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Liza Sullivan

Liza Sullivan is passionate about play and advocating for play. As both a parent and educator, Liza is a resident of Winnetka, Ill., an Adjunct Faculty Member and Professional Development Instructor for the Winnetka Alliance for Childhood. This past summer Liza and her 3 ½ year old twins took part in our Park-A-Day Summer Challenge and has since published and Op-Ed in the Chicago Tribune.

Co-Founder of ThroughPlay.com (site coming soon!), you can read Liza’s blog about her family’s experiences during the Park-A-Day Challenge and learn more about her passion for play.

Q. What inspired you to start taking action?
As a former classroom teacher, children’s museum educator, professional development instructor, and mother, I have seen firsthand the power of child-initiated and child-directed play. Free play fosters love of learning, and provides a rich, motivating context, while teaching children fundamental academic skills.

In both school and family settings, I believe play is the most natural, effective way children learn. Despite numerous research studies that confirm the vital importance of childhood play, it is rapidly decreasing from many aspects of children’s lives. For instance, many early childhood classrooms favor more academic approaches, recess has been eliminated in several grade schools, children are involved in more organized activities in their free time, and many youngsters are not allowed to play outside. I believe advocating for children’s play is a timely and critical issue, in order to develop active children who have a quest for knowledge, understand the world around them, who collaborate with their others, and have higher level thinking skills to face future challenges.

Q. Why do you advocate for play?
I believe that play is the most age-appropriate, innate way a child learns, making it vital to one’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. Many parents and educators with whom I speak during workshops agree. They share fond memories from their own childhoods, which serve as a personal connection to the importance of play. They recount that no parents were around, only neighborhood children exploring together until the streetlights came on. They also describe the importance of playing with children of different ages, making up their own games, and freely exploring the outdoors. These same parents want to provide their own children with greater independence and time for play, but are not sure how to do so in their communities today. I advocate for play in order to help parents and educators find appropriate ways to provide children greater opportunities for meaningful free play.

Q. What keeps you going?
Every day, as I watch my children grow and develop through play, I am further motivated to advocate.

For example, this past summer, I was fortunate to be one of eight parents to complete the first-ever national Park-A-Day KaBOOM! Summer Challenge. My 3 ½ year old twins and I visited over 50 different local parks and playspaces in 50 days. From my perspective as both an educator and parent, these experiences were extremely powerful.

As my children played outside daily, I watched them transform physically and their dispositions change. During the last days of the Challenge, my daughter, who is very gregarious and energetic, spent the majority of her park time sitting on the sidewalk, investigating dead cicadas on the ground, questioning what had happened. She learned to slow down, observe, and notice the intricate details around her. My children’s wonder about things was boundless. They questioned. “Why does a dragonfly have a wing on each side?” “Why does water at the beach make waves?” “Why do we have shadows?”

We frequently visited the library to get books in search of more information. My children debated which park was their favorite, why, and where they wanted to go next. Many nights they dictated to me, then illustrated on paper their most vivid memory from the day. They learned how to make and be friends – introducing themselves to children at the parks, then sharing, compromising, and negotiating with them. The physical, emotional, social, and higher level thinking skills they developed this summer will aid them not only later in school, but throughout their lives.

Reflecting on these significant changes in my own children further validates my belief in the power of play, and motivates me to advocate for these experiences for other children.

Q. How are you engaging your community?
In order to bring these ideas to both parents and educators, I am involved in several different aspects of my community.

I recently co-founded the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood’s new local initiative Let’s Play, encouraging children to engage in creative, imaginative, and enriching free play.

I am the Early Childhood Chair for the Family Awareness Network of New Trier Township (FAN), an organization that provides free presentations for parents about important issues in their lives and the lives of their children. Play and early childhood education is a topic that has been addressed by several past FAN speakers, such as Vivian Paley, Howard Gardner, and David Elkind.

