Con­fer­ence boosts ben­e­fits of play

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - VALERIE FORTNEY vfort­ney@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/val­fort­ney

When Matt Le­ung woke up Fri­day morn­ing and saw the tem­per­a­ture hov­er­ing just above zero, he de­cided the sit­u­a­tion called for ear­muffs.

Not the store-bought kind, though. His are fash­ioned out of colour­ful crepe pa­per, his own com­bi­na­tion of party hat and fall ac­ces­sory.

“I rarely miss the chance to have a lit­tle fun,” says the 25-year-old Cal­gar­ian, who works for a lo­cal char­i­ta­ble non­profit called Vivo for Health­ier Gen­er­a­tions (vivo.ca), which helps kids and their fam­i­lies thrive by pro­vid­ing them with a va­ri­ety of pro­grams, many of them cen­tred on play.

While he may look ready for a party, the Univer­sity of Cal­gary busi­ness grad is very se­ri­ous when it comes to his play­ful vo­ca­tion.

“It’s great to be here to learn about all the ini­tia­tives around the world,” says Le­ung, one of the del­e­gates at the In­terna- tional Play As­so­ci­a­tion’s tri­en­nial con­fer­ence (canada2017. ipa­world.org), which is tak­ing place in Cal­gary for the first time in the as­so­ci­a­tion’s 56-year his­tory. “We can find out how to do things bet­ter for kids.”

Over the course of the week, more than 450 del­e­gates from around the world gath­ered at the Telus Con­ven­tion Cen­tre to hear pre­sen­ta­tions on such var­ied sub­jects as the im­por­tance of play in nur­tur­ing so­cial and emo­tional well-be­ing and how the de­sign of ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments help or hin­der chil­dren’s nat­u­ral drive to sim­ply go out­side and play.

As any self-re­spect­ing play con­fer­ence would, the pro­gram notes that in­stead of morn­ing breaks, par­tic­i­pants have “play breaks”; dur­ing the lunch hours, a va­ri­ety of play-ori­ented ac­tiv­i­ties are sched­uled, in­clud­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon, where more than 150 gather at Olympic Plaza for a “large loose parts” play event.

Ac­cord­ing to Theresa Casey, pres­i­dent of the IPA, her as­so­ci­a­tion be­gan its life in 1961 in Den­mark, as the In­ter­na­tional Play­ground As­so­ci­a­tion. “They were pi­o­neers,” she says of Den­mark.

“Chil­dren can’t flour­ish with­out play and it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity as adults to cre­ate en­vi­ron­ments where that’s pos­si­ble.”

Her com­ments echo the grow­ing moun­tain of re­search point­ing to the ne­ces­sity of un­struc­tured, self-di­rected play for chil­dren’s so­cial, men­tal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional de­vel­op­ment.

For those work­ing on the front lines, some of the big­gest con­cerns these days fo­cus on re­stric­tions cre­ated by both un­wel­com­ing ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments and an in­tense ap­proach to safety, as well as the im­pact technology has had on chil­dren’s ac­tiv­ity lev­els.

“It’s a dou­ble-edged sword,” Casey says of de­vices such as smart­phones. “On the one hand, chil­dren can spend too much time sit­ting and star­ing at screens,” she says, not­ing technology isn’t go­ing away, so we need to fig­ure out ways to make them help pro­mote play. “Those de­vices can also get them out­side do­ing things and they can give par­ents some as­sur­ance they help the kids stay safe.”

Pierre Har­ri­son, pres­i­dent of IPA Canada, says hav­ing the con­fer­ence in Canada this year is an op­por­tu­nity to “build mo­men­tum across the coun­try for play.”

Along with the packed pro­gram and play events through­out the week, on Fri­day Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi and of­fi­cials from sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions sign a Cal­gary Play char­ter at city hall.

“We’re go­ing to com­mit to do­ing three things this year for play,” says Heather Cowie, the City of Cal­gary’s recre­ation man­ager. She points to the city’s mo­bile ad­ven­ture play­ground, which this past sum­mer saw the par­tic­i­pa­tion of 4,000 kids, as just one type of ini­tia­tive that can fur­ther that com­mit­ment.

For the del­e­gates, they’re en­joy­ing the play­ful­ness of the host city.

Bambi Yost, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture at Iowa State Univer­sity who ear­lier Fri­day morn­ing gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on risk-tak­ing in chil­dren’s play, says she and other del­e­gates have re­ceived a warm wel­come.

“It’s been great to see how the play events get peo­ple down­town in­volved,” says Yost, who hopes to take in more sights and restau­rants be­fore the con­fer­ence wraps up Satur­day. “Cal­gary is fun.”

JIM WELLS

Heather Cowie, left, the city’s recre­ation man­ager, joins kids at Olympic Plaza Fri­day, as they build a shel­ter from the el­e­ments with items pro­vided. “We’re go­ing to com­mit to do­ing three things this year for play,” she says.

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