Almost 90% of Providence, Rhode Island's students qualify for a free lunch, but over the summer, when the lunch program migrated to the parks, most of the kids weren't coming...until the city added something else.
As I wrote in The Hechinger Report, kids don't usually come to play unless there are other kids to play WITH, and so:
“The parks were just kind of dead in the summer,” admits Parks Superintendent Wendy Nilsson. But then they started working with Janice O’Donnell, executive director of the Providence Children’s Museum at the time, who told them about “adventure play” — the practice of having lots of “loose parts” on the premises, along with some adults who understand the importance of giving kids the freedom to create, goof off and solve their own problems. After training summer staffers to do just that — think back on their own childhoods, and then stand back and let the kids make their own fun — the Providence PlayCorps was born.
The loose parts came from everywhere. “Our forest division would drop off branches. We got old sheets from the Marriott,” says Nilsson. Businesses gave boxes and random junk.
The kids started coming from everywhere, too.
The PlayCorps workers, mostly college-age, ended up amazed at the kids' creativity. They even kept a blog of their favorite moments.
This included the time when a kid nicknamed “Peter Pan” — an older boy — got the younger kids to fill a kiddie pool and put it at the bottom of the slide. Then, wrote a worker, everyone “raced to the top to slide down as fast as they could.”
..."The PlayCorps team watched anxiously from a distance as the children attempted to land in the pool. Sometimes they slid too fast and would overshoot the pool. But still the team didn’t intervene and allowed the children to play. The team paid close attention, noticing that when children did fall, they continued to laugh. The children also looked out for each other, checking on everyone after they took their turn.”
Let's hear it for kids! And as for eating lunch -- the first goal of the program?
“The first year we did PlayCorps, I was looking at our summer meal participation numbers and I was trying to compare [to the year before],” said Ellen Cynar, [director of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office]. “And I kept having to recalculate because I was like, ‘This can’t be right. There’s no way this is right.'” But in fact, her calculations were correct. Lunch participation numbers went up at every single site. “But at some sites they went up a full 300 percent!”
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, a new dad himself, is understandably thrilled. He credits PlayCorps with making “neighborhood parks across our capital city come alive with fun.” The program is “bringing the community together, activating public places with free and creative play, and providing nutritious meals.”
Hats off to a city that figured out the way to a kid's stomach is through his love of play. - L.S.