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Imaginative Play

  • Homework can wait, childhood will not

    Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Runner's World, Cosmopolitan, Parents and countless other magazines and newspapers. She is currently an editor at She Knows Media and mom to three kids, 9, 7, and 2. She and her family live outside New York City. She was inspired to write this after an elementary school in her community banned homework for younger kids.

    It’s 7 o’clock at night and my children are winding down for the evening. As we take the (long, torturous) walk toward the bedtime routine — bath, teeth brushing, kisses, reading — I hold my breath knowing that this day, like every day, I will put my kids to bed feeling incomplete. Yet again, despite my best efforts, my third and second graders will go to bed without having completed every bit of their homework. Our agreement is 45 minutes in their room with their books open. After that, they can stop. Sadly, that often leaves a lot undone. It’s a lot of misery. Every. Damn. Night. We are not alone.

    As elementary school becomes more and more academically challenging, play is becoming obsolete. In New Jersey, my home state, Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have made 20 minutes of recess mandatory in elementary schools. It’s insane. Anecdotally, friends report total homework meltdowns night after night. And in my house, it is no different. We have a rhythm to our evening and homework is part of it, but the feeling of never really hitting the mark, never getting it all finished, ruins what should be otherwise lovely nights.

    Last week, I’d finally had enough. It was the first week of spring weather after a cold winter and when my kids came home on Tuesday night, their backpacks laden with worksheets, books, and spelling homework, I declared a moratorium on homework. At least for a couple days.

    “Let’s go to the park,” I told them. We packed the toddler into her wagon and alternated between pulling her and letting her pull her way the five or so blocks to the park. My kids threw balls, they climbed to the top of the equipment, they went down the slides, and played tag. By the time we came home, dirty, sweaty, and tired, they were ready for a family dinner and reading before bedtime. It was the perfect night. If only every night could be like that.

    Living in the Northeast, we obviously can’t promise sunshine and 70 degrees every night of the week. But we can promise play. We can return to the days of tag after school ends and ghosts in the graveyard and tying our wagons to bikes and hoping they don’t flip. “Play is the highest form of research,” Albert Einstein once said. And I see it with my own eyes.

    It is through play that my children build their imaginations. That chair in the backyard? Cover it with a blanket and it’s a secret hideout for the kids when they go on spy missions. The swingset in the backyard has swings, a playhouse, and rings, but in kid-speak they could be rocket ships to the moon, a pirate ship, and a path to Olympic glory. They hula hoop and ride bikes, they toss balls into baskets and stomp rockets high into the trees, they turn cartwheels through the grass, and laugh as they tumble to the ground. Every single one of these activities is more important to their growth and education than a math worksheet could ever hope to be.

    So why are we insisting on loading our kids down with busy work?

    “It teaches responsibility,” one father said during a debate among some of my parent friends. But does it? As far as I can tell, the only thing homework teaches my kids is that mommy is crazy and yells a lot. And when I do yell, I am not doing it because I think they are wasting  an intellectual opportunity or not living up to their academic potential. I am doing so because I don’t want to get shamed by the teacher. I dread notes from the teacher in regards to the performance of my own children far more than I did notes about my own when I was in school. I cringe at the thought of looks from other parents whose children are on top of their homework. So I force my kids through the exercise every night even though I know logically, based on extensive research, that I am doing nothing but loading them down with facts they will forget in two years once they have also earned themselves a healthy hatred of school and the system that has made it so ridiculous.

    This is no way to live.

    My children are 9 and 7 and they spend 6.5 hours of their day in school. They get 20 minutes of outdoor time. If it’s not raining or cold. To send them home to do more indoor busy work seems criminal. They should be exploring their bodies, moving, playing, and reading. They should be eating slow family dinners and running around with friends, imagining their future.

    They have plenty of paperwork to look forward to. Taxes. Bills. Applications for mortgages. Applications for schools and camps. It’s all coming soon enough. For now, let’s let them play until they are dirty and tired. Let’s let them imagine their futures as pirates and fairies and doctors and engineers. Let’s let them build and read and have a couple hours of freedom. Childhood is brief and fleeting. It is a fraction of a total lifetime. And yet, it is the foundation on which an entire future is based.

