The VERY FIRST to register for The Play Conference 2016 is…!

The VERY FIRST to register for The Play Conference 2016 is Sarah Cosco from British Columbia (seen front and center in the boxes pictured right). The three time Play Conference alum says this about why she keeps coming back: “What I love most about the conferences: the people and the energy! There is so much passion about play and it comes from within people from all different backgrounds. The interdisciplinary lens captures the magnitude of play’s influence across the lifespan, and across the globe, and having the opportunity to connect with experts in play from all of these different backgrounds brings our collective learning to a whole new level. But we don’t just talk the talk at the conference, we walk it too! I have so much fun playing with so many people, and each time I go I meet new friends and get to reconnect with familiar faces. It honestly feels like coming home. I can’t wait for next year’s conference, I’m so excited to see what everyone has been up to and what playful shenanigans we can get into while we’re there!”

Join Sarah and hundreds of other play advocates at The Play Conference 2016: Rebooting Play.  Early bird registration is now open! 

Helping Teens Understand the Importance of Play

This month our executive director, Stephanie Garst, has had a few opportunities to share the importance of play with teens.

As a guest for the Clemson University Summer Scholars program on “Environmental Sustainability through Parks and Recreation,” Stephanie spent the morning with high schoolers from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and even New York.  They trekked to two local parks near campus to learn about the importance of play as a valuable and necessary part of a healthy and productive life, including its role in obesity prevention, education, and promoting connections with the environment. Tying in parks as areas for play, the students played childhood games and explored the playground, reflected on their respective childhood play experiences, worked with each other to invent and play new games, and discussed why PLAY is important in their lives.

Stephanie also welcomed over 100 South Carolina 4H leaders to Clemson University for their 2015 State Congress. She led them in a rousing version of Boom Chicka Boom, facilitated this epic game of RoShamBo Rock Star and challenged them to bring PLAY into the work they do for 4H.

Squaring the Round

Squaring The Round Photo“Squaring the circle”* has been a challenge for geometers for centuries. This challenge was my inspiration for “Squaring the Round” — a new game of skill.


  • Cylindrical container (e.g., oatmeal tub, ice cream bucket, large ricotta cheese container, large deli container)
  • Boxes – enough to encircle the container (e.g., saltine box, cereal box).NOTE:
  • Boxes must be as tall as the container
  • Scissors
  • Measuring stick or tape
  • Duct tape or masking tape
  • Marker
  • Tape ball or bean bag

To Make:


  • Arrange boxes around the cylindrical container until a desirable fit has been achieved.
  • Avoid creating a space large enough for the ball to slip through.
  • Measure the height of the cylindrical container. Use this measurement for the height of the boxes; mark and cut.
    Using tape, cover the cut edges of the boxes.
    Place boxes in predetermined arrangement around the cylindrical container. Tape together where possible.
    Using marker assign points to each section.

Tape Ball:

Wad newspaper into a ball. Wrap with tape.
To Play:
In an open area set target on the floor or ground. Determine the distance from which the ball or bean bag is to be thrown.
Determine what constitutes a “win” (e.g., highest/lowest number of points in ten throws; first person or team to reach 20 points)
*The objective of “Squaring the Circle” is to construct a circle, calculate its area, and then construct a square with the same area using only a compass and straight edge.

2016 Play Conference Gets a REBOOT

The US Play Coalition is beyond excited to announce that next year’s conference is NEW AND IMPROVED! In fact, it has been REBOOTED!  New Dates, New Approaches, New Opportunities.

The Play Conference 2016: Rebooting Play is April 3-6, 2016 at the Madren Conference Center in Clemson, SC.

Building on the energy and innovation that came from our snowy and sometimes “power-free” 2015 conference, there will be new elements for the 2016 conference – round tables, fireside chats, coffee talks and “Play Talks.” The dates have also been changed to April to (hopefully) avoid the snow!

