This summer we are launching a blog series by our new Play Ambassadors.  Enjoy the first installment by Brian VanDongen

July is National Parks and Recreation Month, and this year’s theme is “Get Your Play On.”  I think this is a perfect theme.  Parks provide a great place to play, and recreation departments should embrace that and market their parks to their residents and to the public at large.  As a parks and recreation professional, I want people to use our parks.  They are a place to relax, a place to get exercise, a place to explore, a place to enjoy the fresh air, and, most importantly, a place to play.  But is it possible to just “play?”


The word is getting out about play and its benefits.

1. Play provides much needed physical activity and helps children build healthy bodies.  By participating in physical activity and play, children can get valuable time improving their cardiorespiratory system, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and bone strength.  Active play can help children reach the CDC-recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity and help them become physically literate and healthy.

2. Play helps build creativity and imagination.  When children play, objects take on new forms.  A frisbee may become a UFO, pots and pans become a drum set, a log becomes a boat.  These “loose parts” are what makes play great and help children build creativity and imagination.  Children also take on various roles, from firefighter to superhero to baseball player when they play, sometimes all within the same play time!

3. Play advances social skills.  Children playing with building blocks together learn teamwork.  When kids disagree about who will use the green soccer ball or who will be the goalie, they are learning how to settle disagreements and compromise.

The benefits I mentioned about play are generally well-accepted as the cornerstone benefits.  Of course, there are many more — countless more — benefits that I could discuss.  When we talk about the benefits of play, however, most of them are focused on free play.  In my opinion, this type of play gets phased out as we age.  Free play turns into competitive play.

Play turns into having rules, formalized goals, and a point system.  Teams (or individuals) compete against one another to win.   Free play is reduced or eliminated and turns completely into a sport.  Now I’m not saying that sports are bad or that as children get older that they and adults should not participate in sports.  There are a great number of benefits — physically and socially — that children and adults derive from sports participation.

But this competitive way of thinking eliminates “free play.”  It limits the imagination.  It limits creativity.

It is a happy talent to know how to play.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes older children need to slide down a slide, toss a football around, or hop on rocks across a river without an end goal.  Just to do it.  Just to play.  I know it can be hard.  As a golfer, I want to keep score every round; I want to know how well (or poorly) I played.  I crave that number at the end.  But sometimes you get so caught in trying to win, that you forget why you started in the first place.  You forget how to let loose and just play.  There are benefits of play for adults too.  Some mirroring the benefits for children: social interaction, creativity building, and physical activity.  However, some benefits pertain just to adults and older children including stress reduction and improved cognitive function (especially imporant in older adults).

Societal conventions and stereotypes need to be proven false.  Adults and older kids can swing on a swing set, climb across the monkey bars, or build a sandcastle.  It is possible to just play.  We all can “Get Our Play On” this Parks & Recreation Month — and every month.  But in an almost counterintutitive way, as we get older we have to try harder to not try and to just play.

Featured Image: Happy Max by makelessnoise   CC BY 2.0

Meet Play Ambassador/Guest Blogger Brian VanDongen

Brian is a parks and recreation professional in Hillsborough Township (N.J.). Through his experiences working in parks and recreation and studies in Exercise Science and Physical Education as well as Sport and Exercise Psychology, Brian has observed and learned many things in community recreation and youth sports. Brian believes that all children deserve to have a positive and fun youth sport experience regardless of ability. Also, all children and adults should have access to high quality recreation programming and parks providing passive and active recreational opportunities to lead a happy, healthy, and active lifestyle. He has a regular blog called The First Quarter. Brian joined the Play Ambassador team in 2016.

Go Go Skateboard!

Celebrate National Go Skateboarding Day – June 21


Go Go Skateboard!

Source: ©2015. Joyce Hemphill, Laura Scheinholtz, and Heather Von Bank and adapted from The Power of Playful Learning.


