Check Out Our 2015 Grant Winners

Grant funding is a distinctive feature of our annual Play Conference, and we are proud to have awarded $35,000 in funding to date. Through competitive funding opportunities, we offer both Action and Research Grants to playmakers and researchers whose work has the potential to improve and expand the Play Movement.

Our 2015 Research Grant Recipients from Appalachian State University have used our funds to pilot a 2015 researchgrantpediatrician prescription program for outdoor play targeting children.  Currently, we have 3 local pediatricians providing patients and their parents with “Outdoor Activity in Nature” prescriptions and info on local places for play and why play is important.

One of our 2015 Action Grant Recipients is Play at the Core from Right to Play.  This year, using our Action Grant Funds, Play at the Core has RTP action grant 2015piloted two different parent engagement formats—with the aim of familiarizing, and fostering confidence in using play-based learning practices in the home. They work in under-resourced Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City located in the Bronx, Harlem, and Washington Heights.

Our other 2015 Action Grant Winners were from Missouri State University. Their project looked at 2015 action grant MSUproviding appropriate play experiences for children with autism.  They worked with 28 children, grades K-12, with ASD from the Rivendale Institute of Learning and Center for Autism in Springfield, MO, and approximately 25 undergraduate Kinesiology majors at MSU.


Inviting Parents Back onto the Playground

LTC Generation Swing_mom_kid2The new Generation Swing by Little Tikes Commercial brings a whole new dimension to swinging.

The new face-to-face adult/toddler Generation Swing means that parents and caregivers are no longer relegated to the sidelines, pushing or simply watching their child swing. Now adults can experience the joy of swinging along with their children.

The unique design encourages social development and intergenerational play. It’s even great for siblings, grandparents and other caregivers! Everyone knows how important it is for children to get out and play, but we often forget that adults can also get involved and increase the benefits for everyone. When a toddler makes eye contact with their parent, both experience a rush of joy. This emotional connection through play is known as attunement play, which is strengthened when parents and toddlers are able to swing face-to-face, both experiencing the joy of swinging together.

Learn more about the Generation Swing here.

The Habit of Play

Often times our days are filled with busy calendars. Our routines and commitments keep us so busy that we forget what is actually important. Play is often overlooked and replaced by other “productive” habits which are usually outcome driven.

However, if you are reading this you probably are already bought into the idea that play can invigorate your day, enrich your week, and if done frequently can change your life for the better. In a book I just read called The Power of Habit, the author describes this well. He claims that, “Our lives are nothing more than a series of habits”. He is right. Our lives are really just a series of habits and decisions we choose to create and sustain. When we move or change jobs we often replace old habits with new ones. If this is true, it is also true that we need to be mindful in incorporating play into our daily lives as we become adults of habits. Our habits become more engrained as we age and become harder to change. However, if you are going to increase the prevalence of play in your life you need to start slowly placing it into your life by replacing existing habits that are tightly established. This intentional change can happen to allow you to have time in your schedule dedicated to “Play.”

Whatever that form of play looks like is totally up to you! You could incorporate any form of play you want ONCE you have made a habit of allowing time for it to happen each day.

I know that in my own life I have to be very intentional about including play into my daily routine. For me, working out is a form of active play! I literally think of the gym as a giant playground. If you were to see me in a gym working out you would totally see that I am clearly playing and enjoying the process more than the outcome.

I have also made a conscious effort to set aside 15-20 min per day just for unstructured play time. That could be for walking in the park, writing poetry (creative play) or singing when I am cooking a nice meal.. Some days I find it challenging to include play into my schedule but once I know I have that 15-20 min I choose to make the most of it!

The important thing to remember from this blog is that you are totally in control of including play in your daily routines, and you are fully capable of including play in your lifelong habits. It is up to you. I choose to enjoy and enriching life filled with play each day. Will you choose playful habits?


Ryan & RioBy: Ryan Fahey, B.Ed, BKin

Ryan is a new regular blogger for the US Play Coalition. He is working to develop our Play Ambassador program and spread the word about the Value of Play.

