While the Switch does offer its share of mature games, the console includes parental controls so you can help your kids regulate their use. Check out the Best Nintendo Switch Games for Kids.
Best for Tweens and Families:
Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PS3
Both of these are older platforms, but there are plenty of games for them (although not necessarily the latest and greatest). Plus, you can find used and discounted models your kids can practice on before you invest in pricier, newer consoles.
For families with a mixed age range of kids, the 360 or PS3 may be better choices than newer, more advanced machines such as the Xbox One or PS4, as it’ll give your younger kids some good options while keeping your older ones entertained. Of course, violent games such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty Black Ops 3, and Resident Evil, are available for each, but so are family-friendly titles such as Lego Dimensions and FIFA 17.
Click here for some of our favorite games for families.
Best for Tweens, Teens, and Serious Gamers:
Microsoft Xbox One S, Xbox One X, Sony PlayStation 4, Sony PlayStation Pro
If your kids are really passionate about games, then these machines are the best — if not the only — choices. Keep in mind that, though there are plenty of games for each console designed for tweens and younger, the vast majority of Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 games are intense and mature.
Sony has the edge for serious gamer families with its PlayStation VR headset designed to work with the PS4 and PS4 Pro. PSVR provides a totally immersive, virtual reality game experience.
Xbox One S is a better choice for families who already own a lot of Xbox games, as it will play some Xbox 360 titles.
For more game suggestions, take a look at our list of Thought-Provoking and Nonviolent Games for Tweens and Teens, Nonviolent Games for PS4, Nonviolent Games for Xbox One, and the best video games for teens.