April 19, 2016
About a month ago, I happened upon a horoscope, which read: Your idea of playtime is different now from what is was when you were a child, but it’s no less crucial to your development as a person. In playful acts you will discover yourself and grow.
I don’t typically seek out my horoscope, so when I read that message, it really stuck with me. I had just attended Pints & Play, a new initiative by the Minnesota Children’s Museum to help adults experience first-hand the innovation and creativity that comes from play.
Held at a local brewery, the event featured board games, wooden block castles, and a bunch of adults looking at one another like self-conscious 8th graders at their first mixer. I’ll admit, I felt a bit uncomfortable at first trying to strike up a game with strangers. But as a parent, I tell my kids to introduce themselves and play with kids they don’t know all the time. So why couldn’t I? After a couple of awkward minutes, I found myself immersed in the games and left feeling reinvigorated and determined to add more play into my day.
But I also left thinking, should I? The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes play as follows: “recreational activity especially: spontaneous activity of children.” Children. Adults don’t play, right? I already have a full plate, so why was it so important I make time for play?
I caught up with former colleague, Bob Ingrassia, vice president of external relations with the Minnesota Children’s Museum, who helped create Pints & Play for some answers.
Why is play so important?
The obvious answer is that children learn through play. There are mountains of evidence documenting this. And it’s self-evident: Parents see playful learning every day. Introduce a toy or make up a funny new game and you see your infant or toddler grow new abilities on the spot.
The deeper answers are not as obvious. What exactly do children learn when they play? What kind of play are we talking about?
Most adults can grasp the social development that happens when kids play. When you ask parents why play is important, many will cite social benefits — learning to share, taking turns and getting along with others.
Yes, and there is so much more. The fact is that some of the richest, longest-lasting learning happens through play. We’re talking about critical thinking, creativity, communication, confidence and more. When children play, they evaluate options, try out ideas, make adjustments, respond to input from others and test limits. The list goes on.
All of this happens when we give children the time, space and freedom to explore and experiment. So the museum is huge advocate for what we call “powerful play.” This means the type of play that’s open-ended and child-directed, focused on the doing and the process, not an outcome pre-determined by adults. Think materials, tools and environments, not directions and specific targets.
Another huge point is that the power of play doesn’t fade away as children age. Plenty of us pack our family schedules with homework, lessons, organized sports and other activities. But it’s important to carve out time for experiences where kids aren’t being told what to do and how to do it — to give them time to figure stuff out on their own.
This is the path toward developing children who know how to investigate, evaluate, synthesize and innovate.
Adults tend to lose the notion/desire to play. Do you have tips on how to get it back or add more into your life?
One thing is to remind yourself is that the benefits of play don’t go away as you get older. Push aside the notion that play time is a “nice to have,” an indulgence or merely a way to relax.
Keep in mind that play develops our creativity, makes us better collaborators, elevates our ability to communicate and helps us think. When that truth sinks in, you’ll be more prone to protect and even grow the play time in your life — particularly during busy stretches or times of stress. My understanding is that Fast Horse occasionally has a few of those!
How is the museum elevating play among adults inside and outside of its physical space?
At the museum, we encourage adults to join the fun. We’re expanding our museum in downtown St. Paul (completion in April 2017) and we’re doing even more to get parents and other caregivers involved. First of all, we’re designing spaces that make room for adults. One example is The Scramble, which is a four-story climbing experience with towers, slides and catwalks. We designed the climber with a zig-zag staircase that lets adults get as elevated as the kids. Plus, on a high-netted platform that will challenge nerves, we made space for grown-ups. Throughout the exhibits, we’re going to prompt parents to play. Over the years, visitors often tell us they’re not sure if adults are allowed to play. So we intend to make it clear that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”
Outside the museum, we’re spreading the word that play shouldn’t stop just because you’re not a child anymore. That’s a key message of our Pints & Play series, in which we hosted gatherings at several brewpubs and taprooms around town. During those events, we facilitated activities that showed off the power of play in sparking creativity and critical thinking. (Next events in that series are TBD.) We’ve also created a series of videos called Successful People Play that share stories of artists, civic leaders and others talking about how getting the time and space to play as a child — and maintaining a playful mindset as an adult — fuels their success.
I revisit that horoscope often. I’ll admit I’ve missed adding play into some days, but on those I do, I feel a difference. I’m less stressed, better at addressing challenges, more connected with my family, happier. So now I’m convinced. No matter your age, play.