LARGO — Jennifer McMahon, recreation manager for the city of Largo, is serious about playtime. She's worried that in our daily lives, "play is just not a priority anymore.''
Kids aren't getting the basics of play these days, whether it's because of the popularity of electronic games and computers, the busy lifestyle of working parents or a matter of "stranger danger'' keeping many parents from letting their sons and daughters venture outdoors alone.
"We are not only worried about kids not developing because of lack of physical activity, but we're also aware that many of the young parents don't know how to teach them,'' McMahon said. "Instead of realizing the importance of wooden blocks or bouncing a ball, they rely on computers and gadgets.''
McMahon is coordinating a citywide initiative, "Play Unplugged.'' It is designed to help parents, caregivers and local service providers address the barriers and fears impeding children's free play.
The initiative kicks off with an event March 10 at Largo Central Park. With the help of Pop Up Adventure Play, a New York-based play advocacy organization, the park will be filled with hands-on-games, discovery stations and a plethora of recycled materials including old refrigerator boxes, pieces of old fabric and scraps of wood and paper.
Organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, which will be conducting tree climbing lessons, have been tapped to inspire and educate the community on how to facilitate play.
McMahon came up with the idea for the initiative after attending the U.S. Play Coalition's Conference on the Value of Play at Clemson University in South Carolina last February.
"(Play) is a hot topic, and the conference was academic in the sense that it presented research as well as the benefits of play to those who work with children,'' she said.
"Free play is different from things like sports teams or even our youth fitness classes,'' she said. "It's easier to tell a child to play in the park than go run a mile. The important thing is that you get the children active.''
Susan Weber, president of the Pinellas Early Childhood Association, is a key player in the March event. She and McMahon bumped into each other at the Clemson gathering, and it didn't take long before McMahon asked for her help.
Weber, who will be in charge of the creative play station, says she believes another reason free play is disappearing from the landscape is because of a push for academics at an earlier age.
"One of my real concerns is that in school, there is a bigger push for reading and writing at an earlier age, so what used to be done in kindergarten is now being done in pre-kindergarten. This means kids now have more desk time instead of simple free time."
Along with the large event on March 10, the following Monday, McMahon will hold a "train the trainer'' day for caregivers from day care centers throughout Pinellas County. The program will provide more discussion on free play.
Kerry Capristo, who has served as a preschool teacher at Southwest Recreation Complex for 19 years, plans on attending the events.
"It's a challenge for everybody. I see parents who are working hard to get their child to behave, and at the end of the week, if the child did what he was supposed to, I hear the parent say, 'Your reward is going home and playing your favorite video game.'
"I'd like it to be instead, 'Your reward is going home and taking a walk to the park.' "
And don't think "Play Unplugged'' will disappear after these events.
"For Largo summer camps, we are also using it as this year's theme," McMahon said. "We plan on continuing training for staff and the parents throughout the county. This will be ongoing.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.