  • Cereal box
  • One plastic drinking straw
  • One round bamboo skewer (12 inches x 3 mm)
  • 4 soft plastic caps from milk jugs
  • Photo or Character from a greeting card (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Large eraser or hand towel (folded)
  • Tape or glue
  • Crayons, markers, stickers, etc. (optional)



  • Create the skateboard deck using the plain side of the cereal box by drawing an elongated oval. (Approximately 5-6 inches long and 2-2½ inches wide.) Cut out the deck and decorate it.
    • Note: It is your skateboard so you can make any shape you want.
  • Cut a drinking straw into two 2-inch pieces. On the underside of the deck tape these pieces; one up towards the front and the other towards the back. (These will hold the skewer axles.) Set aside.

Axles & Wheels:

  • Prepare all four wheels by poking holes in each of the four plastic caps. To do this, place the eraser or multi-folded hand towel on a flat surface. Place the plastic cap with open side down on the eraser/towel. Identify the exact center of the cap. Place the point of the skewer at the center and firmly press down until the skewer pierces through the cap and goes into the eraser/cloth. Run the skewer completely through each cap.

Adding the axles & wheels to the deck

  • Press one cap on the blunt end of the skewer. Slide the skewer through one of the straw bits. Slide a second cap onto the skewer and slide it into position. (This should be on the other side of the skateboard deck.) SNAP the skewer close to the second wheel. Repeat process for the other axle and wheels.
    • Be sure to adjust the wheels to make sure they do not rub against the deck.

Adding the skater

  • To add the skateer, cut around the character making sure to leave a ¼”- ½” tab at the bottom. Make a 90o fold in the tab and secure onto the skateboard using glue or tape.

To Play:

Create a ramp using boards, books, or boxes. See how far you can get your skateboard to go. Challenge friends and family!




2018 Play Conference Logo Design Competition Announced

Are you creative?!  Handy with graphic design programs?! Wanna win a $100 e-gift card?!  Submit a design for our first ever conference logo by July 9.

The winning logo will be used to establish the conference’s visual identity and highlight the theme for the 2018 Conference on the Value of Play: The Many Faces of Play.

Ball-n-Cup Game

Source: ©2015. Joyce Hemphill, Laura Scheinholtz, and Heather Von Bank and adapted from The Power of Playful Learning

• Single serving plastic yogurt cup, clean
• Length of string or yarn
• Hole punch
• Aluminum foil (6-inches x 6-inches)

To make:
• Punch a hole in the side of the plastic yogurt cup
• Thread string/yarn through the hole in the cup and with one end of the string/yarn secure with a knot.
• Place the other end in the middle of the square of foil. Crumple foil to form a ball. The ball can be rolled on a flat surface to make it smoother.
o If using a wooden bead, thread the other end of the string/yarn through the bead; secure with a knot.

To play:
Hold the cup in one hand, letting the ball on the string dangle below. Using only the hand holding the cup, flip the ball up and into the cup. Find the best strategy for getting the ball into the cup every time.

Inaugural Researcher and Practitioner Awards Announced at 2017 Play Conference

The U.S. Play Coalition established an awards program recognizing outstanding play research and youth practitioners at the 2017 Conference on the Value of Play.  This new awards program will honor exceptional individuals each year.  The winners will not only receive a physical award, but also have conference fees paid, hotel accommodations and up to $500 in travel to attend the Play Conference.

Joe L. Frost Award for Distinguished Research

The inaugural Joe L. Frost Award for Distinguished Research was presented to its namesake – Joe L. Frost, the contemporary father of play advocacy.  The award recognizes a body of exceptional research that has enhanced and expanded the study of play.

“Joe Frost has been an influencer for our organization’s work as well as for the world of play,” said Stephanie Garst, executive director of the U.S. Play Coalition. “The creation of this award is a fitting tribute.”

Frost is the Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He is known across the world for his more than 30 years of work on early childhood and children’s play environments. Past president of both the Association for Childhood Education International and International Play Association/USA, he is the author or co-author of 18 books and numerous publications and has also served as a consultant for playgrounds worldwide.

