Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Whys & Hows of “Where Do the Children Play?”

Carly Loeper (exhibit & program developer), Cathy Saunders (director of education) and I (Megan Fischer, marketing & public relations manager) just got back from St. Paul, Minnesota, from the Association of Children’s Museums’ (ACM) annual conference. We always look forward to this opportunity to be with our fun and creative colleagues, hear what they’re up to at their museums, and just be inspired by lots of new ideas and great conversations. We know we’ll leave with our heads buzzing with thoughts and visions, eager to get back home to share with the rest of the staff and put our new ideas in to play.

On Thursday, Carly and I were excited to present about the work we’ve done to raise awareness of the critical importance of children’s unstructured play in our community. We talked about the creation of our Play Power exhibit and the outreach efforts we’ve taken on, including community screenings and discussions of the documentary “Where Do the Children Play?,” which explores why children’s opportunities for unstructured play are increasingly limited, especially outdoors.

And Friday, during a “Nature, Nurture and Play” salon, Dr. Gil Leaf (husband of Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough, originator and outreach coordinator of “Where Do the Children Play?”) shared a 7-minute clip of the documentary. It was fun for us to see the film we know so well (well enough to quote extensively, in fact!) in this context. He spoke about how children’s museums can “become the locus in your community of getting the dialogue going” about the need for play and used US as an example for using the film for community organizing and to inspire conversation about play.

So because of that, I thought we should share a quick overview of why and how we’ve used the film to involve the community in advocating for children's free play:

The Decision
A few years ago, we took a newly directed approach to play, deciding to be much more deliberate about why children’s self-directed play is important, especially with our message to parents and caregivers. In addition to our new play exhibit and play-focused public programs, we also felt it was absolutely necessary to advocate beyond the Museum’s walls. We first screened “Where Do the Children Play?” for our staff and immediately saw that it was provocative, would inspire conversation, and decided it was an ideal tool to convey our message. We also knew it was important to screen the film with community partners to reach a broader audience than we would just at the Museum, to ensure that this movement was shared.
The Screenings
We began showing “Where Do the Children Play?” in winter 2009 and have since hosted eight community screenings and discussions with partners including schools, libraries, PTAs and other community groups – our ninth is coming up next week! Each time we’ve followed the hour-long film with an audience conversation, moderated by Museum director Janice O’Donnell and panelists that we call conversation “instigators” because it’s their job to spark the discussion and keep it going. We’ve had a wide range of panelists – educators from preschool through college, pediatricians, developmental psychologists, children’s policy advocates, urban planners, and environmentalists. Panelists have looked at the issues affecting children’s play from many different angles and have drawn audiences of parents, teachers, after-school program providers, parks and recreation and planning personnel, and other community members into incredibly lively, thought-provoking discussions about the importance of giving kids more opportunities for free play and outdoor play during the school day and in out-of-school-time activities.

The Follow Up
Each screening has been so different, powerful, inspiring that we’ve had to share the highlights on our blog to make the conversation more visible and keep it going:
Temple Beth-El, Providence (March 2010)
St. Michael's Country Day School, Newport (January 2010)
Pennfield School, Portsmouth (October 2009)
Audubon Environmental Education Center, Bristol (June 2009)
Highlander Charter School, Providence (May 2009)
Lincoln School, Providence (February 2009)

From these discussions, it was apparent that many people are concerned about the lack of time and space for children's play – and that they were eager to keep talking. We wanted to find a way to continue the rich conversations electronically, to continue to connect people and grow the dialogue, and we launched a community discussion listserv called “PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children’s Play” last summer. The listserv now has more than 330 members and has fostered an active, enthusiastic exchange of ideas about a variety of topics. We’ve passed the tipping point in our community’s awareness of the importance of play and the conversation is growing!

Please contact me at fischer@childrenmuseum.org or (401) 273-5437 ext. 126 if you’d like to know more about our use of “Where Do the Children Play?” and our other play outreach and advocacy efforts.

And stay tuned for another conference-inspired post!

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