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Robin Stevens Payes
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The Ultimate Block Party

Ultimate Block Party!

How 75,000 children and adults came together to play—and learn why play is so important

Imagine a great outdoor party with a smorgasbord of activities and games, where guests—both kids and adults—were encouraged to dive into 500,000 green Lego blocks and build whatever they dreamed of inventing; where mountains of empty moving boxes could be turned into a castle or climbing gym and decorated with murals; and where experts manned computer stations with advice for anyone who wanted to design her own videogame. In the center was a stage where beloved television characters lead a sing-along with the crowd. Unusual clowns dressed in fantastic outfits and red noses roamed on stilts shaking hands, sharing stories, and fascinating little kids.

Can you see it? This was the setting of the inaugural Ultimate Block Party (UPB) in New York City’s Central Park in October, 2010, along with the laughter and shouts of thousands of children and their caregivers—75,000 people in all—crowding out all the green spaces, and all to learn (or relearn!) why play is an essential ingredient in childhood.

Though it seems intuitive, research is beginning to uncover the multitude of ways children learn by playing. Over the past two decades, scientists have been finding that play encourages attentional focus, creativity, communication, problem solving and collaboration. In fact, play is how young brains learn. But the pressures of school achievement and a steady decrease in time spent in free and structured play in recent years, have meant that play has taken a backseat to other activities.

UBP was designed to show the benefits of and need for more play-based learning by having the evidence visible through hands-on fun activities, wrapped in a nugget of scientific discovery. Lead organizers Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Golinkoff, Susan Magsamen and Andy Ackerman and a team of distinguished scientific researchers and educational advisors realized that proof that play works would require a dramatic “play demonstration” where parents and children could find plenty of ways to play—together and independently.

“Play is about discovery, creativity and experimenting with toys, books, stories and ideas. We saw children as young as 2 and 3 in Central Park immersed in that process—whether it was listening to stories in English and Spanish, decorating a giant brain or creating playgrounds out of foam-like tubes,” said Susan Magsamen, president of the Ultimate Block Party. “Children were learning about language, construction, story structure, and interacting with other children, parents and teachers at the same time—all those things we call learning.”

To help parents and educators understand the link between play and learning, the Ultimate Block Party “Play Book” was created to guide parents and children through activities and to take home as a treasured resource. In New York’s largest game of Simon Says, participants practiced self-control, which researchers have linked to success in school. At Let’s Play Café, a giant make-believe restaurant, children were rehearsing real-life experiences, practicing creativity and sharing, and gaining skills in math. White-coated “Play Doctors” who study the connections between play and learning helped explain the science for adults.

According to Temple University professor Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and University of Delaware professor Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, co-authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, the current school climate which emphasizes test preparation is taking the joy out of learning. And yet, the researchers tell us, play is how children explore their world, create possibilities, socialize and learn empathy.

The Central Park event was only the beginning. Toronto held their own block party in June, 2011, and Baltimore celebrated on October 2, 2011. A host of other cities are planning events as well, with distinctive local flavor.

“We have to make sure everyone involved in raising children understands that play is fundamental to learning,” said Magsamen. “To raise healthy, well adjusted children who want to learn, every day is a day to play.”

LEarn More:

“Can We Play?”

Related Reading:

“Why Play = Learning,” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development

“Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum,” New York Times

“School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” journal article in Pediatrics