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.”


Nature and Health –
Integrating PLAY into Wellness

Summer Blog Series
PLAY for Healthier Communities #2

“Nature and Health – Integrating PLAY into Wellness: Tips from a Registered Dietician and PE Teacher”

Who better to share tips on how play can promote student achievement and well-being than a former physical education (PE) teacher and a Registered Dietician (RD). Today, I’m excited to share ideas from two of my teammates, Courtney Hensch and Seth Shelby leading Healthier Generation’s school health work in South Carolina.

Daniel: My first question is for both of you, tell me a little about yourself and how play relates to your work in South Carolina.

Courtney: I live in Charleston and am an RD and a Clemson alum (go Tigers!). I have been working with schools and districts throughout South Carolina for about three and a half years to establish and sustain wellness policies and practices for their students, staff, and families.

Our work at Healthier Generation is all about helping schools create more opportunities for students to be exposed to nutrition and physical activity, so play naturally fits into our work! Comprehensive school wellness can be challenging, so adding play into wellness initiatives makes it more fun and keeps folks engaged. Because play strengthens cognitive function, helps with social and emotional development, and builds confidence, it’s an essential ingredient for developing strong educators.

Seth: Before working for Healthier Generation, I was a PE teacher in South Carolina public schools. Most of my teaching incorporated active play so students could strengthen their movement skills naturally through a designed activity. As a teacher, I loved participating in the games and demonstrating my love for activity with my students. I felt so fortunate to be in a profession that actively promoted me to play and encourage others to play. I would come home every day with nearly 20,000 steps and a big smile on my face. As I moved into my current position with Healthier Generation, I have had to reorganize how I approach the workday to include times for active play. I set aside time every hour to get some type of activity in, which might include walking the dogs, having a dance party, shooting some hoops, doing some disc golf putts, or playing with my son. These activity breaks are important for my brain to stay focused on what I am trying to accomplish for the day.

Seth playing disc golf as a family

Daniel: My second question is for Seth. As a father of a young child, why is play important to you and your family?

Seth: Playing is so incredibly important for my family. Since my son could walk, we have been on the go as a family. We live within a 1-mile radius of two city parks, and we take advantage of those resources every single day if the weather is nice. We play on the playgrounds, walk the trails looking for bugs and birds, play disc golf (he has quite the forehand), and go swimming and fishing in the river. My son doesn’t know another way of living other than being active. It is that exposure that will hopefully translate into a lifelong love of being active. As a dad, it is a great way for him to get energy out, but more importantly, it is a great way of bonding with him through play. I often find it is during our playtime we often have the most honest conversations; especially when he is learning something new and becomes frustrated. Allowing him space to fail at something while also being supportive and helping him work through those emotions positively is transformative for me as a dad.

Daniel: Courtney, the next question is for you. When we think of play, we typically think of physical activity. As an RD, how can play encourage healthy eating at home?

Courtney: There are so many ways to encourage playful learning in the kitchen. Here’s a quick checklist of ideas that families can try together.

  • Gardening: research shows that when kids help grow fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat more produce. Play in the garden teaches new skills, builds responsibility, independence, and self-esteem.
  • Cooking: if young children are involved in cooking, they are more likely to try new foods. I always have so much fun playing in the kitchen with my two-and-a-half-year-old niece. She loves making salad or mixing up eggs for breakfast. While she is playing it the kitchen, she develops curiosity, fine motor skills, and even math literacy while counting.
  • Games: make a game out of trying something new by closing your eyes and guessing the fruit or vegetable you’re tasting! My family likes to play “The High-Low Game” where we go around the table, and everyone shares their “high” (the best part of the day) and their “low” (the worst part of the day) – it always results in meaningful conversation.
Courtney playing with her niece

Daniel: Last question for both of you. As part of your work with Blue Cross Blue Shield Diabetes Free South Carolina, you provide training to educators. How do you bring play into these adult learning experiences?

Courtney: Often when we think of play our mind automatically goes to a child, but it is important to realize that play is for all ages! I always try to incorporate play into my workshops to show how simple it is to incorporate play into a classroom setting. It is rewarding to get educators moving and having fun while they are learning. I recently led a training for principals and had them play “Simon Says” during a break; by the end, we were all laughing, our moods were boosted, and everyone was engaged.

Seth: Some of the cornerstones of the framework we use to guide our work revolves around physical activity and physical education – a field of work that I have specialized in for almost 6 years. I couldn’t imagine guiding adults through our framework of best practices without incorporating play and activity. Just as it was in my physical education days, learning through play is such a powerful way to deliver content. As I move into developing workshops and events for the districts involved with Diabetes Free SC, I am exploring more dynamic ways to communicate and deliver information and opportunities. For example, I plan to work with PE professionals within the districts to record fitness challenges that can be done at home or after school for students, staff, and families.