A New Concept in Accessible Water Play

Central Park_Rosemount_MN_2014 (1)  Gilroy Gardens_Water Oasis_Waterpark (3)

A modular water play concept developed by Vortex Aquatic Structures, Water Journey™ combines up to 4 different play areas (Jet Dance, Labyrinth, Race, and Tide Pool), all inspired by the behavior of water in nature.

Water Journey™ provides an accessible play experience to children of different age groups and levels of development. Using water to provide sensory experiences of all kinds, Water Journey™ fosters mechanical explorations while also encouraging social interaction.

Water Journey™ promotes the use of play as a modality to stimulate motor, cognitive, sensory and social development. Children learn the relationship between actions and associated reactions as the water encounters the various game features such as gates, pumps, streams, jets and water mills.

Proving a hit at Gilroy Gardens in California, General Manager, Barbara-Lea Granter commented, “Water Journey™ is very popular with boys age six to eight – something we didn’t expect. They like the science of it, and to see the impact on the water. Guests are bringing their own rubber duckies and boats to place in the water and watch the water flows.”

Find out more about Water Journey™ here.


Jason Broadhurst is Director of Marketing for Vortex Aquatic Structures International.

#Playful Kids

monkeybars2Recently we sat down with Evie Houtz, Program Specialist for Be Active Kids in Raleigh, NC. Evie is a mother of two playful kids. She is a role model for living an active, healthy lifestyle! Here is what Evie had to say when we chatted with her about Play!

“As Play Ambassadors, it is our job teach our children how to be playful and physically active just as much as it is our job to teach them morals, values, social skills, and educational concepts.   Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.   Physically active children will develop gross motor skills that later help them to take part in games and sports with their peers.  Physical activity helps children build strong hearts, muscles and bones, improve thinking skills, develop positive self-esteem and confidence and just have fun.

Kids of all ages need both structured and unstructured physically active play throughout the day.   Structured activities are adult led and have a specific learning objective.  This type of physical activity includes games like Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light and organized sports like t-ball or soccer.  Young children should get between 60-90 minutes of structured physical activity throughout the day.  Many of these structured activities help the child to learn a motor skill or increase competency in movement.  In addition children should take part in at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity or free play.  This type of physical activity is child centered, child led and child initiated.  Unstructured physical activity includes things like fort building, climbing trees, running around pretending to be magical beings or super heroes, or creating a city out of boxes.  Unstructured free play helps a child to be more creative, learn to experiment, to work cooperatively, and to think more critically.  Both types of physical activity should be spread throughout the day.

In helping a child to play more, know that you have many items you around you each day that can be used for active play.  We all have milk jugs that can turn in to targets or balls, sticks that can used as swords, plastic bags that turn into juggling scarves and mud that can be thrown to ward off the bad guys.  It takes some creativity, courage and a little out-of-the-box thinking, but it is so important. Getting kids active is essential to their long term health and well-being.   Studies have shown that the motivation to be active (exercise) in adulthood can be influenced by childhood experiences.”

For more ideas or how to use inexpensive items to increase physical activity, check out the Be Active Kids 8 one-pagers.


By: Ryan Fahey, B.Ed, BKin

Ryan is a new regular blogger for the US Play Coalition.  He is working to develop our Play Ambassador program and spread the word about the Value of Play.

US Play Coalition to partner with Nickelodeon for Worldwide Day of Play

Saturday, September 26 is Nickelodeon’s 12th Annual Worldwide Day of Play! The US Play Coalition is a partner for this FUN-omenal day! We are teaming up locally with the City of Clemson to have a Clemson Community Play Day from 12-3pm at Ashley Dearing Park in Clemson, SC. What are you doing in your community for the Worldwide Day of Play?!

Play Day Banner

US Play Coalition brings PLAY to Greenville Drive baseball game

The US Play Coalition was highlighted along with LiveWell Greenville at the Greenville Drive game on Sunday, September 6.  Students from Clemson University’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM) program lent a hand by staffing pre-game kids activities…and150 PRTM EDGE students were supporting us in the stands…not to mention all these PLAYful friends that joined in the fun! Check out the highlights from a GREAT day at the ballpark that ended with a WIN for the Greenville Drive!

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.


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


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.