state of state of play play the

state of play
in Chicago’s communities
The mission of Chicago Children’s Museum is to create
a community where play and learning connect. CCM
is the only cultural institution in the city dedicated to
young children and the important adults in their lives.
Fifteen permanent exhibits and programming spaces
provide innovative learning experiences for children
and their caregivers. CCM invests significant resources
in neighborhoods across Chicago, particularly those with
limited access to the museum’s rich learning opportunities.
Play is essential to childhood and is a core tenet of Chicago
Children’s Museum’s (CCM) mission. A significant body of
research demonstrates that play enhances every domain of a
child’s development. It is the natural, age-appropriate way
for children to explore, create, discover and learn.
Because play is central to CCM’s practice, and because the
museum works to respond directly to the needs defined by
its community, CCM developed the Chicago Communities
at Play Initiative. Aimed at better understanding parent and
educator beliefs about the role of play and the issues that
hinder or support it, the Initiative gathered adults from across
Chicago to identify those issues, share knowledge about the
value of play, and develop strategies for supporting play in
their homes, schools, and communities.
Play is the natural, age-appropriate
way for children to explore, create,
discover and learn.
about the initiative
Chicago Children’s Museum spent eight months researching
the state of play in Chicago, and facilitating communitybased workshops on play and its connection to learning.
CCM worked with parents, classroom teachers, childcare
providers, youth and social service educators, family
advocates, and community organizers from diverse
neighborhoods, backgrounds, economic levels, races,
and ethnicities. Despite differences, participants were
united in their attitudes about the importance of play.
An online survey was designed to gather baseline information
about play and local issues hindering children’s opportunities
for play. While nearly all respondents recognized value in
play, more than half also noted barriers. Among the most
commonly cited by educators was the absence of recess for
their students, while parents reported a lack of time and
available space, as well as concerns about violence and safety.
In addition, the museum conducted 20 community-based
workshops, consisting of week-long residencies in four
Chicago neighborhoods: Englewood, Humboldt Park,
Pilsen, and Rogers Park. Five workshops were offered in
each neighborhood—two for educators, two for parents,
and one for Chicago Park District staff. Each workshop
included group dialogue and hands-on activities.
From the Chicago Communities at Play Initiative emerged
common understandings and beliefs about the importance
of play, as well as a number of real and perceived barriers to
play. This report highlights these findings and, in response,
proposes action steps for making play more widely accessible.
While nearly all respondents
recognized value in play, more
than half also noted barriers.
“Play is many different things. It is not always physical, loud, or boisterous. But it is the
process of figuring out how to be in the world.” —Kenna, a parent and museum educator
importance of play
value of play
Participants universally agreed that play is valuable to
children’s healthy development. “Kids learn through play,”
said one Rogers Park parent. “Play provides a pleasurable
way for a person to revisit learned knowledge, practice
skills being acquired, extend learning, build relationships
with others and their environments, and to have the sense
of self-direction and capability,” stated a childcare provider
from Chicago’s West Side. Many participants recognized
that play is the means by which children make sense
of their world—that they build understanding through
active participation. “All children can learn through play,”
commented an early childhood educator. “It is universal.”
the opportunity to build socialization skills,” noted another
educator. “It helps brain development, fosters imagination,
and helps language development,” noted a Woodlawn
classroom teacher. “Love, laughter, happiness, and security
can all be found, and nurtured, through play,” commented a
Head Start Program educator.
common understandings & beliefs about play
In addition to the shared belief that children learn through
play and that play is the means by which children make
sense of their world, the survey revealed other common
Children have a natural and universal inclination to
interact with the world.
impact of play
Children experience learning with their whole selves.
A significant body of research recognizes the impact of play
on all areas of a child’s development, including physical1,
social-emotional2, and cognitive function3. Participants in
the Initiative corroborated these findings with their own
observations from raising, educating, and caring for children.
“[Play] builds [children’s] large and small motor skills,” said
one South Shore childcare provider. “Play gives children
Play comes in many forms: structured, unstructured,
independent, collaborative, physical, and expressive.
