For many of us, the opportunity to play—to improvise and imagine, to do something for its sheer enjoyment rather than any practical purpose— may come as the exceptional moment in the day. But Stephanie Perler Garst, executive director of the US Play Coalition, would like to see play become “more of a given in our daily lives,” a right that “is valued and available to all.”
Since 2014, Garst has led the US Play Coalition, an international network of play researchers, educators, park and recreation professionals, health scientists, architects, landscape architects, designers, physicians, psychologists, and parents, who share a common interest in promoting play and the powerful role it can have in our lives. Through an annual conference, regional educational events, grants, publications, and the coordinated efforts of a cross-disciplinary research team at Clemson University, the US Play Coalition is helping to raise the banner for play and educate and train professionals across disciplines.
We spoke to Garst about her guiding leadership of the organization, the growing chorus of support behind play, and what lies ahead for the international coalition.
How did you get involved with the US Play Coalition?
My family relocated to Clemson, South Carolina in 2014, just as the US Play Coalition started a new executive director search. It was serendipitous, really. I have been working in nonprofits for over 20 years in a variety of capacities. And, more importantly, I have been engaged in play as a means of teaching, learning and just plain old stress relief for many years as an informal educator in museum, camp and academic settings.
Do you have a personal connection to the role?
As a mother of two, I can tell you that play is often survival in my world. In seeing their daily need for physical activity and unstructured time, I became acutely aware of how essential play is for them. Furthermore, it forced me to look at my own need to unplug and go play for my personal well-being. I am honored to be part of an organization that strives to make play an integral part of people’s lives.
I truly believe that play is a universal language. I have seen it with my children— finding ways to play with kids who literally did not speak their language. And it only took a matter of minutes.
Your organization recently published a position paper, titled, “A Research-Based Case for Recess.” It’s an update of a widely circulated 2013 publication. What has changed about attitudes toward recess since then?
From state to state, a lot has happened, with new research and a positive trend toward increased recess and physical activity time during school. Of course, there’s still room for progress. In some states and districts, recess and physical education are lumped together. We want to make sure they are distinct and available in every school. But, generally, what we’re seeing are positive trends. Just a few weeks ago in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, the School Board voted unanimously in support of breaks for middle and high school children. Now older students have time to disengage from the rigors of the academic day to reap the benefits of unstructured free play.
I would never suggest that these changes were only due to the US Play Coalition. In five years since I joined the organization, play has become something of a buzzword. With more people overworked and overstressed, even large companies like Google and Apple are encouraging play to promote creativity and collaboration and develop loyal employees. Much of this success is a result of play becoming more accepted and expected.
What other issues surrounding play are drawing the attention of the US Play Coalition?
The other issue that has taken center stage is social justice. Our 2018 conference keynote panel addressed the impact of race on play for children of color; it was an incredibly powerful presentation, showcasing the work of researchers across four institutions. We continued the discussion of race and play this year at our 10th Annual Conference on the Value of Play and then again at a regional event in Ithaca, New York. We often talk about play as it relates to health or to developing 21st century skills, but tapping into social justice issues —access, equity, inclusion, and safety—has been most relevant to our attendees.
How do you work to promote your mission?
Our biggest event each year is the annual Conference on the Value of Play. This annual conference brings together attendees from across the globe. Our 10th Anniversary Conference on the Value of Play in 2019 included incredible headliners like Stuart Brown, MD and Peter Gray, PhD – play pioneers sharing the stage for the first time to tackle the theme of “Play for Life.” Our 2019 registered attendees hailed from 38 US states, six countries and four continents.
We are now gearing up for the 2020 Conference on the Value of Play: PLAY FOR ALL, March 29-April 1, 2020. “Play for All” will explore play across the lifespan and address universal issues of access, equity, inclusion, and health. After a very exciting 10th anniversary conference, we continue to be very intentional about shifting our focus to doing more about play. What you can expect are intentional tracks based on subject areas, such as a full-day early childhood education institute. We are accepting conference presentations through October.
What else does the US Play Coalition do?
Beyond the annual Play Conference, the US Play Coalition promotes the value of play through our grants and publications.
We are proud to have awarded almost $60,000 in grants to date. Through competitive funding opportunities, we offer both Action and Research Grants to playmakers and researchers whose work has the potential to improve and expand the Play Movement.
We are also targeting research on play as it affects a person’s lifelong cognitive, physical, and affective development. We have published three position papers, which are available as free downloads on our website:
• “A Research-Based Case for Recess” (2019)
• “Improving Children’s Health through Play: Exploring Issues and Recommendations” (2018)
• “The Critical Place of Play in Education” (2015)
What challenges lie ahead in your effort to advocate for play?
We recognize the perpetual challenge of proving the value to play – that it is not frivolous! Play influences physical development, social development, mental health, well-being, emotional development, and intelligence for ages. We aim to share this message through our educational events and publications, but we need more play champions to amplify the message.
Our newest initiative at the US Play Coalition is broadening our investigation of these issues through a play research team at Clemson University. We have brought together a cross-section of faculty to approach play research from a variety of disciplines. For example, our play research team includes faculty from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and the School of Education, as well as faculty from fields of medicine, architecture, engineering, computer engineering. There is a world of possibility for new research and initiatives around play.