Round tables will feature knowledgeable facilitators around critical issues and trends in the field. Fireside Chats and Coffee Talks will harness the organic opportunities for networking, collaborating and research. And “Play Talks,” our version of TED Talks, will be a series of 15-20 minute dynamic, entertaining, enlightening, engaging, inspiring, informative talks by thought leaders in the play world. These new components, coupled with traditional presentations and our epic PLAY breaks will make The Play Conference an event not to be missed. Be sure to mark your calendars!!

While you are marking your calendar, you may want to reserve your hotel room.  The James F. Martin Inn is attached to the Madren Conference Center. A block of rooms has been reserved for conference attendees for only $109 per night (does NOT include breakfast). A block of rooms is also available at the Holiday Inn Express in Clemson for $99/night including breakfast. We will have a regular complimentary shuttle from there to the conference and back.

Sponsorship opportunities are available. Email Stephanie Garst at for more details. A call for Presentation Proposals will be out in early September.

Plastic Jug Jai Alai

2 plastic half-gallon jugs that have handles
Masking tape
Newspaper (optional)
Tennis ball (or make a tape ball)

To Make:
– Remove the bottom of the plastic jug.
– On the jug’s edge that has the handle and at least one inch below the handle, draw a curve that will angle down towards the bottom of the jug. Do the same on the other side.  NOTE: If you cut the jug so that the handle is in back (where the edge is higher), it will be easier to throw overhand. If the handle is in front (under the lower edge), you’ll have a scooper that will make it easier to throw underhand. (Trash to Treasures, Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2007)
– When you are happy with the shape of the scoop, cut.
– Wrap several layers of tape around the spout to secure the lid.
– Repeat with the second plastic jug.
– Make your own Tape Ball by wadding newspaper into a ball. Wrap with masking tape.

To Play:
Using only the scoop, toss and catch the ball between players.
For added fun, form teams and play versions of baseball, football, lacrosse, or hockey using the scoops.


by Kent Callison, Director of Marketing Communications, GameTime

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  – George Bernard Shaw

This is one of my favorite quotes. I wield it as my enlightened metaphor anytime I encourage adults to throw off their self-imposed cloak of mirthless responsibility, if only for a few moments, and recover a glimpse of their childhood, and I remind them that play is not reserved for those with fewer than 16 candles on their birthday cake.

Nearly a century after George Bernard Shaw wrote those words, scientists are discovering they may be more than metaphor. In fact, there is mounting evidence that play can promote neurogenesis and reverse some of the effects of aging in the human brain.

What is Neurogenesis?

Neurons are nerve cells that act as the raw materials of the human brain. During fetal development, these neurons migrate to different areas and become the parts of the brain that control basic human function such as breathing, hearing and smelling. They also make up the more advanced centers of the brain that control complex thought and regulate emotions. Until recently, scientists believed that neurogenesis, the creation of neurons, ceased at birth. This theory proposed that we were born with over 100 billion neurons and those were all we had to work with for our entire lives. Numerous health and environmental factors destroy brain cells as we age and so we are left with a theoretical hourglass in which neurons are the sand falling from one end to the other. When all of the neurons have slipped away, so do we.

It turns out there might be more to this story than a grisly and inevitable end. Studies since the 1960s in adult animals have been able to show evidence of neurogenesis when subjects were exposed to enriched environments, including instances of exercise and/or play. Skeptics have argued that there is not enough evidence to support neurogenesis in adult humans, but a new study appears to provide thorough information on the extent of adult neurogenesis and confirms the role of play and other environmental enrichments in neural development.

Neurons Go Nuclear

In the 1940s and 1950s, above ground nuclear testing caused an elevation of the Carbon-14 isotope (14C) in the atmosphere. 14C is taken up by plants and by animals that eat plants. It is therefore present in humans at a cellular level. The presence of 14C in the brain acts as a time stamp on every new-born brain cell. When levels of 14C are compared to the levels of Carbon-12 isotope in the human brain, which is stable and more abundant, scientists can measure the age of brain cells. This study performed such a measurement on the post mortem brains of 55 men and women between the ages of 19 and 92.