Frost was influential in the creation of the U.S. Play Coalition, serving as a steering committee member since the coalition’s beginning in 2009. He served as a keynote speaker that year at the coalition’s first conference – then called the Summit on the Value of Play –and has been an honorary chair for each successive conference.

YLI Youth Development Practitioner Award

The U.S. Play Coalition also teamed with Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute to present the first-ever Youth Development Practitioner Award. The award recognizes outstanding performance in the creation and implementation of youth development programs or services.

“There are many deserving practitioners across the nation, and our goal is to bring recognition to this field of service,” said Stephen Lance, executive director of the Youth Learning Institute.

The inaugural award went to Dan Mathews, chief operating officer at Camp Twin Lakes, a Georgia-based organization that provides camp experiences for children with serious illnesses, disabilities and other life challenges.  According to his nomination, Dan is “a champion for all youth using play as the center of his outstanding leadership and tireless efforts in furthering development, access, and professionalism of the field of youth-development…He is an excellent standard bearer for the inaugural Youth Development Practitioner Award.”

2017 Grant Winners Announced

Grant funding is a distinctive feature of our annual Play Conference, and we are proud to have awarded $47,000 in funding to date.   At the 2017 Conference on the Value of Play: Where Design Meets Play the new grant winners were announced.  The review process was challenging as we had a record number of outstanding submissions this year.

Each year a $3,000 research seed grant is awarded to a researcher or group of researchers who present empirical research at the play conference to support new, innovative and thoughtful work on the value of play.  This is seed funding in support of longitudinal or future research in diverse topics related to play, and grant recipients’ work reflects great potential for expanding knowledge in the field.

The 2017 Research Seed Grant was awarded to Shan Jiang, PhD, from West Virginia University for her project, “Healing through Play: Play Opportunities as Positive Distractions at Pediatric Healthcare Environment.”

In addition to the research grant, $1000 action grants are awarded to support creative and innovative proposals to engage groups in play or to educate about the value of play. This year we had two partners supporting our action grants, IPA-USA and Partners for Parks.  We also had funding from our Giving TuesPLAY initiative.

There were three projects that each received a 2017 Action Grant:
– Britt Stetson for Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Park, a playground for children of all abilities in in Portland, Ore.

– Debora Wisneski and Miriam Kuhn for “Building a Community of PLAY Through an Interdisciplinary University Collaborative” at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

– Gregory Manley from City of Play in Pittsburgh, Penn., for Ludovia, a weekly class for young professionals and working-class minorities to foster play through physical, emotional and social communication. 

Springtime Number Hunt

HAPPY SPRING!  Celebrate spring with a family walk. Enjoy the colors and sounds as they unfold with the increasingly warmer weather. As you walk challenge one another to a Number Hunt. As the saying goes, “The family that plays together, stays together.”


Number Hunt can be played anywhere and it doesn’t require any additional supplies. To play, carefully look at your surroundings and find one of something. The first person to shout it out earns one point. For example, “I see one dog!” Next, look for two of something, such as “I see two brown birds at the feeder!” Now search for a quantity of three  … and so on. At the end of the walk the person who has earned the most points gets to choose the next game or activity.

A sister game to Number Hunt is Numeral Hunt. The object of this game is to find the numerals starting with zero or one, your choice.

PlayCore and GameTime Take Research to a New Level with Recognition Program for Communities

PlayCore’s Center for Professional Development is uniquely committed to sound research and best practices to advance play and recreation through programs, publications, continuing education, and advocacy. Their unparalleled network of esteemed scholars provides them with the validated research to compose best practice resources and help inform the design of products created by their brands, like GameTime. With their National Demonstration Site program, PlayCore recognizes communities for designing spaces using best practices outlined in the research.

The National Demonstration Site program was created to recognize thoughtfully planned outdoor environments that ensure people can be physically and socially active through play and recreation. Communities are recognized in a number of ways, including an online map,  and the positive attention gained can attract additional partners, funding, and serve as a model environment for others to replicate and share.   With a total of five National Demonstration Site programs for inclusive play, nature play, playful pathways, youth fitness, and adult fitness, PlayCore and GameTime are helping communities get the recognition and exposure they so richly deserve.

