Conference boosts benefits of play
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.”
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.