According to the study, nearly 1/3 of the neurons in the brain are regularly renewed throughout life, or approximately 1,400 new neurons per day. This “neural turnover” may enhance the function of the human brain, help regulate mood, and improve cognitive reasoning by maintaining a steady supply of younger neurons (Spalding et al 2013).

Drinking from the Fountain of Youth

Now that adult neurogenesis has been confirmed, you might be wondering how you can start the process in your own brain. What medicine or procedure can we employ to jumpstart the neural engines? It turns out George Bernard Shaw wrote that prescription decades ago: Play.

In 2008, Dr. Stuart Brown gave a talk on the importance of play. The nonprofit group TED, which hosts conferences around the world to spread new ideas and promote intellectual discovery, shared a video of Dr. Brown’s talk on their website where it has been translated into 24 languages and viewed nearly a million times. In his talk, Dr. Brown discusses how play, in all its forms, improves the cognitive function of the brain, improves contextual memory development and enhances our ability to explore and discover new things (Brown 2008).

Dr. Brown is not alone in his views on play and its essential role in our biological development.

One of the earliest and most exciting studies ever published regarding the effects of play on the brain was conducted by Marian Diamond in 1964 on laboratory rats. Diamond divided the rats into two groups. One group was raised in solitary confinement without any outside stimulation. The other group was raised in a colony filled with toys and playful activities. The former group had smaller brains and thinner cerebral cortices. The latter group had larger brains and exhibited higher intelligence, finding their way through mazes much more quickly (Diamond et al 1964). Further analysis of the same study showed that rats who were allowed to play had increased levels of brain-derived neutrophic factor (BDNF) in their brains. BDNF is essential for the growth and maintenance of neuron development (Gordon et al 2003). Although the study was limited to rats, ethical considerations prevented a similar study on humans, The 2013 Spalding study suggests it is very likely that play effects human brains in much the same way.

Other studies on human subjects reveal that children pay more attention in school after a period of unstructured free play (Pelligrini & Holmes, 2006) and that children who are allowed unstructured play with blocks performed better on divergent problem-solving and were more creative in their approach (Pepler & Ross 1981).

Play Isn’t Just an Appointment on Your Calendar

In our society, it isn’t uncommon for a person’s entire day to be condensed into a series of appointments on a calendar announced every quarter hour by a digital alarm emitted from a smart phone. Because we are so conditioned to set aside time for important meetings, doctor appointments and children’s dance recitals, it is understandable that your first reaction is to find a slot somewhere in your day to squeeze in a round of golf or a pickup basketball game. This is a good start, but it’s not enough.

Play is valuable, and any amount of play will be beneficial. But the benefits of play expand by orders of magnitude when play is a natural part of your everyday life. Infusing a playful mindset into your work can improve your problem-solving skills and social cohesion. People who have a rich play history are sought by leading corporations who understand that “tinkerers” are better equipped to resolve conflict, work as part of a team and perform complex tasks than candidates who have been play deprived (Brown 2008).

Incorporating playful activities into family life can reduce stress and enhance the dynamic of your collective and individual relationships. Children who are encouraged to play perform better in school. Parents who play are better equipped to manage tension, and there is evidence linking neurogenesis to a reduction in depression (Eisch & Petrik 2012) – a condition that affects over 120 million people and has an impact on the quality of life for those affected, as well as their entire family.

While there is still more research to be done, it appears that play represents a biological necessity, as important as sleep and exercise, that enhances the human condition and promotes neurogenesis and it’s positive impact on the human brain. By adopting a playful mindset and finding ways to infuse play into our everyday existence, we are enhancing our lives today and possibly prolonging them for years to come.

