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Let's Play - Baltimore's Ultimate Block Party

Our series of wet and rainy days that made Baltimore feel more like Seattle or London, and raised our water table 12 ½ inches above normal levels, continued. The sun remained stubbornly hidden behind dense, low-hanging, steel gray clouds. It was cold and miserable with occasional drizzle, definitely not the kind of day you send the kids outside to play in, but that’s exactly what 15,000 Baltimoreans did as they descended on Rash Field to participate in the Ultimate Block Party (UPB) on Sunday, October 2nd. The party was championed by Dr. Susan Magsamen, a Johns Hopkins-based educational entrepreneur, who believes that parents are our children’s first and often most influential teachers. She has dedicated her career to integrating the latest findings in brain science research and educational methodologies into award-winning, innovative, family friendly products that parents and kids like to play with and use.

Play is essential to learning, the development of imagination, social competencies, and critical thinking skills. So when recent research demonstrated that the time children spend in play had plummeted by eight hours a week over the past two decades, Susan and her colleagues decided to do something about it. The first Ultimate Block Party ( was piloted with a number of institutional partners a year ago in New York’s Central Park. They expected 10 to 20,000 people to show up and participate. The final attendance figure exceeded 45,000. Apparently, families missed play in their lives and wanted to do something about it too.

The idea is simple. Throw a giant outdoor block party with dozens of sponsored activity booths and spaces where children and parents can play together. Keep the atmosphere relaxed. Include “Play Doctors,” helpers dressed in white lab coats sporting red clown noses, to encourage, instruct, and pass out materials. Post prominent messages about each activity’s educational value –we always learn as we play. But mostly, make play possible. There was so much play happening that I thought the sun would jump out from behind the clouds to declare “3-2-1, ready or not, here I come!”

At the clay station, parents were as engrossed as their children in shaping, molding, and coiling. Families proudly cradled and carried their finished red clay treasures all over Rash Field. We all love what we create. Children and adults made paper airplanes, built blue foam structures on a large artificial beach, played drums with silly abandon, decorated faces, read books, studied zebrafish under microscopes, played in child-sized kitchens, spun hoola hoops, and jumped rope. One grandfather jumped through 10 cycles of the jump rope, gamely smiling and laughing in order to encourage the shy trio of little girls who wanted to jump, but couldn’t quite muster the courage to join in. They still were hesitant, but they beamed as they watched their grandfather’s crowd-pleasing moves. Everywhere you looked, children and their significant care-givers were laughing and talking to one another. As I strolled around, watching and listening, I realized that something was different about this public gathering. There was no food, so children weren’t jazzed on sugar or asking for snacks or treats, and everyone was truly paying attention to one another. It was rare to see an adult check a phone, text, or even make a phone call. People were simply enjoying being with one another. This is what play does after all.

Play lets us immerse ourselves in the experience we are having. It feels so good we can forget about everything else—even unseasonably cold weather. Families were also able to get new winter coats for their children at the “Operation Warm” booth, which put big smiles on many faces. But, the biggest reason everyone was smiling was play. Attendees got a huge happy dose of it out in the open air with no pressure to perform, only to discover and enjoy. The Ultimate Block Party was a giant celebration of US at a time when we all need reminders about the importance of play and the sheer joy of being US together.

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