Saturday, October 9, 2010

Families that Play Together: The Ultimate Block Party

Simon Says, "Play!" That was the message for the more than 50,000 parents and children making the pilgrimage to Central Park on October 3. While beautiful fall weather played a key role in its success, the Ultimate Block Party (UBP) organized by Play for Tomorrow, was undoubtedly a hit for the nursery through young teen set who engaged in the vast array of activities to encourage kids - and adults - to engage in creative fun at the park's Naumberg Band Shell.

Families came, teachers streamed in, caregivers from all over the city, and even from as far away as New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. While Gordon from Sesame Street led a sing-along of songs familiar to young children and grownups alike, the myriad other happenings families could explore, decorate and climb on - from the giant brain collage sponsored by the Children's Museum of Manhattan, to the half-million green Legos (to demonstrate that one doesn't need color or special adornment to encourage builders' imaginations) growing into an intricate Lego City - ensured a continuous and enthusiastic crowd at each play station. Stroller jams were seen in the vicinity of a corral of cardboard boxes, where kids eagerly clambered, colored and took cover in newly make-believe caves. PlayWorks offered a chance for children from all over the city to play together in hula hoop contests, four-square and playground games. Sidewalk drawing, drumming and dancing gave families an excuse to engage in the spontaneous silliness, brain and body stretching we normally associate with growing up. Clowns without Borders bent from their high stilts to shake awestruck little hands.

There was a serious component to the joyous cacophony, one that "Play Doctors" wearing white lab coats took the time to explain to encourage parents, teachers and caregivers to incorporate play at home and school on a regular basis. Scientists have confirmed through years of research that play is an invaluable component of child development encouraging socialization, creativity, emotional adjustment, and brain development. To understand the link between play and learning, organizers gave everyone a "Play Book" at the gate - a guide to how kids learn through play and activities to take home. The UBP Web site links to various articles and research reports documenting play's effectiveness. According to Play for Tomorrow organizers Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a faculty member and researcher on play and learning at Temple University, and Dr. Roberta Golinkoff who studies play, language acquisition and learning as a faculty member at the University of Delaware, the current school climate in which children as young as five must forgo recess for "test preparation" is taking the joy - but also essential opportunities for brain growth, exercise and motor skills development - out of learning. And yet, play is how children explore their world, create possibilities, socialize and learn empathy, say the researchers.

As Andy Ackerman, Executive Director of the Children's Museum of Manhattan and a co-founder of UBP, put it, "We knew the event was a success because all day long, what we saw was a lot of the back of kid's necks." Everyone was absorbed in activity.

The Central Park event is only the beginning of what organizers envision as a movement to put play back into learning. Other cities, from Baltimore to Denver, are already planning to host their own block parties, with distinctive local flavor. As UBP President Susan Magsamen noted, "The New York Ultimate Block Party may be the kickoff, but it is our vision that cities all over the country will create their own festivals to bring home the art and science of play. We have to make sure parents, teachers and caregivers understand play is fundamental to learning - that it shouldn't happen on just this one day, but everyday."

"Sunny days, Sweepin' the clouds away...," sang throngs of smiling children as Gordon led them in the Sesame Street theme song. It's nice to remember that play is essential to learning. More important, it's vital to a child's development and well-being. Even more to the point, play may be a necessary ingredient to keep our brains flexible, our bodies fit and our emotional life in balance to create, innovate and learn through the lifespan.

So the next time your inner child calls you to stop work and go play - whether it's a walk in the park, a game of Scrabble, or chalk drawing on the sidewalk - pay attention to that voice.

Now go out and play - Simon Says!