Works Cited:

Dynamics of Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Adult Humans, Kirsty L. Spalding, Olaf Bergmann, Kanar Alkass, Samuel Bernard, Mehran Salehpour, Hagen B. Huttner, Emil Boström, Isabelle Westerlund, Céline Vial, Bruce A. Buchholz, Göran Possnert, Deborah C. Mash, Henrik Druid, Jonas Frisén, Cell – 6 June 2013 (Vol. 153, Issue 6, pp. 1219-1227)

Play is more than fun, Dr. Stuart Brown, MD, TED,, 2008

Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats, Gordon NS, Burke S, Akil H, Watson SJ, and Panskepp, J., Neuroscience Letters 341 (1):17-20, 2003

The role of recess in primary school. Pelligrini AD and Holmes RM, 2006 The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving, Pepler DJ and Ross HS, Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210, 1981

Depression and hippocampal neurogenesis: a road to remission?, Eisch AJ, Petrik D., Science. 2012 Oct 5;338(6103):72-5. doi: 10.1126/science.1222941., 2012

DIY Sidewalk Chalk

PFS - Sidewalk chalkAhhhh spring!  Spring brings a different set of outdoor activities to enjoy: 4-Square, hopscotch, ball hockey, marbles, tirar frijoles, circle tag.  Make sure you are ready with your custom made sidewalk chalk.

Supplies needed:

  • Toilet paper tube
  • Small square waxed paper
  • Rubber band
  • Recyclable/Disposable plastic container (e.g., deli container)
  • Craft stick

  • Plaster of paris
  • Corn starch
  • Tempera paint (Optional)
  • Water

Secure a double thick piece of waxed paper at the end of a toilet paper tube with the rubber band.

In the plastic container mix ½ cup plaster of paris and ¼ cup corn starch. Slowly add ¼ to ½ cup water while stirring with the craft stick.  Add tempera paint until the desired color is achieved.

Put mixture into prepared toilet paper tube.  Set the tube upright (waxed paper side down) on a plastic lid or newspaper until it hardens – generally overnight.  Once it hardens/dries, peel off the paper tube.  It is now ready to use!

IMPORTANT: Do NOT rinse cup in the sink!!  This stuff hardens and will clog sink!


by Blair Barrows, M.Ed Candidate, Special Education
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University
As a college student studying education, I loved learning about educational methods or theories. My first introduction to the world of educational philosophies was through my mother, a teacher at a Reggio Emilia inspired pre-school. I was intrigued by the free flowing nature of the philosophy and the child-driven learning strategies that it offered. The interest peaked my research into different growing educational philosophies, such as Waldorf or Montessori, which encompassed similar ideals. Examining them together, I realized they all shared one common idea—children learn through play. At first, I had a “duh” moment, thinking, of course children learn through play. It was not a revolutionary idea that I had come across and I assumed that many people shared this belief. However, when I began to reflect on my own educational experiences, I saw that play and education were completely separated. I knew that play was important, but I could not understand why it never intersected with my schooling past the age of 5. Why was play being pushed out of the classroom?

Around the same time of my personal educational reflection, I had the opportunity to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study outside of the United States. I designed a proposal around exploring what it would be like to be in a classroom that utilized play as a learning tool and believed in its importance. Six months later, I found out that I had been granted a Fellowship and that summer I set out to explore the world of play in South Africa, the UK, Finland, Italy, Germany, India, and New Zealand. At the time, I had no idea how much I would learn about the global play world and the trend of risk.

Although I knew that the concept of the “bubble wrapped child” was growing in the U.S., I did not realize how much we do not let our children do until I was living in other countries. While exploring Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Environmental, and Holistic education, I saw children, as young as three years-old, using knives, carving wood, manning a saw, climbing trees on school property, getting rough in sports, and playing freely in and outside of the classroom at school. Giving children the opportunity to engage in self-driven free play meant that the children would possibly encounter risky situations, such as the ones listed above. In the eyes of the schools, allowing children to experience risk helped the children to become better analysts of potential risky situations. For example, if a child is taught how to use a pocketknife correctly at an early age, then he/she is less likely to use one recklessly later in life. In many of the schools that I worked with, the teachers, administration, and parents were confident with the decision to let children experience risk because they understood the rewards. Schools that embodied free play also embraced the chances of risk. Reflecting on educational and play trends in the U.S., I began to realize that play was being removed from schools because play and risk had become associated.