    Adulthood comes soon enough. While they are still young, let’s let them laugh and imagine and play themselves to exhaustion.

  • Inside Design: Branch Out

    I’ve worked in the playground equipment industry for decades and one of the best aspects of my job is getting to see firsthand the pure joy that play brings to children. My team and I work hard ensuring we’re continually innovating and designing equipment that keeps children excited about free play.

    For a while we’ve been intrigued by the renewed interest in nature play and frankly, a bit disenchanted by the current state of post and platform playgrounds. Having discussed these two factors extensively, our brainstorms and design sessions eventually led us to Branch Out. Launched in January 2016, Branch Out is a large play component inspired by the play that happens in trees.

    In retrospect, I think designing Branch Out was an extremely fascinating process. While the tree seemed like a good starting point, we were always very sure about not wanting to replicate it. After all, why create something that already exists? Plus, we can’t compete with the beauty of our planet’s natural landscape. Our goal, instead, with Branch Out was to draw more people to the playground and in doing so, we focused on bringing to life an inclusive play component and creating meaningful play experiences for children of all ages in an open, efficient layout.

    Designed for children ages 5-12, it has the scale to become the central hub of any playground. However, it is transparent, non-directional and open. And with play happening on multiple levels and directions, people to can imagine their own story as they play.

    Additionally, the complexity of elements and absence of an obvious play path foster physical and cognitive engagement, effective hand-eye coordination, decision making, greater individual challenge, risk management, a deeper understanding of the surrounding and the opportunity for social interaction among children.

    Our team designed Branch Out as a play component that encourages kids to embrace new challenges and play activities. It is my hope that this piece will encourage kids and adults alike to step outdoors and head to a playground.

    What other aspects of nature play would you like to rediscover on the playground?

  • Play like a champ: making every Sunday ‘super’

    On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will go head to head in Super Bowl 50.

    Super Bowl Sunday is no doubt an awesome day to hangout with friends, crack open a drink and snack on wings and hoagies. But I think Sundays in general are an ideal time for sneaking in some much needed play.

    Even the NFL agrees. The organization runs NFL PLAY 60, a campaign designed to tackle childhood obesity by getting kids active through in-school, after-school and team-based programs and partnerships with like-minded associations.

    So how can you make this and every Sunday super? Aim for play!

    Weather or not
    Sort of like the US Postal Service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, should keep us from playing. Commit to making Sunday a play day regardless of the weather or season.

    Dress for adventure
    Instead of sporting your “Sunday best”, opt for sweats or other casual clothes. Head outside with the family and see what happens. Make mud puddles your friend.

    Who’s the boss?
    Let the kids decide how they want to spend their time outside. Start shifting away from adult-dictated and supervised play to kid-directed free play. As a dad, I’ve seen many positive changes when I empower my boys.

    How do you ensure playtime for your family on the weekends?

  • Play ought to be challenging

    A recent Washington Post article on rethinking “ultra-safe” playgrounds caught my eye. Featuring the insight of pediatric occupational therapist and play advocate, Angela Honscam, the article echoes the Playworld team’s belief that play equipment must be ‘thrill-provoking’.

    Outdoor unstructured play is meant to be fun and liberating. It plays an important role in fostering creativity and building on motor and sensory skills. However, this holds true only if play is stimulating.

    The modern day playground, as Honscam writes, is colorful but lacks the “thrill” element. There is a lack of age-appropriate equipment and more often than not, children are bored because they don’t see a challenge. Playgrounds such as this can be counter-productive. They inhibit creativity and deprive children of adequate sensory input. This is particularly alarming because it can result in poor motor and sensory skills, poor attention span and other physical issues.

    Much has been written about the importance of play. The perception of it being a frivolous concept is slowly changing. Yet, as people embrace the world of play and decide to build a play space, the emphasis should be on creating an atmosphere that fuels imagination and offers enough of a challenge for children of all ages.

    Is your playground challenging enough?

  • Four tips for squeezing in unstructured free play time

    Remember when a child’s only responsibility was to have fun and just be a kid? Me too! But honestly, it bums me out to see how, through the years, their day-to-day schedules have shifted. Kids’ days were once about going to school and coming home to play.

    inclusive playground 1024x585 Autism: Why Playgrounds Matter

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