GameTime’s inclusive parks at Hugh Mac Rae Park in Wilmington, NC and Havens Gardens Park in Washington, NC are two of many parks being recognized as a National Demonstration Sites for following research-based best practice principles in inclusive design.

Research also informs many product designs, like the Expression Swing, the only swing where parent and child can swing together in complete attunement.

Featured Sessions at 2017 Conference on the Value of Play

The US Play Coalition is proud to announce its featured sessions for the 2017 Conference on the Value of Play.  The annual conference, whose 2017 theme is “Where Design Meets Play – Bringing Play to Landscapes, Curricula, Programs, Museums, and Beyond,” will be April 2-5 at Clemson University.  Here is a glimpse at the featured speaker lineup…more to come!

“Sometimes It Hurts: Designing Play Environments with as Much Risk-Taking as Possible and as Little Safety as Necessary”
– Moderator / US Perspective: Teri Hendy, Site Masters, Inc.
– European Perspective: Julian Richter, Richter Spielgeraete GmbH
– UK Perspective: Harry Harbottle, CATE Consultancy
– Canadian Perspective: Jennifer Martin, TELUS Spark
This two-part session includes speakers from the US, Germany, the UK and Canada presenting an international view of the role of risk taking in designing children’s play environments.  The panel will focus on the perception of risk vs. the reality; designing for acceptable risk that balances risk and play value; establishing a precedent of risk tolerance; and modeling risky play that creates healthy and innovative communities.

“How Science and Research are Rocking the Play World”
Stuart Brown, MD – Founder of National Institute for Play
Joe Frost, Parker, PhD – Centennial Professor Emeritus, University of Texas
Tom Norquist – Senior Vice President of Product Development & Marketing – PlayCore/GameTime

When Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play, and Joe Frost, the contemporary father of play advocacy, are your guides, only magical things can happen!  Tom Norquist, product innovator at GameTime, will lead the conversation with his mentors on how hard science and research are the building blocks of playful design.

“The Genius of Play: Designing an Integrated Program to Help Families Capitalize on Key Developmental Benefits for Their Children”
– Anna Yudina, Director of Marketing Initiatives, Toy Industry Association
– Erik “Dr. E.” Fisher, Ph.D., Psychologist, Media Consultant, Author
– Jackie Retzer, Marketing Communications, Toy Industry Association
– David Gallagher, Chief Program Officer, Playworks
The presentation highlights research findings about parental attitudes towards play and shares best practices for utilizing social media, expert influencers, and partnerships to build a national play movement.

“Designing a Practice of Play”

Dan Harding, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Architecture and Community Design+Build
Clemson University
A question that has remained centric to my personal endeavors as a craftsman, designer, and educator has been seemingly simple: Is it possible to design a Practice based on Play?  Perpetual musing on the premise yields further inquiry into: can we Play at Practice?, and, can we Practice at Play?  In the spirit of a Robert Pirsig Chautauqua, I endeavor to highlight the landscape my work has explored and the territory it has attempted settle.

“Using Empathy to Design School Based Play”
David Gallagher, Chief Program Officer, Playworks
This session will focus on how to have an empathic lens when designing programming for play within schools.


“Lighting with LED . . . The Opportunities and the Challenges”
Joe Crookham, Chief Executive Officer and President, Musco Sports Lighting, LLC
This session will cover LED related issues regarding energy, maintenance, spill, glare, sky glow and the impact of color spectrum choices on both vision and health.  This session will discuss design opportunities and challenges when using diode light devices, LED, to illuminate large areas such as a ball field, play areas and walkways.

“The Future of Schoolyards and Strategies to Work with School Communities to Get Things Funded and Built”

Bambi Yost, Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture,  Iowa State University, will share lessons learned from  her time as Project Manager and researcher on Denver Public School’s Learning Landscapes schoolyards.