When I was not in a classroom, I learned about local organizations that supported play, play advocates, and government initiatives to create more play opportunities. These organizations and personnel understood that the words “risk” and “play” were becoming synonymous and they wanted to work to change parents’ and school’s opinions otherwise. One particular movement that I fell in love with were Adventure Playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds, which have been around for a number of decades, capture the pure essence of free play because they allow children to literally create their own play environment using the loose pieces around the playground. I used the word “literally” because often, these playgrounds would allow children to build, on-site, their own structure with nails, hammers, and wood. I observed children grinning with joy as they described their latest development to their fort, relay race they organized, or game that they created. And despite popular belief, each playground organization that I interviewed said that they hardly had any incidences of serious injuries, which they attributed to both their education on construction equipment that they give to playground attendees and that children who spend time at the playground know how to assess potentially risky situations. Children who come to the playgrounds understand the importance of safety when working with construction materials and navigating construction sites. Although a few Adventure Playgrounds exist in the U.S., I fear that the movement may never grow because people would not be able to see past the potential risks associated with them. However, if citizens were able to look past the risk, they would see what I saw—happy and confident children.

The last country that I traveled to was New Zealand and unfortunately, I saw just how much the global trend of risk had affected a country that prided itself on being a “barefoot culture” and popular extreme sports destination. I interviewed a local play advocate who explained to me exactly how much risk had begun to make a home in NZ. At the time of my interview, July 2013, NZ did not have what he referred to as a “suing problem” because it was illegal to sue someone over an incident such as falling on a playground, and therefore, disputes were handled much more on a personal level. This lack of litigation allowed free play to thrive and parents to let their children be involved in rough play at home and at school. However, he told me that NZ was beginning to change their policies, despite the fact that they did not need to. When I asked why the policies were changing, he told me that NZ was changing them in order to fit in with the global trend of risk and that they felt pressure from other countries to conform. Schools were tightening down on which games were allowed at recess, parents were supervising their children more, and the “barefoot culture” was being exchanged for a more rigid educational structure. Our conversation showed me just how much the fear of encountering potential risky situations had crept into international policy. When a country without a needless lawsuit problem was succumbing to the social pressures of limiting risk, and thus free play, had the idea of the “bubble wrapped child” gotten out of hand?

Originally, I set out to exclusively explore the relationship between play and education; however, on my journey I discovered so much more about the world of play than I could have imagined. Although ideally, children’s play opportunities should extend beyond the walls of the classroom, schools are cutting out programs left and right. Now that children are seeking play elsewhere, parents and communities are becoming concerned that their play may be too risky. Many play advocates and researchers that I interviewed agreed that in the long run, we are harming our children because we are keeping them from encountering risk. I believe that through experiencing risk, children will become better risk analysts, thus lowering the chances that they will injure themselves. In order to create a generation of children who can appropriately analyze risk for themselves, without adult intervention, risk and play must no longer be synonymous and children should be given more chances to play freely. Through changing the perceptions of what risk and play mean, I believe that more play opportunities can return to schools, streets, backyards, and playgrounds.

Play Conference Reboot is Coming April 3-6, 2016 @ Clemson University

Mark your calendars because you will NOT want to miss this!!  After five years, the Conference on the Value of Play is getting a reboot!  Starting with a change in dates – because April showers are way more fun than power outages and sleet – there are BIG PLANS for the 6th Annual Play Conference.  Keep your eyes peeled and your ears perked because spring has sprung – and so have we!  More details to come!

Lily’s Game

This version of a ball-n-cup game was created by nine-year-old Lily, who was an attendee at a summer play table.

Supplies: single serving plastic yogurt cup (exclude Yoplait), 2 pieces of string (6-8 inches long), 2 pieces of aluminum foil (6”x6”), hole punch

To Make: Punch a hole just below the lip/rim of a clean yogurt cup. Directly across, punch a second hole. Take one piece of string, thread it through one hole and tie a knot to secure one end on the cup.  Do the same with the other piece of string and other hole.  Put the non-tied end of the string in the middle of one piece of foil; wad/crunch the foil into a ball with the string inside.  Do the same with the other string.

To Play: Hold the cup in one hand and try to flip both foil balls into the cup.