The Noodle

Relevance of Play

Why physical activity – or lack thereof – is critical to how we learn.

The story still haunts Darell Hammond. In 1995, shortly after returning to Washington D.C., he read a news story about two children
 who suffocated to death while playing in an abandoned
 car. As it turned out, the kids didn’t have anywhere else 
to play. It wasn’t only that the two children died trying to enjoy the simplest of childhood pleasures that disturbed Hammond. What was equally as disturbing was his belief that the tragedy could have been prevented.

To say the story was a life-changing moment for the 24-year-old transplant from Illinois may be the mother of all understatements. On that day, Hammond made a promise to the memory of those young boys and to himself: This would never happen again on his watch.

It is right to call Darell Hammond a game changer. The young man who grew up with seven brothers and sisters at the Mooseheart Child City & School, a group home outside of Chicago, learned about the power of volunteerism at an early age. His upbringing not only taught him about the importance of helping the less fortunate, but also impressed upon him the compassion it takes to make change happen. After graduating from college, Hammond helped lead the start up of City Year Chicago, which works to curtail high school dropout rates. Under his leadership, the organization built two playgrounds, skills that he would use for a lifetime.

We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.


His goal was simple: Prevent future tragedies, provide children a great place to play and bring communities together with a common goal. Hammond helped build his first community playground in the Washington, D.C., area (before they would fall under the umbrella of his soon-to-be started company, KaBOOM!) in southeast D.C.’s Livingston Manor in 1995. He later founded KaBOOM!, which officially opened in 1996.

Since then, KaBOOM! has raised more than $200 million, rallied 1 million-plus volunteers and guided the hands-on construction of more than 2,000 playgrounds. But, perhaps more than anything, it has inspired a movement for our right to play. “Play is learning, and learning is play,” Hammond says. “It’s not a coincidence that some of the best educational systems in the world are ones that have adopted playful curriculums. You learn in the classroom, and then you go outside in the fresh air to let off steam. And then you go back and learn some more. Those 50 minutes that you’re outside playing make you more appreciative of the learning process.”

Without ample play, we’ll continue to see a decrease in creativity and imagination, as well as vital skills, including curiosity, social skills, resiliency and the ability to assess risk.

Darell Hammond, Founder & CEO, KaBOOM!

Hammond says more experts are discovering this concept as well. “We know play is important for kids. Research tells us that play is critical to helping children develop socially, emotionally, academically and physically, and that there is a stark correlation between the lack of play and childhood obesity. In neighborhoods without a park or playground, the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29 percent. Without ample play, we’ll continue to see a decrease in creativity and imagination, as well as vital skills, including curiosity, social skills, resiliency and the ability to assess risk.”

There is more to the concept of play. Look closely at what happens when play is diminished, and you’ll start to see an eerie trend. “Children who don’t play are the ones who don’t learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and advocate for themselves,” Hammond says. “Studies have shown that schools without recess face in- creased incidence in classroom behavioral problems, including violence, emotional outbursts, and their students show a lack of ability to interact with peers and authority figures.”

A ‘Whole New’ Mindset

When it comes to play, Darell Hammond will reference author Daniel Pink and vice versa. Hammond references some of the theories Pink lays out in his bestselling book, “A Whole New Mind,” as an example of what play means to our culture today. Pink doesn’t believe that American schools produce imaginative innovators capable of offsetting the three great trends of automation of routine manufacturing tasks; the abundant proliferation of goods and changing demands in the marketplace; and outsourcing of labor to Asia.

One of Pink’s most telling analysis is how “right brain” skills such as drawing/ design, music and storytelling must be developed to give today’s children ample opportunity to compete with other world cultures. He also describes how the U.S. Army employs game-based learning to attract new recruits and to train helicopter pilots via simulators.

“There is a time to be serious, but too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general well being,” Pink says. “In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need to play. I don’t consider my job ‘work,’ as I enjoy it. I can ‘work’ for hours on school stuff and not even realize how much time has gone by, because I love it.”

Ask Jim Baugh what the importance
 of play means today, and he’ll tell you how 
poorly Americans are at getting their recom
mended levels of physical activity. And Baugh
should should know. As the former president of Wilson Sporting Goods, he presided over a sport
ing goods company that has been at the heart of sports history for nearly a century. As chairman of PE4Life, he spends his days helping to make sure that schools get their fair share of physical education funding.

During much of the last decade, funding for PE programs in our nation’s schools was drastically cut with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Passed in 2001, the act pressured schools and teachers to place a heavier focus on standardized test results. Enter groups such as PE4Life, a nonprofit agency that’s dedicated to helping schools build fit kids by advocating for and assisting in the development and enhancement of physical education programs and physical activity opportunities in schools and communities. The group’s message, among other things, is that physical education and play are viable parts of the educational process.

We all need to work together to create a more fit, active and healthy America.

Jim Baugh, Chairman, PE4Life

“The sedentary trends are not good,” says Baugh, who also leads the Jim Baugh Consulting firm. “Over 170 million Americans – nearly one in four – do nothing in the more than 120 activities we track. And these numbers are growing each year. If we don’t turn them around, we will be in a state of decline. We all need to work together to create a more fit, active and healthy America.”

Anne Flannery, former president and CEO of PE4Life, spent the last decade, along with Baugh and other sporting goods industry executives, trying to explain the importance of play to legislators on Capitol Hill. “The more we learn about the brain, the more I believe we’ll recognize that play is integral to how we move through the world, exploring and trying new things,” says Flannery, who now serves as president of Out Loud Ventures. “That’s critical to our physical, mental and emotional health.”

The lack of play in our lives is having a major impact on all of us by stifling our creativity and connections. That’s why being playful is a mindset that great marketers must embrace. Today’s marketers realize that people identify with playful brands and understand that games provide enriching experiences. Combining a playful mindset and the experience of play can elevate any brand.

Like thought leaders Daniel Pink stress in their analyses, play is the new way to think. Through play, we use our imaginations to become involved. Today’s technologically pressured world can have the opposite effect. Too many people are becoming drone-like and losing their sense of identity or uniqueness. Play allows us to engage our brains and bodies to connect with the world around us. In turn, a marketer’s greatest accomplishment is when people identify so strongly with a brand that they define themselves by it. That type of playful mindset has never been more relevant to marketers.

5 Ways Marketers should play

No. 1: You must be playful – As an adult, you must set an example. Find creative and fun things to do

No. 2: Employ the 60-minute rule – Get outside for at least one hour every day. Be purposeful, creative and imaginative in your pursuits.

No. 3: Enlist others in your joy – Having fun and playing is about building the masses.

No. 4: Add water and sand – The joy that comes with play is immeasurable, and it is everywhere.

No. 5: Make it a habit – Don’t make play something you have to do – just do it. Make it part of your every day routine.

By Michael J. Pallerino