Last February, a group called the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosted its second community conversation at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The topic? The role of risk in children’s play. And although it was the dead of winter, more than 300 people registered for the event
It took the collaborative by surprise.
“This was the community conversation that surprised us the most,” said Cara Ciminillo, operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). “It was such a thought provoking conversation starter that you really pulled in lots of people.”
The conversation drew educators, parents, city officials, nonprofit organizations, and even two grocery store owners who wanted to know what their role could be in supporting play in their neighborhoods.
Indeed, the conversation was thought provoking. But it’s only part of a wider discussion happening in Pittsburgh and throughout the country on the importance of play for children’s development and the roles of cities in creating more opportunities for kids to play.
“Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining,” wrote psychologist Peter Gray, “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”
One study found that since the late 1970s, kids have lost 12 hours of free time per week. They’ve also experienced a 25 percent decrease in play and spend half as much time doing unstructured outdoor activities. This decrease comes from all sorts of overlapping factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and—after No Child Left Behind—an increased emphasis on academic skill development (in lieu of activities like art, pretend play, and recess) at ever-younger ages.
But play today is more important than ever. In addition to building necessary social and emotional skills, experts say play naturally fosters the types of skills needed for 21st-century learning—problem solving, creativity, self-regulation, and collaboration.
The organizations that make up the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative are harnessing their resources to educate and advocate for play throughout the city—in public spaces, in schools, and at home.
Collaborating for Play
The idea for a collaborative fist started in the early spring of 2013, just after construction workers outside the Carnegie Museum of Art installed the last piece of a long, orange tube that twists and turns and overlaps itself.
Called the Lozziwurm, the opening of the Swiss play sculpture kick-started a relationship between the museum and PAEYC. Eventually, 11 other groups joined, including the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
The play collaborative is drawing on the resources and partnerships of Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem—a large network of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, higher education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community working together in specific ways to support learning opportunities for kids throughout the community.
“We’re all able to support our individual goals without any mission drift at all—that’s very unusual,” said Marijke Hecht, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “Play is the kind of topic that crosses many sectors.”
Hecht said each group in the collaborative speaks to a different audience and can advocate for play in different circles. But work with the collaborative has informed each individual group’s work as well.
For example, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a local nonprofit with expertise in working with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, is in the middle of building a new environmental center at Frick Park. Part of the agreement reached with the city is that it will also manage the surrounding 115 acres.
“I think we have a real opportunity to look at where we can do some small-scale interventions in the park for natural play spaces,” Hecht said. Rather than a playground, Hecht and the conservancy are planning to rearrange natural materials in the park to create more opportunities for visitors to play. As families walk the paths, they might be able to balance on a log or hang from a sturdy branch.
“Some of these things happen naturally,” Hecht said, “but we have the opportunity in a park, which is a designed landscape, to make these more deliberate.”
The collaborative knows that for play to reach all kids, it has to be integrated into everyday life—not only at play “destinations” like playgrounds or museums, which take planning, packing, and driving to get to. (Plus, only one in five kids in the United States lives within walking distance of a park of playground.) In 2015, the collaborative is planning programming in the Hazelwood neighborhood to “activate” a new playground and other underused play opportunities.
Some national experts believe work like this could be key to making sure families stay in urban areas. National nonprofit Kaboom! recently released a report that found playful cities are more walkable, workable, and family friendly. In Chicago, 80 percent of business owners near “People Spots,” or parking spaces transformed into mini parks, said the spots brought more foot traffic.
With so much vacant space left from Pittsburgh’s population decrease, Hecht said Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to keep play in mind as the city moves forward in figuring out how to redevelop these parcels.
“Because we’re a city that’s lost so much population, we have a lot of vacancy, and a lot of underused green space,” Hecht said. “We’re just thinking about how the idea of play everywhere fits into our open space plan.”
But before more widespread interventions can take root in the city, PAEYC’s Ciminillo says they’ve realized the very meaning of play needs to be reframed.
“We know there’s a segment of our work that needs to be about just educating around the word ‘play,’” Ciminillo said. And as of now, she says too many people think of it as frivolous and siloed off from anything truly beneficial for learning. “We know people see it as a luxury, and not as an inherent part of people’s lives.”
At the same time, so much discussion happening in education reform relates to the types of skills play fosters. Innovation? Problem solving? Risk taking? Ciminillo said learning advocates constantly talk about the skills that play naturally lends itself to—they just don’t use the word “play.”
“We sort of said, ‘Should we just not use the world play?’” she said. “But we all were like, ‘No! We’re using the word play. We’re taking back play. It’s ok!’”
To highlight the deep benefits of play, last April the collaborative hosted an Ultimate Play Day at Schenley Plaza and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The day’s activities were carefully designed to make them easy for parents to replicate at home.
Kids and their families could be found digging around in buckets filled with pine cones and wood, painting on the street with washable paint, and chasing giant cardboard soccer balls. Here’s to hoping it was only the first of many play days ahead.
Homepage screenshot/ Carnegie Museum of Art