The Importance of Play
A couple months into my fellowship, I realized that I felt far away from the people that I’m here to serve. Working at an organization that doesn’t take part in direct service, it was difficult to feel like I was contributing to the issues I saw every day in Boston. Volunteering gave me a great opportunity to connect with my new community and the global health work I was doing in my placement. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and chose to apply to Horizons for Homeless Children, an organization that provides safe play spaces for young homeless children.
Play is an important part of a child’s development. More than 1 in 30 children in the U.S. are homeless each year, and major trauma, like homelessness and extreme poverty, can lead to stress. This stress weakens the child’s developing brain, and can lead to lifelong physical and psychological problems. Horizons for Homeless Children offers early education centers and play spaces where homeless children can learn, play, and build supportive relationships with staff, teachers, and volunteers. The activities that the children participate in emphasize language and cognitive development.
Prior to becoming a Global Health Corps fellow, I spent several years working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Volunteering at Horizons for Homeless Children was a perfect fit for my background. I was also very moved by a Horizons staff member’s story. While working as a case worker at a homeless shelter, she met a mother who kept her child by in a car seat at all times. As a result of limited “tummy time”, the baby had difficulty meeting developmental milestones; she was unable to build the strength needed to lift herself up. The mother was not neglecting her child’s needs; she just didn’t have a safe place for her baby to play. A shelter floor is hardly the best place for a baby.
Horizon’s mission and model immediately resonated with me. After several months with the program, I recommend it to others looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity in Boston. As a PAL (Playspace Activity Leader), I work with another volunteer to provide a fun play environment. I love seeing the joy on the kids’ faces as they play dress up, color, and read together. I’ve always known the importance of play for a child’s development, but now I have a greater appreciation of play beyond volunteering with kids.
As adults, we think that we’ve grown out of play. In truth, play is always an important part of our well-being; we just start calling it different things as we get older. Coloring as a child becomes creating art as an adult. Playing ball becomes sport, and playing dress up becomes acting. Play is so important to our ability to work together and learn about our strengths. In fact, companies pay professional development organizations to participate in “team building activities,” which in effect is adult play.
One of my favorite things about our fellowship class is that no one needs an invitation to play. During training at Yale, we quickly started playing soccer, at our U.S. Q1 retreat we played volleyball until it was too dark to see, and at mid-year we went sledding. I’m thankful to have learned the importance of play for myself and others early in my career, and it is something that I will continue to include in my personal life, direct service work, and volunteer work in the future.