Having an Impact: More Than Child’s Play

Experts from around the world came together to find ways to get kids outside and active in September in Calgary, leaving a permanent imprint on the city.

Words Sarah Beauchamp

Four years ago, someone approached Heather Cowie, manager of recreation for the north and east region for the City of Calgary, about hosting the International Play Association (IPA) conference in Calgary. She said knew nothing about IPA’s mission, prompting that person to respond, “That’s exactly why you need to host this conference.”

Cowie and her team immediately began learning more about the organization’s mission and quickly realized they not only wanted to host the conference, but they wanted to ensure the impact lasted well beyond the four days of events. “I don’t want to just do a conference,” Cowie remembered her boss saying at the time. “I want to do something that’s meaningful.”

Play in time of crisis

So Calgary partnered with IPA Canada last year to host its 20th IPA Triennial World Conference, held at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, 13–17 September. IPA is an organization dedicated to securing “every child’s right to play and to promote healthy, high- quality play opportunities and environments,” according to its site (ipaworld.org). Its annual conference brings together thousands of play researchers, advocates, designers, educators, practitioners, providers, and policymakers from around the world. In Calgary this past September, the conference featured more than 450 speakers, and hosted sessions on topics like the mental-health consequences of a lack of play time and how children can make space to play in times of crisis.

There’s been a steady decline in “children’s free play” since about 1955, according to Peter Gray, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Boston College. That, he told The Atlantic, is partly “because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.” Without enough free play — when children are directing their own activities, unsupervised — kids are more prone to anxiety, depression, and attention and self-control issues.

“It’s so important for kids to play and go outside and have child-directed play rather than adult-facilitated, so that they can test their own boundaries and take their own risks,” Cowie said. “You learn so many things about yourself… [including] how to negotiate with other people. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s fun.”

Outliving the kids

Hosting IPA’s conference also galvanized Calgary to create what they’re calling a play charter. “Rather than the city of Calgary doing a play policy, we’re doing a charter that’s collaborative in nature, to say why is play important, what are we going to do about it, and who’s going to do something,” Cowie said. About 30 organizations came together at the IPA Triennial World Conference to sign the charter and commit “to do something about play in the next year.”

IPA was held at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, and its proximity City Hall helped Calgary’s elected officials to understand “what we were doing,” Cowie said. “It was good access for them to come see what was happening.”

The IPA Triennial World Conference was a way for play professionals to gain new perspectives.  “Where we all are in the world with play is very different,” Cowie said. “An international conference gives you different perspectives, gives you different learnings, gives you different contexts. Certainly, contexts are different all over the world, but there are nuggets of information and knowledge that you can get when you have an international conference.”

When Cowie and her team fist started this journey, they didn’t fully understand the concept of play, but now, she said, “every time we get together with the organizations that we partner with, I believe we get smarter. For me, that’s what the conference is about. It’s an amazing learning opportunity.” Hosting IPA has inspired Cowie to continue to create play initiatives. “We’ve laid the foundation for legacy and we’re gonna keep going.”

Sarah Beauchamp is a contributing writer to Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), and a partner of Boardroom.

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