Thank you to Courtney and Seth for sharing their experience and tips on how to integrate play into wellness initiatives. To learn more about Healthier Generation’s work in South Carolina, sign up for the Healthier Generation e-news or reach out to Courtney and Seth via LinkedIn.


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.”


Nature Play and Health: Tips for Parents from a Science Educator

Summer Blog Series
PLAY for Healthier Communities #1

“Nature Play and Health: Tips for Parents from a Science Educator”

Last month in celebration of Park and Recreation Month, I had the honor of playing a virtual game of Kohl’s Healthy at Home Nature BINGO with my friend Pascale at GreatSchools.org and her 5-year-old daughter, Kamila. We discussed how healthy habits, like playing more outside, are also a great way to feel connected to each other and our amazing planet. In this article, I am excited to dive deeper into these linkages through a conversation I recently had with Samantha Wynns, a Science Educator at Cabrillo National Monument and If/Then Ambassador.

Daniel: Why is being a good steward of the environment important for our physical and mental health?

Sam: A healthy environment also supports our mental health. There is an abundance of scientific research demonstrating that getting outside lowers stress hormones, increases healthy hormones (like oxytocin), and decreases anxiety and depression. If we are to reap the mental health benefits of playful learning in nature, we need natural spaces to immerse ourselves in. This means we must first preserve and protect the environment around us.

What happens to one species happens to all and this includes humans! Here’s an example; honeybees have been experiencing something called Colony Collapse Disorder, which means their colonies have been failing and the bees have been dying off at a massive rate. Why does this matter? Because pollinators give us much of our food! At least 35% (a conservative estimate) of our crops require pollinators to produce nutritious foods like almonds, apples, berries, and tomatoes. Protecting pollinators by preserving native habitat and being mindful of pesticide use enhances food security for humans.

Daniel: As an educator at Cabrillo, how have you seen playful experiences in nature encourage children to care about themselves, each other, and the planet?

Sam: When we provide playful experiences in nature, we invite children to connect with the world around them. Without these opportunities, we see disconnections that result in bullying – a serious challenge faced by many youth, especially those in the LGBTQ community. It’s easy to bully an image on a screen or a social media handle that doesn’t seem connected to a real human on the other end. When you get children out into the beauty of nature and give them room to be curious and explore linkages on their own, it fosters a sense of connection on all levels.

I like to utilize a simple activity called, I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of… Ask your child to pause and make an observation, then notice, wonder and draw connections. For example, they might notice a plant’s strong scent, wonder why it has that scent and make linkages. Perhaps it reminds them of something in their own community garden or a flower at their grandparents’ house.

Building those connections helps children see how everything (and everyone) has a place and how everything is interrelated. These mindful experiences spark the thought that actions matter and that children themselves are an important part of caring for the cool place they’re exploring.

Daniel: What tips do you have for parents to help children feel connected to nature?

Sam: Oftentimes, all you must do is provide an opportunity for kids, and they will do the rest. Take them to outdoor spaces, when possible, and give them the freedom to notice, wonder and explore. Point out interesting things that you’re observing and ask them to expand on that. Outdoor spaces do not have to be distant mountain peaks, they can be your yard, neighborhood park, community garden, or local waterway.

There are many ways to feel connected to nature even when you don’t have access to it, like looking out the window and observing birds in a tree, finding a trail of ants or spiders indoors, or even growing your own windowsill plants. A couple of tools to help you slow down, be mindful and draw connections include nature journaling and apps like iNaturalist to identify plants and insects.

Daniel: Who can help families connect with nature?

Sam: Look for city, county, state, and national parks in your area; those parks will have websites that have information about special events or programs like hikes, outdoor field trips, bioblitzes (community science projects that are all about nature exploration), summer camps (some of them are free), and even volunteer opportunities! There are also many non-profits that can help you get connected. For example, we have one here in San Diego called Outdoor Outreach which connects underrepresented youth to nature through hikes and community events. I recommend Googling “youth nature non-profits + the name of your city” to find resources. Many cities also have a local foundation with a newsletter that you can join that will provide this information. I always recommend signing up for your local school district’s newsletter too!

Another method for finding folks to help facilitate nature connections is by finding a champion in your community. Maybe you know someone who volunteers in your community garden or a friend who hikes. Ask them where to start. People love to share their passion and would be more than happy to help.

