Just push play: Play is not only important in child development, but play is also important to family and community development

In September 2010, Dr. William C. Bell gave the keynote speech at a benefit luncheon for the Children’s Museum of Tacoma.


Good afternoon, and thank you Ms. Andrews.

I want to thank Ms. Andrews, her staff and the board of the Children’s Museum of Tacoma for the wonderful work you are doing to nurture, stimulate and challenge our children in innovative ways.

As I look across this room, I am reminded of the truth spoken by the axiom, never underestimate the power of one committed person. It only takes one to start a movement and change the world.

I never would infer that the forward movement we’ve made through history for the betterment of all rests on the shoulders of one individual. It takes many to create change. But it all starts with one dreamer – one committed individual armed with compassion and boldness of thought and action.

It is a pleasure and an honor to be among so many who believe in the power and benefits of investing in child development and education. So, I also want to acknowledge all of you gathered here. It is your continued commitment, your continued support and your continued belief in the important work that the museum is doing that makes it possible for them to provide a set of tools and programs that help prepare today’s children to live out their dreams of tomorrow.

The Children’s Museum of Tacoma and the role they are playing in nurturing children’s natural desire to learn, explore and experiment and instilling in them a love for learning holds special meaning to me.

I have been in the child welfare arena for nearly 30 years and I have come to understand the pivotal role education, learning and healthy development play in a child’s life. As president and CEO of the nation’s largest operating foundation whose sole purpose is to provide, improve and ultimately prevent the need for foster care, the education of children as a means to fulfill that purpose is why the work of the museum and this afternoon’s event have such special meaning to me.

I am a father of two little girls under the age of five, who, like all parents, wants nothing but the best for his daughters, that also is why the work of the museum and this afternoon’s event have special meaning to me. I feel we have much in common – Casey Family Programs and the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. Real change requires boldness.

Real change requires boldness and compassion for those most in need. You have taken a bold and compassionate step to grow the museum county wide. You have taken a bold and compassionate step to make Play 2 Learn services available to every family. More than 65,000 of the 193,000 families in Pierce County have low to moderate incomes.

That same kind of boldness and compassion is also at the heart of Casey Family Programs. You see, this program and what the museum is doing hold special meaning for me also because Casey Family Programs, like you, is taking bold and compassionate steps for those most in need.

More than 423,000 children are in foster care in the United States; more than 10,000 of them living in Washington state; and nearly 2,000 who reside in the Department of Social and Health Services’ Region 5, which includes Tacoma.

In 2006, Casey Family Programs set a bold vision that we call our 2020 Strategy for America’s Children. It essentially says that, working hand-in-hand with others, we will reduce this nation’s foster care population by 50 percent by the year 2020 and reinvest the dollars saved from having fewer children in care into upfront prevention and support programs and services that strengthen vulnerable families and communities.

We are here today because play is not only important in child development, but play is also important to family and community development. One of Casey’s employees recently described her experience with grasping the concept of play in learning. She recounted what she says was one of her greatest eye opening moments as a parent. She talked about her daughter, who is now a 22-year-old Stanford graduate, who, as a toddler, once again had pulled all the Tupperware out of the kitchen cupboard and scattered it about on the kitchen floor.

The mother, of course, had reached a point of frustration and was at her wit’s end. But just as she was about to pick up the child and carry her elsewhere in the house to occupy her time so she could clean up the mess, the grandmother – the mother of the employee – stopped her and told her to just relax, sit down and watch. She said during the next 20 to 30 minutes, she watched her baby daughter demonstrate increasing mastery of her fine motor skills; she began to figure out how smaller things fit into bigger things, which ones fit where; and how big things made a great base or foundation for stacking and building taller things.

She got it. She realized that although her baby girl was playing, she was really learning; and she added, so was I. As I was preparing what I was going to say to you today on the theme, “We Play,” I came across an unattributed quote: “Play is the beginning of knowledge.”

Child development researchers and experts from around the world have had many eye opening moments similar to the parent of that toddler whose fascination and play with Tupperware led her on a path of discovery and learning and a degree from Stanford.

Just like that Tupperware base used for stacking and building taller, more complicated structures, play is the base upon which children build bigger and more complicated concepts. Research shows that 75 percent of our brain’s development occurs after we are born. The brain continues to develop and mature through adolescence.

However, the activities that children are engaged in during their earliest years, say from birth through six years of age, when they are like sponges, soaking up everything around them, and are highly impressionable by their environment – the activities children are engaged in during those years stimulate and influence how their nerve cells are being connected to each other, which in turn lays the foundation for learning and developing more complex skills and concepts.

Stuart Brown of the institute of play suggests that the one thing most Nobel Laureates, entrepreneurs, artists, well-adjusted children and happy couples and families have in common is that they play enthusiastically throughout their lives. Which leads me to ask the question, Tanya, why don’t we let our children play more? As a matter of fact, why don’t we all play more? Why don’t we find a way back to how we used to be?

Play helps build a child, family and community. If vulnerable families and children have an opportunity to play, they will have a better place in which to reside. Play is not just games, but it’s an opportunity.

In this ever-competitive environment to get our children in the best programs and the best schools, accepted in the best colleges, preferably on scholarship, and positioned to compete for the best paying jobs, some have lost sight of the value of play.

Even in some schools, officials are sacrificing recess time. A 1989 study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 96 percent of the school systems surveyed offered at least one recess period. Ten years later, only 70 percent provided recess, including kindergarten classes.

The power of play to change lives and communities is evident in four ways:

  • Play promotes brain development. Play connects us to others. Sharing laughter promotes bonding, strengthens a sense of community and enhances our capacity for compassion and intimacy.
  • Play promotes language development. Play connects us to sources of energy and excitement within ourselves. Play is an antidote for loneliness, isolation, depression, and social isolation. Stressed and depressed parents are significant factors in cases of child abuse and neglect. Play promotes chemical changes within us that work to counter loneliness and depression.
  • Play promotes resilience and innovation. Play helps keep our minds refreshed and increases energy. Play stimulates the imagination.
  • Play promotes the development of creative problem solving capacity. A 2001 study found that the complexity of a child’s block play at age four is predictive of that child’s math performance in high school.

The United States, once the world’s leader in educational attainment, has tumbled in the past decade to No. 12. According to the College Board, the United States now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations in the number of 25- to 35-year-olds with college degrees.

President Obama’s response is the American Graduation Initiative, which calls for five million more college graduates by 2020 to help the United States regain its leading status. To achieve this goal, we must look at what we’re doing to encourage and prepare children to learn from the very beginning.

We need visionaries such as yourselves; committed individuals working together to create real change in preparing our children for a lifetime of learning; committed and compassionate individuals such as yourselves, with a bold vision – a bold vision that says, every child, every child in this great nation of ours, not only deserves, but has the right to learn, grow and have bold, compassionate dreams of their own; dreams first set into motion through the exploration of play.

I urge you to continue dreaming big for our children and for our families and communities. Continue acting and reacting with boldness and compassion, and the change you envision – the change we all need – will come.

Thank you and God bless.