Nature and Health –
Activism through Literacy and Play: Tips from a Publisher

Summer Blog Series
PLAY for Healthier Communities #3

“Nature and Health – Activism through Literacy and Play: Tips from a Publisher”

Pause for a moment and consider your favorite book as a child. What exciting adventures did you go on as you read? What were you inspired to do, think about, and create? As I wrap this 3-part blog series on play and healthy communities, I’m excited to share a conversation with Philip Lee, co-founder and publisher of the award-winning Lee & Low Books and READERS to EATERS. Philip has an incredible career, including a portfolio of working with publications like Conde Nast, Glamour and GQ.

In this article, we discuss how literacy and play can inspire action.

Daniel: Tell me a little about yourself, Readers to Eaters and what play means to you and why you think it’s important for our health.

Philip: I’m the co-founder, along with my wife, June Jo Lee, of READERS to EATERS, a children’s book publishing company. Our mission is to promote food literacy through stories about our diverse food cultures. I’m the “reader” as I’ve been a children’s book publisher for many years—I previously co-founded one of the first publishing companies that focused on diversity—while my wife is the “eater” as she is a food ethnographer, studying American food culture for corporations and non-profits organizations. I was born in Hong Kong and she was born in Seoul, South Korea, so we’re always mindful of how culture shapes our lives, including the food we eat, and our sense of wellness, health and play.

At READERS to EATERS, our goal is to tell stories about food, so we have an appreciation and connection to the people who grow it, cook it, and provide it to us every day. Through these stories, we hope young readers not only gain a better understanding of what good food means to our body, but also to our family, our community, and the global world. Food is fundamental to all our experiences, so in addition to good health and nutrition, it’s also a tangible way to introduce readers to subjects such as science, climate change, history, immigration, and social justice.

Play, like food, is essential to our physical and mental wellbeing, for adults and children. It allows us to be creative and use our imagination, it breaks routine and encourages us to be spontaneous. Play is often unpredictable, so we must be flexible and adapt to new situations. The key to remember is that play doesn’t have to be regimented and can take on many forms. It can be in the playground running free, in the garden tending vegetables, in the kitchen trying a new recipe, or a quiet moment looking out the window—and away from the computer screen!

Growing up in Hong Kong, my choice of play was limited. The urban city had little space for outside play and limited time for activities after homework, so my playtime was helping in the kitchen to prepare dinner. At times it could be physical work, but it was the time when I got to hear family stories, and there was always the reward of a delicious meal in the end.

Daniel: This blog series is focused on how play can foster healthier communities. In your experience, how is play, literacy and health interconnected?

Philip: Play, health, and literacy are connected in so many ways. First, leisure reading is a type of play! Play doesn’t have to always be a physical activity. It can be quiet reading time that sparks imagination. Education professor Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, in her 1990 article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” points out that books reflect who we are and reaffirms us, introduce us to new worlds that are real or imagined, and allow us to submerge ourselves into new experiences. I think it captures beautifully the essence of play too.

Books connect readers to food in new ways beyond nutrition. For example, our “Food Heroes” series profiles food pioneers who often see what others can’t see and work to build better communities through food. In Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, the urban farmer saw children as young farmers and parking lots and rooftops as farmland. He wanted young people not only to grow food but to be young activists by making changes in their neighborhoods. Similarly in Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, the street cook who started the food truck movement found new ways to bring good food and good jobs to hungry communities. In Zora’s Zucchini, a fictional story, a young girl started a neighborhood good share program to avoid food waste from her garden.

Reading can also add appreciation to children’s active play. In The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter, a day in the park led to a new appreciation for bees and pollination, as well as for fatherly love and our natural world. In Feeding The Young Athlete, active families, and children get an introduction to how nutrients support mental focus in competition at the playground and learning in the classroom.

When reading books about cooking and gardening, readers learn that play can also be nourishing to their own bodies and to their communities. More importantly, they are empowered to make changes and be activists in big and small ways.

Daniel: What advice would you give adults who want to use play to inspire a love of reading and activism in children?

Philip: Modeling is the best way to inspire children to read, eat or grow to be activists in our community. Children will understand these activities are important if they see their family taking part in them too. Start with playful reading together. Everyone loves a story! But there are also other ways to share stories other than a book, such as reading a family recipe or a food label. Read this great discussion with the Family Dinner Project on “How to Raise a Voracious Reader: Promoting literacy with dinnertime storytelling family conversation and books about food.”

I would also encourage families and children to be active members in their communities, such as volunteering at the community garden, sharing books at the Little Free Library, or shopping from local farmers at the farmers’ market. These are all ways children can see how they can make an impact in their communities – plus, they are fun, playful experiences! READERS TO EATERS is a Too Small to Fail partner, so we encourage folks to explore their ideas to talk, read, sing and play together as a family too.

By taking part in activities together as a family, children understand the joy they bring and the connection they make. These are memories that will stay with them and empower them to make changes in their lives.

Thank you to Philip for sharing your inspiring insight about the intersection of play, literacy, and activism – perfect timing as we head into Food Literacy Month (September) and Farm to School Month (October).

If you want even more opportunities to connect with whole family health experts like Philip, sign up for the Healthier Generation e-news for exclusive invites to cooking demonstrations, celebrity events, and impactful trainings.

About the Author: Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, where he manages technical assistance services and resources for out-of-school time sites as they work to achieve national standards for healthy eating and physical activity. Daniel oversees community-based and out-of-school partnerships at the Alliance.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics.  In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”