And don’t forget! If you’re in the San Diego area, please get involved with me and my nature-loving team at Cabrillo National Monument! You can find information about our various projects on our website.

Daniel: Last question, is there anything else you would like to share with folks who read this article?

Sam: I just want to encourage folks with the statement: There is a place for you in nature. Depending on your lived experience, nature can often be interpreted as distant and, therefore, unattainable. But as I like to say, nature is really all around you – you just have to pause and observe. So even if you’ve never really thought of yourself as a “nature-person” before, I hope you give it a try. Just take the leap and get outside with your community, your family, or your friends – your body and mind will thank you for it!

Thank you to Sam for sharing your experience and tips! Ready for even more simple ideas to encourage playful fun in nature? Sign up for the Healthier Generation e-news.


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.”


You’re Never Too Old
to Play at the Library

Summer Blog Series – Libraries & PLAY #3

“You’re Never Too Old to Play at the Library”

Since 2008, Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit focused on creative aging, has worked with dozens of public libraries across the country to bring playful arts to older adults.

The Public Libraries Initiative works as follows:

“Led by professional teaching artists, libraries implement skill-building workshop series which foster mastery and promote meaningful social engagement through free programs in all arts disciplines. At each library, culminating events celebrate the achievements of every [older adult] participant.”

The reason Lifetime Arts gravitated to public libraries is because of libraries’ incredible reach. On May 5, 2021, the Wyoming State Library announced that it would be working with Lifetime Arts and the Wyoming Arts Council to develop “participatory, sequential, socially-engaging and professionally run arts programs” in 15 libraries across the state.

You can see more examples of creative aging in America’s public libraries in the reporting of PBS, which covers “How Library Classes in the Arts Are Changing Aging.

Libraries are Social Infrastructure

In small towns and urban neighborhoods, the public library is uniquely placed to support playful aging.

Some small-town public librarians call themselves “de facto senior centers” given the absence of any comparable infrastructure in these places.

Even in urban communities, public libraries are uniquely placed to support play among older adults. Brooklyn, New York’s Alice Baker, 74 years old,  told NPR’s All Things Considered that what appeals to her about public libraries is that she can attend activities for people her own age in a place that welcomes people of every age:

“They have exercise, they have classes for kids. It brings everybody in,” says Baker. “You can bring your family with you.”

Dancing the tango at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Sunset Park Branch as part of a Lifetime Arts’ Creative Aging Program ca. 2015. Image courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.

 

Baker was being interviewed as part of an NPR story entitled “Xbox Bowling For Seniors? Visit Your Local Library.

The idea of bowling at the library also captivated the attention of Columbia University Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who in Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life focuses on the critical importance of older adults playing together at the library.

On June 7, 2019, he tweeted a video showing the members of Brooklyn Public Library’s Library Lanes in action. Check it out to see the power of public libraries as a playful social infrastructure for older adults!

In his review of Palaces for the People, former presidential candidate and current secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg focuses on the importance of playful aging in public libraries:

“The new book’s exploration of this reality begins in the basement of a library in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, where an Xbox-based bowling competition pits local seniors against rival teams from a dozen library branches across the borough. The example of a virtual bowling league has particular poetic resonance two decades after Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, raised fears of societal collapse in his study “Bowling Alone.” Where Putnam charted the decline of American communal participation through shrinking bowling league membership, Klinenberg’s basement of virtual bowlers illustrates how technology might actually enhance our social fabric — provided there are supportive spaces. Given what we have learned about the health impacts of social isolation among the elderly, lives may depend on creating more such opportunities.”

This vision of the technology-rich public library supporting place-based play among America’s aging population is remarkably optimistic.

Library Lanes Xbox Bowling at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library in 2014. Image courtesy Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library.

 

How can you get involved?

Not every community has a Library Lanes program, but almost every community has a public library. If you want to bring playful aging to your public library, start with a conversation. I’ve written five steps anyone can take to do more by “Partnering with public libraries.” Use that to get started.

You may also want to check out the American Library Association’s compilation of best practices for public librarians serving older adults. You’ll see Lifetime Art’s Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries prominently featured, which suggests how widespread the ideas in this blog post have become.

Nevertheless, public librarians need your help. Librarians need people in arts councils, parks & recreation, and elsewhere, to work with them to complement what they may be able to offer by themselves. So reach out, start a conversation, and form a partnership, because you’re never too old to play at the library, and you’re never too old to start a conversation with your local librarians.


About the Author: Noah Lenstra, PhD, is Director of Let’s Move in Libraries and assistant professor of Library & Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Learn more about Noah at noahlenstra.com and follow him on Twitter at @NoahLenstra

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.”