Play looks different for children of varying ages,
developmental levels, personalities, and life contexts.
Above: Costumes and props can help children pretend, but they don’t need to be elaborate. Here, workshop participants
engage in pretend play with open-ended materials, like balls and tubes.
Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Oliver & Klugman, 2002
Coplan & Rubin, 1998
Bergen, 2002; Singer, 2002; Oliver & Klugman, 2002; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998
“When children play, they learn the skills they need to succeed in life.”
—Daycare provider, survey participant
barriers to play
Despite the widely-recognized value of play, many of the
parents, educators, and community stakeholders who
took part in the Initiative expressed a deep concern over
the decreasing presence of play in children’s lives and
diminished opportunities for meaningful, child-centered
play. Participants acknowledged common and widespread
barriers to children’s play:
Society does not value play. Educational laws and policies,
societal discourses, and even casual conversations with
family and friends often frame children’s participation
in play as “just” play—something expendable that fills
children’s time. Many surveyed—parents and educators
alike—feel pressured to keep children busy with activities
“more meaningful” than play.
Play, especially outdoor play, is unsafe in many Chicago
neighborhoods. One community educator, who teaches
children ages six to 12, said, “I work in a community
where there is a lot of violence. So even if kids wanted
to be themselves [and play freely outdoors], their parents
are concerned about—you know—that drive-by. So they
make them stay inside… [So, ‘free play,’] it’s not possible.”
For many adults, violence, crime, drugs, and gangs affect
everyday choices and efforts to keep children safe. Despite
very real dangers, adult perceptions of danger can also
greatly limit children’s access to play. Adults often place
unnecessarily strict boundaries on children’s play as a result
of their own safety concerns.
Adults limit the presence and quality of play. Many
participants feel limited in their efforts to support children’s play because of the beliefs and actions of other
adults. Participants painted a scenario in which parents
express frustration that school educators eliminate play
in favor of “teaching to the tests,” while classroom teachers
believe parents view play as oppositional to the development of “competitive” children. Educators grapple with
administrators who forbid play in the classroom, while
administrators assert that educators don’t utilize more
playful curricula. Among these disparate groups is the
mutual acknowledgement that adults often view other
adults as impediments to children’s meaningful play.
Adults are not aware of the connections between play
and children’s healthy development. Adults often associate
learning with structured sessions, during which students
are expected to master specific content. Play is often
unrecognized as an equally valuable model for learning.
“[Parents] want structure all the time,” said a Chicago Park
District educator. “They think their kids aren’t learning
[through play] when [in fact] they are.”
There are not enough resources, strategies, or models to
help parents and educators meaningfully support play.
Many surveyed parents and educators expressed a need
for more knowledge and resources for supporting play.
“[I want to learn] other ways I can help my grandchildren
learn and play together,” noted a South Side grandparent.
Another educator acknowledged a “fear of losing a tie to
[educational] standards” by incorporating play in the classroom, and expressed a desire for help in making this link.
Children don’t know how to play. Many participants
expressed concern that today’s children have lost the ability
to use their imaginations, cannot self-entertain, and do not
know what to do when given the option to play freely. As
one Chicago Park District employee said, “Kids [have an]
attachment to iPods, mp3 players, cell phones, etc. They
don’t know what to do when using their imagination.
They turn to their stuff.”
Parents and educators feel
pressured to keep children
busy with activities “more
meaningful” than play.
“We want kids to have a time every day—especially when they’re really young—
when they can have free play, totally open.” —B., a parent
action steps for change
Perhaps the most consistent and overarching sentiment
to emerge from the Initiative was a general sense of isolation among adults in their desire to support play. While all
strongly valued play and spoke of a personal commitment
to increase opportunities for play, they did not feel connected
to a network of others who shared their beliefs.
Chicago Children’s Museum’s mission—to create a community where play and learning connect—focuses on building a
network of caregivers and educators who support play, both
within the museum and beyond its walls. The Initiative
confirmed that the need for this sort of community building
is greater than ever.
