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Photo: Playful Learning Landscapes

Top Takeaways from Three Sessions of the Finding Joy Through Playful Learning Conference

Because we can’t take our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Read them all and join the conversation! And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.


Contributor Mark Swartz tuned in to three virtual sessions from the recent Finding Joy Through Playful Learning conference sponsored by the Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network (PLLAN). These include:

Part 1: Rethinking Education During- and Post Pandemic

Shelly Kessler, Executive Director at PLLAN, moderated the session featuring presentations from the following panelists:

• Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Temple University and The Brookings Institution
• Scott Miller, Avonworth Primary Care
• Jen Schnakenberg, Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory

Part 2: Community Engagement Programs, Education + Playful Learning

Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at the University of Delaware, welcomed guests and moderated the session featuring the following presenters:

• Ariana Brazier, ATL Parent Like a Boss (ATL Parent Lab)
• Bettye Ferguson, Belmont Alliance Civic Association
• Justin Forzano, Open Field
• Shari Hersh & Gamar Markarian, Mural Arts
• Sarah Siplak, Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative

Part 3: Replicable, Low-Cost Activities + Initiatives That Promote Playful Learning

Brenna Hassinger-Das, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Pace University, moderated the session, which featured the following presenters.

• Rebecca Fabiano, Fab Youth Philly
• Amy Kronberg, Learn to Earn Dayton
• Shannon Merenstein, HATCH Art Studio
• Aishwarya Narayana & Shashwath Ravisundar, HUME


PART 1: Rethinking Education During- and Post-Pandemic

The conference began with a conversation focused on how we are rethinking education during and post-pandemic. Shelly Kessler, executive director at PLLAN, moderated the session featuring presentations from the following panelists:

  • Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Temple University and The Brookings Institution
  • Scott Miller, Avonworth Primary Care
  • Jen Schnakenberg, Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory

Below are our top three takeaways from the introductory conversation.

1. Playful learning represents a promising new educational paradigm. Last May, 95 percent of teachers reported switching to exclusively online education delivery. By September, students were projected to fall behind one-third of a year in reading and two-thirds of a grade in math.

“COVID-19 presents a real opportunity for us to rethink education by applying the science of learning. It’s not just a matter of changing the pedagogy; it’s rethinking what kids need to learn in the 21st century.” — Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Once school settings normalize, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek said, “Children from more advantaged backgrounds may catch up right away and have some social problems to deal with. For children who have had poor quality or no quality remote education, it’s going to be harder.” Even so, she believes that COVID-19 presents a real opportunity for us to rethink education by applying the science of learning. “It’s not just a matter of changing the pedagogy; it’s rethinking what kids need to learn in the 21st century,” she said.

👉 Read more: The Playful Learning Playbook: A New Resource for the Serious Business of Play

2. Online applications can be optimized for engagement. Access to technology has proven essential for the current virtual learning landscape. Dr. Scott Miller’s school district provided all of the nearly 500 students at Avonworth with an iPad to meet the new learning modes. “Our district is aggressive with social media. We do a lot of ‘handle tagging’ both internally and externally,” he explained, referring to the practice of adding @yournamehere on apps such as Seesaw and GoNoodle. “We’ve tried to build in opportunities for song and dance, as well as regular breaks from screen time,” Dr. Miller said. While these virtual solutions can encourage movement with more indoor space, being active outdoors presents great opportunities to learn as well.

3. Grand lessons await in the great outdoors. “People seem to know instinctively that nature and play are things that they need right now,” Jen Schnakenberg said. According to Google mobility reports, park use is up more than 100 percent since March 2020. “It’s striking how the benefits of interacting with nature mirror the benefits of quality play,” Schnakenberg said, noting how both activities invite curiosity and creativity and are immersive and engaging for all senses and learning styles.

With school closures, Schnakenberg’s team responded in two ways, “First, we want to support and inspire families to explore more outdoors in an intentional way. Second, we want to provide teachers with tailored resources, activities and connections.” Examples of these supports are a webpage with resources sorted by interest, personalized virtual classroom visits, seasonal activity guides, citizen science projects and pop-up outdoor enrichment events.

In sum, “If we have well-designed, intentional models, moving forward, children can learn in almost any environment,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said. To learn more about playful learning models to be used in homes, schools and other public spaces alike, visit the PLLAN webpage and download the Playful Learning Playbook.


Part 2: Community Engagement Programs, Education + Playful Learning

Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at the University of Delaware, welcomed guests and moderated the session featuring the following presenters:

Below are our top three takeaways from the conversation.

