In her TEDMED 2014 talk, Jill Vialet, CEO of Playworks, an organization that creates imaginative, inclusive school recreation programs, challenges us to release our inner child and remember that play matters to physical and emotional growth. She spoke with us via email about her talk and how play changes the paradigm of health and education reform.
What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?
I was excited to have the chance to speak at TEDMED because it was a great opportunity – and a great audience – for drawing attention to our societal ambivalence around play, despite the overwhelming evidence that it contributes to our health and well-being. There is a narrative in American life about what it takes to change things, and a resistance to ideas that don’t fit in with this narrative. The idea that play might be a part of the solution to America’s educational challenges simply doesn’t align with most people’s assumptions.
But recess is a part of the school day where the best and the worst things happen. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge hiding in plain sight, and when you ask most educators about it, they admit to having given it very little thought. While it is the most concentrated time in the day for experiences of bullying, it’s also an unparalleled opportunity to promote physical activity, inclusion and empathy. Speaking at TEDMED was a great opportunity to raise awareness that play matters – and in a broader sense, that changing systems requires attention to how it feels to be part of that system.
Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?
This talk is important now because we are living in an age of health and education reform, and while the emphasis has been focused almost exclusively on what we do to rebuild these essential systems, too little attention has been paid to how we do it, and the importance of the environment in which the reforms take place. The demonstrable impacts of creating a more inclusive, playful environment, from helping kids feel safer to recovering instructional time, raise some important questions about what other undervalued and overlooked opportunities exist for building effective school environments and a culture of health.
What is the legacy you want to leave?
The legacy I hope to leave is a systemic awareness that play matters, reflected in thoughtful and explicit discussions around the importance of play any time we build institutions serving children and families. One of the most gratifying aspects of building Playworks over the past eighteen years has been in working with the young men and women – our coaches – who go out to schools to ensure that kids in our programs have access to safe, healthy play, every day. Through working with us, these coaches have discovered their own superpowers through the transformative experience of making a difference. My greatest hope is that these young leaders will take the experiences and skills they gained from working and playing with kids in schools, and apply them by being powerful changemakers for the rest of their lives.