Building on more than 25 years of experience, the museum
will lead efforts to improve the state of play in Chicago’s
communities. The following recommended action steps focus
on connecting, collaborating, and educating. CCM is joined
in these efforts by the growing community of play advocates
developed through the Initiative.
• Unite. Chicago Children’s Museum will serve as a town
square for dialogue among community stakeholders.
Adults must resist the urge to affix blame for the current
condition of play in communities and, instead, build
alliances that support it. Widespread change begins locally.
Together, parents, educators, and policy makers can
strategically target specific community needs and
concerns, taking action to encourage positive change.
Educate. CCM will provide ongoing education for
adults on the topic of developmentally-appropriate
practice. Play advocates must understand how children
develop, identify the connections between play and
learning, and share strategies that support children’s play.
Empower. Through extensive community engagement,
CCM will build knowledge and resources to ensure
that adults in communities across Chicago have the
ability to support play. Commonly shared strategies
include providing children with the following:
• Ample free time for free play. When children engage
deeply, the positive impact on their development
• Physical and emotional space to play. Creating spaces
in homes, schools, and communities makes children feel
safe, empowered, and encouraged to play.
• Engaging, open-ended materials. Everyday items allow
children to tap into their own limitless imaginations.
Examples include fabric, boxes, leaves, cardboard tubes,
newspaper, and other household and natural objects.
Above: Like these workshop participants, children unleash their creativity when they build their own structures with boxes,
tape, sheets, and blankets.
“[As educators, we need to] let parents know that they are always welcome…If they have
an idea, give it to us or even join in with us.” —Monica, a Chicago Park District educator
• Control of their own play. Allowing children to
direct how and with whom they play leads to more
meaningful experiences.
• Positive behavioral models. When children play with
adults, they have an opportunity to develop skills, such
as sharing, negotiating, and problem-solving.
• Opportunities to show who they are. By intentionally
observing and reflecting on children’s play, adults
discover their abilities, temperaments, interests, and
ideas about the world—enabling them to better
support the child’s development.
• The attention of a caring adult. Asking open-ended
questions, such as, “Tell me about what you’ve created,”
encourages deeper discussions about play experiences.
Inspire: The museum will engage adults and children
in memorable play experiences. When adults personally
experience the value of play, they are motivated to
support it. When children play, they become better
players, increasing their capacity to make meaning of
the world around them.
Through the Chicago Communities at Play Initiative, parents,
educators, and community stakeholders demonstrated a belief
in the power and necessity of play. The Initiative laid a foundation for a network of play supporters who will continue to
work in ways both large and small to promote change in their
communities. Many participants, for example, noted plans
to train others using content learned through the Initiative.
A number of educators stated that they would continue to
research ways of incorporating play into their classroom
curriculum. Many parents avowed a renewed commitment
to “making more time” for play in their children’s lives. These
intentions and actions are promising—and speak to a hopeful
future for the state of play in Chicago’s communities.
Chicago Children’s Museum, through its everyday work, will
continue to provide leadership and support for the ongoing
and growing effort to make play a fundamental experience
for all children in all communities.
Chicago Children’s Museum will continue to provide leadership
for the growing effort to make play a fundamental experience for
all children in all communities.
“My role [is] to coordinate and observe and not always lead or control.”
—Carol, a visual arts educator
An online survey and a series of community-based
workshops served as the basis of this report.
online survey
Chicago Children’s Museum utilized an online survey
to gather baseline information about play and local issues
hindering children’s play opportunities. One hundred
fourteen respondents accessed the survey between
October 28, 2008, and April 4, 2009. Developed by
CCM staff, with the guidance of play experts, the survey
included multiple-choice and open-response questions.
Survey participants included museum members and
the wider community. Of the total respondents, 21.9%
(25 participants) self-identified as parents and 79.8%
(91 participants) self-identified as childcare providers or
educators.4 Childcare providers include those working
with children under the age of 12 in schools, Head Start
and Early Head Start programs, community centers,
childcare centers, or other service agencies providing
support to children, families, or educators. Of those in
a school setting, one-third (27) taught students without
a recess period. Because the survey required Internet
access and was limited to CCM contacts, data findings
do not represent the full population of persons working
with children in Chicago.
community-based workshops
Between April 14 and May 15, 2009, the museum conducted
20 workshops, hosted at Chicago Park District facilities in
the Englewood, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and Rogers Park
The selected neighborhoods spanned all quadrants of
the city, targeting underserved, racially-diverse, low- and
middle-income communities.