My colleague, Rachel Weaver Rivera, and I facilitate professional development workshops on topics such as the importance of play, and how to articulate the value of play to different audiences.

This coming spring my local library will have an exhibit of my photos from this summer’s KaBOOM Challenge, designed to encourage parents to visit local parks and playspaces with their children.

I have used these same photographs in other ways. On note cards, which I give as gifts to friends, family, and colleagues, and as a book on the impact of play in shaping the people my own children are becoming. I hope that the images will prompt people to think about their childhood play experiences, as well as the importance of play for young people today.

Q. Has having your online Letter to the Editor changed anything? How have people responded?
My colleague, Rachel Weaver Rivera, and I wrote a Letter to the Editor responding to the September 4 Chicago Tribune article, "Kindergarten: It's the new first grade" by Nara Schoenberg, which presented two diverse approaches to early childhood education: play verses the more academic approach. In the article a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and prominent expert in educational reform stated, "I think even an advantaged child who attends a play-based kindergarten pays some sort of price because that is a portion of the day that could be going for cognitive development but isn't."

Parents hear this same message from a variety of sources, making it very difficult to know which educational approach is best for their child. We wrote this piece to communicate that play is neither a waste of time nor an impediment to a child’s cognitive development, but rather that playful approaches to learning in pre-school through second grade have proven to foster and develop children's skills.

We are grateful that our letter started dialogues about the role of play in early childhood classrooms, as well as about how events like the Ultimate Block Party can help promote the value of play to wide audiences (50,000 people attended this event in New York City in early October). This piece was shared with teacher education students at Chicago’s Erikson Institute Graduate School in Child Development, informal and formal educators, and several parents through Facebook. We hope to continue to promote the importance of restoring child-initiated play in early childhood classrooms, and support efforts to bring the Party to Chicago.

Q. What challenges have you faced in trying to make time and space for play in your community?
I have made a personal choice to limit the time and content of television for my children. As a family, once or twice a week we watch a movie together. Although my kids want “Movie Night” every night, when we don’t watch television, they come up rich and meaningful ways to spend that time, such as playing outside, painting, building, reading, drawing, dancing, or pretend playing.

In my community, like most around the country, time watching television can greatly reduce time for play. Accordingly, since 1995 the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood, a local organization to promote the healthy growth and development of young children, has sponsored TV Tune Out Week. During this week the families of over 5,500 children (ages 3 to 13) are encouraged to turn off their televisions and experience a week with no screens. As an Alliance board member, last year I helped to organize a wide variety of alternative activities available to families each day throughout the community. For example, children could attend story hours, an array of classes, tour the nearby fire department, or play at an open gym. The aim of TV Tune Out Week is to prompt families to evaluate the role of screen media in their lives, hopefully increasing time and space for play.

Q. What are you most excited about that's on the horizon?
I am extremely excited that I am currently partnering with one of the most inspiring and talented educators I know, Rachel Weaver Rivera. Rachel is an artist, preschool teacher, former Chicago Children’s Museum educator, expert on the Reggio Emilia Approach, and a presenter on children’s visual communication and designing educational spaces that promote creativity. Rachel and I are developing ThroughPlay.com, a new website, which will provide innovative, creative, and meaningful play ideas for school and at home. It is our hope that ThroughPlay.com will help build an understanding of how children learn and develop through play.

Next school year is my children’s last year before kindergarten. Rather than having them attend preschool, I plan to continue our daily visits to local parks, museums, and playspaces across Chicagoland. I will write about our daily adventures on the ThroughPlay.com website, encouraging other parents to provide their children with innovative, free, important play experiences, both at home and in their community.

Q. What makes it all worth it?
My children play every day. For the most part, I try to allow them input into what we do, for how long, and whether I observe or actively play with them. They are energetic, happy, inquisitive, confident children, who love learning and exploring their community. Nurturing these lifelong dispositions and qualities through play makes it all worth while.

Congratulations Liza, and thank you for your great work as a playmaker!