Philadelphia Declaration of Play hosts conference

Two-year-old Michael Affuso has fun at a Narberth playground. He was there with his mother, Lisa Affuso, of Ardmore. A three-day conference is this weekend.
Two-year-old Michael Affuso has fun at a Narberth playground. He was there with his mother, Lisa Affuso, of Ardmore. A three-day conference is this weekend. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 21, 2013

Michael Affuso is a 2-year-old on a mission.

He looks over a sand-digger contraption at a Narberth playground, trying to figure out how the apparatus works.

His father helped him with it a few days ago, but this is the big leagues for the little guy - doing it himself. He furrows his barely formed brow and heaves and pulls on the controls. Michael makes all the right moves, but the handlebars are just too heavy, and Mom has to come to the rescue.

Frustrating for Michael? Probably. But in those few minutes when he was on his own, in the view of local experts, Michael was learning in the best possible way - through "free play."

The Philadelphia Declaration of Play, a group started by two Main Line clinical psychologists, is holding a conference this weekend to promote the benefits of unstructured play for children.

The conference begins Friday night with participating adults (this isn't a kids' event) gathering at the Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, in Philadelphia's East Fairmount Park, to reacquaint themselves with the fun of playing, and to record memories of how they played in their childhoods. Saturday workshops will be at Bryn Mawr College, with a Sunday presentation back at the Smith Playground.

The speakers include well-known local and international experts who know about topics like "adventure playgrounds," built by children out of whatever objects are available.

Marjorie Bosk and Laurel Silber started the group about three years ago, when they and other professionals became concerned about problems they were seeing in many of their child patients.

"There's been an incredible increase in all stress-related childhood and adult disorders - anxiety, regulation of attention, depression, obesity," Bosk said. "A lot of the children have lost their spark, their enthusiasm, their sparkle."

Said Silber: "We were all beginning to see the decline of play in children's lives."

Like the nation's founders, the first members of the group wrote a declaration. Unlike the founders, they ask adults to sign it online.

The wording might look familiar: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the restrictions on play. . . ."

Silber, Bosk, and others contend that among other things, passive entertainment and an achieve-early-and-often culture are hurting children.

Play has been a constant, said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor in Temple University's department of psychology, where she is also the director of and researcher for the Infant Language Laboratory.

"It occurs across species. It occurs in every single country we've looked at and in every single time period we've looked at."

Today, she said, many children's lives and ways of playing are highly regulated. They participate in organized sports and take classes galore. They sit passively in front of a television or spend hours playing computer games.

Hirsh-Pasek doesn't want to eliminate those screens. She just wants kids to be able to play without them once in a while.

"In free play, you are the driver of your own destination," said Hirsh-Pasek, who will speak at the conference Saturday at Bryn Mawr. "Ingenuity and creativity and flexibility and adaptability require that you go beyond what you know how to do and can adapt to what might be."

Those skills, along with gross motor and socialization skills, are polished most when children build a fort out of sheets and chairs in their living room, or go outside to play pretend, watch a butterfly take flight, or create a game with a ball along with rules for it.

"Great creativity comes from these things."

At the Narberth playground Thursday afternoon, creativity and learning were enjoying a romp in the sun.

Two-year-old Georgia Smith is running with great purpose (purpose that only children can understand) on some nearby grass. A boy is creating a river channel in the dirt by pushing a plastic boat through it.

George Lief, 4, sits in a yellow, saucerlike merry-go-round. Besides getting spun around, he likes building sand castles at the playground, he said, especially if the sand castles look like trains, because he really, really likes trains.

A dispute over a toy breaks out when Alexa Lopez, 23 months, tries to take a ball that another girl picked up after Alexa had abandoned it. Alexa's mother, Mara Lopez, tells her daughter it's the other girl's turn to play with it.

The lesson being taught?

"Hopefully, sharing," the mother said before looking to see where her child has gone.

Out, from behind a slide, emerged Alexa. With the ball.


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

For more information on the workshop, go online to http://www.declarationofplay.org.

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