A total of 109 adults participated in the workshops, including
65 Chicago Park District staff members, 35 educators, and
nine parents—many of whom interact with children in
multiple roles.
Seventy-five percent of all participants (159/211) lived or
worked in the following Chicago communities:5
Bronzeville/Near South Side
Cabrini/Near North Side
Englewood/West Englewood
Humboldt Park
Logan Square
Near West Side
Rogers Park
South Lawndale
Washington Park
West Town
Because some respondents selected both “parent” and “educator/childcare provider”
as their primary role, the results added up to more than 100%.
This figure includes 83% (91/109) of workshop participants and 67% (68/102) of
survey respondents.
“Play is something that is cherished with your child.” —Parent survey participant
Bergen, Doris, “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s
Cognitive Development,” Early Childhood Research and
Practice, 4(1), Spring 2002.
Coplan, Robert J., and K.H. Rubin, “Social Play,” Play
from Birth to Twelve and Beyond, Garland Press, 1998.
Hawley, Theresa, “Starting Smart: How Early Experiences
Affect Brain Development,” Zero to Three National Center
for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 1998.
Oliver, Susan J., and Edgar Klugman, “What We Know
About Play,” Child Care Information Exchange, September
Pellegrini, Anthony D., and P.K. Smith, “Physical Activity
Play: The Nature and Function of a Neglected Aspect
of Play,” Child Development 69(3), June 1998.
Singer, Jerome L., “Cognitive and Affective Implications
of Imaginative Play in Childhood,” Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry: A Comprehensive Textbook, Melvin Lewis, ed.,
other resources
Brown, Stuart, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the
Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Avery, 2009.
Jarrett, Olga S., “Recess in Elementary School: What Does
the Research Say?” ERIC Digest, Champaign, IL, ERIC
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Education, 2002.
Singer, Dorothy, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Kathy
Hirsh-Pasek, editors, Play = Learning: How play motivates and
enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth,
New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2009.
United Nations High Commission for Human Rights,
United Nations Convention on the rights of the child,
November 1989,
To our generous funder, the Marguerite Casey Foundation,
whose financial support made this work possible.
To our community participants: Your dedication to and
advocacy for play and its ability to improve the lives of
children made this study possible. Thank you for sharing
your stories, your struggles, and your ideas. The work you
do every day has the potential to change lives.
To our partners, staff, and consultants who contributed
time, attention, and resources to many aspects of this work:
You spread word of this project, extending the conversation
to new friends, provided space for us to gather, and offered
continual and invaluable feedback throughout the process.
We especially want to acknowledge the following organizations and individuals for their contributions: Joan Almon,
Director of the Alliance of Childhood; the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services; the Chicago Park
District; and Penny Wilson, London-based playworker.
Jensen, Eric, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.
Kaiser Family Foundation Generation M, Media in
the lives of eight to eighteen year olds, March 2005,
Miller, Ed and Joan Almon, Crisis in the Kindergarten:
Why Children Need to Play in School, Alliance for
Childhood, 2009.
Raymond, Alan, and Susan S. Raymond, Children in War,
New York, NY, TV Books, 2000.
“When children play, they really put their all into it. They don’t hold back.”
—Cherise, a workshop participant
Editors: Joan Bernstein, Natalie Bortoli, Kylia Kummer,
Nancy Plaskett
Workshop facilitators: Kenna Hart, Derek Moore,
Kate Stone
Documenter, research writer, and workshop photographer:
Kelly Baldwin
Designer: Valerie Hebda
Some images are from iStockphoto.
“Sometimes kids are the best teachers.” —Mike, a Chicago Park District educator
Chicago Children’s Museum
Navy Pier
700 East Grand Avenue, Suite 127
Chicago, Illinois 60611