1. Effective programs affirm existing power in communities. ATL Parent Lab rebukes the notion that Black families and children are working at a deficit when it comes to literacy. “Literacy is about the way we read the world, the environment, bodies, relationships and spaces. It’s about drawing connections. It is not limited to the reading and writing we are taught in classrooms,” Ariana Brazier said.

Their programs, such as #StoryTimeLikeABoss, center Black family voices, experiences and conversations, with research on best practices for educational growth and family engagement. “So much of our experience and exposure to literacy begins in play,” Brazier said, “Play is a necessity for learning and educational outcomes for people of all races, ages and experiences.”

2. Playful learning requires teamwork and collaboration. “Play can mean many different things to many different people,” Sarah Siplak said. Open Field focuses on sport for play and social impact.

This sports-based youth development organization uses soccer to encourage play and learning together. “We capitalize on the inherent values in team sports, like communication, teamwork, discipline and time management,” Justin Forzano said. The league homes in on education and healthy behavior off the field as well by getting the players involved in community service and leadership projects, “The youth are the coaches, the referees and statisticians,” Forzano said.

3. Increased input and intentionality improves outcomes. “When you don’t include the community, people tend to feel left out, as if their opinions don’t matter,” Bettye Ferguson said. “Not including community partners in the creation of your plan often leaves them feeling like they are being planned for.” That is the trap Hersh and Markarian avoid with their “game-play” approach to the design process at Mural Arts.

Formalizing and prioritizing local expertise disrupts conventional oppressive structures of power and elicits a sense of importance and collectivity among community members that are often reserved for conventional decision-makers,” Shari Hersh said.

The game is designed using a physical model of the neighborhood or specific urban area as a board game. “The whole space of the game allows completely different conversations and solutions building that’s not typical of meetings,” Hersh said.

Community members are hired to design and lead the game as well as play and share their input. In a schoolyard design, for example, they implemented the “6 C’s” for development and academic achievement throughout the process. “Not only did the community design a literacy-rich schoolyard, but the process of designing it and playing the game was full of learning,” Gamar Markarian said.

To learn more about playful learning models to be used in homes, schools and other public spaces alike, visit the PLLAN webpage and download the Playful Learning Playbook.


Part 3: Replicable, Low-Cost Activities + Initiatives That Promote Playful Learning

Brenna Hassinger-Das, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Pace University, moderated the session, which featured the following presenters.

Below are our top three takeaways.

1. Iterate on existing programs to improve play. The Play Captain Initiative is coined after Philadelphia’s popular Block Captain program. The idea arose when Rebecca Fabiano noticed the underutilization of Play Streets in the city. Several cities in the U.S. and abroad have implemented Play Streets, with the earliest occurring in New York City during the Great Depression and then resurfacing during the 1970s in New York City and Philadelphia. Play Streets have since spread to other cities, including Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. (Read more about the history of Play Streets here.)

Fab Youth Philly hires teens to activate their Play Streets, and trains them in leadership, child development and facilitation. In an effort to make the play more intentional, they design games and activities with playful learning concepts in mind. “A major focus of our training is teaching the teenagers about the six C’s of playful learning,” Fabiano said.

2. Play and learn using what you already have. Using what is readily available is not an unusual concept in playful learning. “Anything can be anything,” Shannon Merenstein said, crediting the quote to her friend Lisa Zaretsky at playAGAIN. Her team at HATCH Art Studio explores this idea with play and art classes, using open-ended materials like clay, paint, recyclables, loose parts and natural materials that cost very little.

Their focus leans on intentionally designed, minimally structured, open-ended experiences to promote creative and critical thinking through play. “We believe there is so much more to play than meeting academic outcomes,” Merenstein said. “Play is how we learn to be human and how we can see the humanity in others.”

3. Elevate learning using all five senses. “Children explore their surroundings in an embodied way, in a multisensory manner, as well as through social interactions with their peers and caregivers,” Aishwarya Narayana said.

With this in mind, she suggested several exercises that incorporate playful learning at a little to no cost. One was all about the conversation, “Just ask your child to name and identify five things they see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two they can smell and one they can taste,” Narayana explained.

Amy Kronberg added, “During this activity they’re communicating, building narratives and thinking critically. We know those conversational turns have a dramatic effect on children’s long-term academic success and skills. Playful learning experiences don’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as placing a sign with questions on it that make you think, an unexpected picture in an unexpected place that makes you wonder.”

To learn more about playful learning models to be used in homes, schools and other public spaces alike, visit the PLLAN webpage and download the Playful Learning Playbook.

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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