“Playing Outside the Lines: Play As A Metaphor for Life”
Erik “Dr. E.” Fisher, Ph.D., Psychologist, Media Consultant, Author
Often we teach kids to play games by the rules, and there is definitely a value to this. However, what can happen when you  take play and the game beyond the rules and look to what play can teach about the child and what you can teach children about life through play?

“BrandNewNoise: Where Design Meets Play”
Richard Upchurch, Founder of BrandNewNoise
Explore the inspiration and process behind the brand’s creative sound gadgets. It started out as a simple voice recorder made from the electronics of a $2 toy and some wood scraps – a simple design.  Today BrandNewNoise is making handcrafted sound gadgets for all kids, musicians, lovers, and aliens looking to explore – even celebrity soundmakers like the Black Keys.  Each recorder is handmade in Brooklyn, NY out of American sustainable wood. Richard’s talk will focus on how the simplicity in design leads to creative input and play for the end user.

“Placemaking Leads To Playmaking: How Edible & Medicinal Gardens Make Serenbe More Playful”
Steve Nygren – President of Serenbe
After escaping Atlanta to rural South Fulton, Steve Nygren noticed the positive affect nature had on his daughters. They were happier, more relaxed and chose nature over toys. He then set out to create a built environment that would not only cater to play, but encourage it.”  Serenbe is a progressive community connected to nature on the edge of Atlanta.  Serenbe’s architectural planning sets a new standard for community living.  Steve’s presentation will share the specific ways nature makes children healthier, happier and smarter, how increased access to nature transforms our culture, and show how edible and medicinal gardens encourage outdoor play.

 “Ten Strategies to Get a C in Play”
Michael Bryant, Director of Educational Program Activation at Discovery Education
At Discovery Education, Michael Bryant was instrumental in the launch of Techbooks, powerful digital resources instead of the traditional textbook. Currently, Mike works with corporate and non-profit partners to craft engaging free programs and resources for students all over the world. From hosting virtual field trips at a Ford plant to immersing himself in a STEM lab for the Tiger Woods Foundation, Mike works to ensure all educators and students have access to the best resources. Michael’s featured session will focus on the 4Cs (Collaborate, Create, Communicate and Critical Thinking) and strategies & resources Discovery Education has found to work well before, during and after school.


New to the Play Conference? You’re Gonna Wanna Read This!

Meet Marie-Catherine Dubé, Aquatic Play Design expert at Vortex International and poster child for all the reasons YOU should come to the Conference on the Value of Play !  This is her story…

My first experience at the US Play Coalition’s annual Conference on the Value of Play was definitely a memorable one, to say the least. As a senior Industrial Design student studying at Purdue University the spring of 2015, I discovered the existence of the coalition while working on my thesis in Nepal, the fall prior. My work, Tilt: the Playscape Project, involved studying play in a third world environment, and from there I would build a playground at a local school. I quickly fell in love with the field of play.  Discovering that there was this whole GROUP of people—professionals!—who were also passionate about play, I knew I needed to get to this conference however possible. Through educational sessions, roundtables, and amazing keynote speakers, I discovered how multifaceted this field of study can be, how broad the span of interested individuals actually is.

The most valuable part of my first experience at the US Play Coalition conference, aside the sessions (that were actually educational!), the roundtables, the keynotes…was the networking. Meeting people to share ideas with and work with was truly the jumpstart to my career. I attended a session on water play where a company from Montreal, Canada was presenting. As an avid Montreal Canadians fan (and Canadian by birth), I later saw one of the presenters in the hospitality suite on the last day and was not shy about my love for Canada and play. As it turns out, networking your passion is pretty valuable; I met the right person at the right time!  Turns out that presenter was the president & CEO of Vortex!  Because of that conversation, I later got what I consider is the coolest job in the world! I moved to Montreal and now work as a waterpark designer, where every single day I get to study and utilize my love for play. Because of that conference in 2015, I absolutely love my job, the US Play Coalition, and I’m a Play Advocate for life!

Haven’t convinced you yet?!  Check out all the details for the 2017 Conference on the Value of Play…and join me!