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The play’s the thing (that helps kids learn and stay healthy)

Marty Levine
May08/ 2014

05.08.14-KB-NEWS-Pgh-Play-Collab-NATURE_cPittsburgh has been named a Playful City by the Humana Foundation for three years now – but what are we doing to make sure more of us are playing, for all its impact on health and learning?

That’s the question that bothered Cara Ciminillo, director of operations for the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC).

And that’s when reps from PAEYC were invited to Baltimore for the first Playful City USA Leaders Summit in September, to talk about that very question. The Parks Conservancy and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh were also invited, and they asked the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Sprout Fund to come along. After two days there, “we all realized that we each knew, believed and somewhere in our missions supported the notion of play,” Ciminillo says. They simply had been working too independently to bring the best play programs to fruition.

“We decided after the summit, this is ridiculous, we should all be working on this together. And the biggest issue is that the public should be aware of how vital play is. It’s not something saved up until you finish your homework. It’s not something you save for vacation days.”

In fact, it has been shown to be a vital part of learning, fostering creativity and inquiry, and active play helps fight the childhood obesity epidemic the country faces. For kids in low-income neighborhoods, who experience larger and more persistent stressors, play helps them build resilience for the tougher times.

After Baltimore, these groups formed the Pittsburgh Play Collaborative, which has so far held two community conversations in October and February. One concerned the usefulness of risk in play – the ability to conquer something that challenges you – such as climbing the monkey bars, for instance. In a typical playground, kids will play on everything possible, then challenge themselves to use the equipment in ways that were never intended. “They’re looking for that next level of risk, to push themselves,” she says. Those are learning moments – challenging, and fun.

“Our ultimate goal is not only to raise awareness,” she says, “but so people get involved in their schools, not only to say ‘Hey, don’t get rid of recess,’ but ‘How can we make classroom learning more playful?'” – and thus more fruitful.

The Collaborative is planning a late summer community conversation and one in the fall: one on the role of play in education and on closing the achievement gap, the other on the importance of active play.

Marty Levine