How Play Paves the Way for Young Leaders

by Aislinn Pluta   |   March 17, 2015


Recently, I had the chance to chat with Rebecca Fabiano and Jen Brevoort, two of the three founding directors of PopUpPlay, a Pennsylvania-based organization that believes in the power of play to help young people harness and enrich their leadership skills.

PopUpPlay values operating in public spaces, so that "residents in the community no longer see those young people as nuisances, but as real leaders and as folks who inspire the community and take care of the community."

According to Brevoort, "Play is an expertise that everybody has." Through PopUpPlay, she is committed to helping youth and adults alike unleash their passion, ignite their creativity, nurture their curiosity, and play. 

A typical experience starts when the PopUpPlay team meets with a group of young people and facilitates a specially designed play experience for them. The youth learn the ropes and then debrief the experience. They're asked, "What are the types of skills that you're using as you play?" Answers might include teamwork and collaboration, creative thinking, and problem solving—21st-century skills that are highly valued in today's workforce.

Next, the youth are asked to create and modify activities within this play experience, puzzling through questions like: "How would you make this harder? What would you do for kids who might be using a wheelchair? What are ways we can include all young people in this recreated space?" Finally, they are asked to apply their fresh ideas on a younger cohort, leading a play experience for others while the adults step out of the picture. If challenges arise, the young leaders must think on their feet and adapt their games to overcome them.

According to Brevoort, it's a simple, yet effective approach to youth leadership development. "To do it in a way that's so unassuming because we're playing ... it's fun, it's a relaxing day, and suddenly it's so much more, and that's just really a powerful thing."

"Play is a powerful tool for learning and development." 

Research backs up the notion that play is a powerful tool for learning and development. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, play is "a vital component to the normal development of a child." 

"A school atmosphere in which pretend games are encouraged, or even just tolerated in the curriculum or recess play of children has also been shown to lead to even greater amounts of imaginativeness and enhanced curiosity, and to learning skills in preschoolers or early school-agers."

Fabiano often hears things like, "Oh my gosh, I didn't know my kid was capable of that!" or, "I never thought my young person could lead." The best reactions, of course, come from the youth. "When a young person says, 'I'm really proud that I got to do that today,' that feels really meaningful."

Currently, PopUpPlay is organizing a "Festival of Play" on June 6 in Philadelphia, and they hope to help cities across the country launch similar days of play. The festival will feature obstacle courses, relay races, boat races, theatre, art activities, and giant-sized Boggle and other board games. All the events will be created and led primarily by young people.

PopUpPlay is using New Dream's SoKind Registry to gather donations that they need to make their event a success, such as tents, walkie talkies, funds, and donations of time, such as help designing marketing materials. 

If you're interested in supporting PopUpPlay, visit their SoKind registry here.

Aislinn Pluta is the 2015 Arts and Culture Fellow at New Dream.