Playing Unplugged: Kids, Parents Take A Break From Computers, TV

Two boys kick a soccer ball back and forth while the beat of "I Got a Feelin' '' by the Black Eyed Peas vibrates from speakers in the distance. When asked, the boys say they've never spoken -- they just decided to kick the ball around.
Nearby, a group of 11 toddlers who look like a microcosm of the United Nations scale a giant pile of sand -- pails and shovels in hand.

A dad, fresh off sliding down a zip-line, grabs his young daughter's hand and asks, "Wanna race?'' They take off, his face beaming as much as his daughter's as they race in search of more fun. What's next? Painting? Ceramics? Tug of war? Building a fort out of cardboard boxes and PVC pipe?

Jake, 6, is carefully crawling in and out of a fort he built with his sister at the Repurposed Construction Zone. The structure is a cardboard base supported by a teepee-shaped cluster of sticks held together by a fast-food cup holder. He says it’s the first fort he’s ever built.

This is the vibe at "Playing Unplugged,'' a special day in April at Largo Central Park, as kids and parents enjoy a day away from all things electronic.

Activities include DIY face painting, ceramics, dirt pools, a giant beach ball, a monkey bridge, kayaking, toy boats and model cars, as well as several others. The event, sponsored by a bevy of Tampa Bay physicians, child care professionals and vendors, is designed to encourage normally sedentary families to get away from computers, TVs and other gadgets that plug into walls and ears to spend a day outdoors.

More Than A Walk In The Park

Inspired by a growing concern about obesity and the lack of opportunities for children to engage in unstructured play, the April 13 event was the second held in Largo. The first attracted more than 5,000 people.

Pinellas County has stepped up efforts to address obesity issues in recent years. A community overview put together in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control's "Communities Putting Prevention to Work'' initiative estimates that of about 920,000 Pinellas County residents, almost 65 percent of adults, about 30 percent of toddlers and preschoolers, and nearly 27 percent of high school students are overweight or obese. The initiative put into action plans to serve healthy beverages in schools and a walking school bus program, among others.

Susan Weber, M. Ed., training coordinator for Pinellas County Schools, has made play the focus of her career and is the driving force behind the Largo play events. She believes the developmental benefits gained from unstructured play are vital to building essential life skills.

"When a child is engaged in play, he is learning skills essential to success -- skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking, reasoning, balance, motor control, and sensitivity to others,'' Weber says. "The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the value of play, stating it is essential to healthy development and should be included in the definition of childhood.''
Dr. Greg Savel, a Clearwater pediatrician, agrees.

"There is a huge crisis in our country with obesity in our children because they are addicted to things that plug in like video games and iPods,'' says Savel. "This event is about getting kids to use their creativity and become more fit. We're hoping they will carry the spirit of what they experience here and embrace that for the rest of their lives.''

A 2007 article from the American Academy of Pediatrics written by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,'' asserts that family play strengthens parent-child bonds.

"When parents observe their children in play or join with them in child-driven play, they are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their child's vantage point as the child navigates a world perfectly created just to fit his or her needs,'' writes Ginsburg. "The interactions that occur through play tell children that parents are fully paying attention to them and help to build enduring relationships. Parents who have the opportunity to glimpse into their children’s world learn to communicate more effectively with their children and are given another setting to offer gentle, nurturing guidance.''

What Parents Say

Parents, concerned about their children's safety, tend to keep them inside and often maintain a busy schedule of structured activities like dance and music lessons or organized sports that allow them to be outside. But the opportunity to simply play without any expected result or outcome happens less often.

Melissa McVell, mother of 5-year-old Keirsten, bemoans the challenge of raising a healthy child in the new millennium.

"First of all, you're afraid to let your child outside because of predators. But you have other responsibilities such as preparing dinner and you can't have the child out of your sight. You have to spend a lot of time watching them. It's not like it used to be.

"And with the changes in the school system, outside time isn't promoted a lot,'' McVell continues. "The food is different. They're bigger than we were at their age. You have so many electronics. You have the Wii, you have the iPod, you have the iPad -- you have all these products that will keep their attention in the house instead of being outside doing activities that will help keep them healthy.''

Yet McVell says attending Playing Unplugged inspires her to take advantage of the yard behind her house to let Keirsten explore her creativity under careful supervision.

"I'm trying to get her to be outside more often. I especially like the idea of her working outside with just basic paint. We have lots of space at home -- an open yard for her to play in and use her imagination to build things instead of inside watching TV and playing with the Wii.''

While her mother speaks, Keirsten is hard at work painting a three-foot square cardboard box vivid shades of purple, pink and blue.

"I'm making a go-kart,'' the little girl explains. She points to a discarded purple box a few feet away and says, "But I messed up on that one.'' She points to another. "And that one over there.'' She turns to a volunteer behind her. "Could I have some more tape?''

Making Play Fun

Across the park, 6-year-old Kegan uses his own breath to propel a toy boat down an inflated waterway in a race against another boy. His father, Daniel Rush, watches.

"Play has changed quite drastically since I was a kid,'' Rush says. "I think the videos need to go away. The TV needs to go away. I think parents need to spend a lot more time outside with their kids -- a lot more time in general with their kids instead of putting them in front of the friggin' TV.''

Stacy Larocco waits for her daughter to finish riding the zip-line, which is by far the most popular activity of the day, with an average wait of one hour.

"Play has changed,'' Larocco says. "There's a lot more to do now. When I was young, you rode your bike or your skateboard or you walked around the block. Our playgrounds were nowhere near what playgrounds are now. I think kids need to just to go and have fun -- painting a box or whatever instead of having an item. Just make an item. Make it fun.''

Darlene Lemous agrees, saying play should be all about fun. She is busy chasing 1-year-old Max, whose diaper-clad body is covered in a splash of color from head to toe. Paintbrush in hand, he is toddling away from his masterpiece to paint a pair of shoes that have caught his attention.

"Someone's not going to be happy with this,'' she says, smiling. Lemous explains her husband is a creative —- a painter. When asked how she believes living in a creative environment will benefit her children long term, she says it allows them to be themselves and create things on their own.

"It allows them to try things and not be afraid they're doing something wrong,'' she says. "If you get too serious, it's not fun anymore. As parents, it's our job to make sure they have fun.''

Missy Kavanaugh, a professional freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, FL, enjoys writing children's books, helping children and adults reach their creative potential and kayaking the waterways that surround the Tampa Bay region. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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