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September 2011

The Play Lady

One Woman's Commitment to Children

By Jeanette Der Bedrosian

After roughly 30 years of teaching physical education, Takoma Park resident Pat Rumbaugh made a bold move. In June, she embarked on a yearlong sabbatical from her job at the Washington International School in the District to pursue something she considers of the utmost importance: play.

Rumbaugh, 52, is a tennis-coach-turned-play-advocate who is making it her full-time job to promote unstructured — and many times unsupervised — play for children. Its benefits are incalculable, she says; children who play at least 60 minutes a day are not only more physically fit, but they’re creative, better able to negotiate and stronger leaders. It helps develop problem-solving skills and spurs physical, intellectual and cognitive development.

“Imaginative play is really, really important, and not all kids are getting that,” she says. “... You need to jump, you need to climb. You need to run and swing and slide. Unfortunately, there are people who think reading and writing are the way to go. I’m not against that, but kids need at least 60 minutes of play a day.”

Rumbaugh has always been a playful person. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, she was a tomboy who played all three of the sports offered to girls at her high school. While attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she played tennis for the school. Then, after graduating, she taught tennis at the Sidwell Friends Tennis Camp in Washington, D.C., before she accepted her job teaching physical education.

As a teacher, she encouraged her students to find something they enjoy and pursue it. One of her students referred to her as Mrs. Rogers because of her can-do, playful attitude.

But Rumbaugh, who has children ages 23 and 25, noticed that play was slipping away as D.C.-area families focus on getting their little ones reading and writing from an early age. In 2008, Rumbaugh took a webinar through play-focused nonprofit KaBoom! on forming a play committee in your community.

Since 2009, Rumbaugh’s group, Takoma Plays, has held dozens of events filled with childish whimsy—everything from dress-up days to playground dino digs. She recently found a publisher for her children’s book, “Let’s Play at the Playground,” and one of her latest projects is commissioning a playful carved wooden bench for the city’s Belle Ziegler Park. Events are funded through a fundraiser yard sale, private donations and small grants, and they are catching on in her community. Her group is not yet a registered nonprofit, she says. Her first “Play Day” in 2009 brought out about 200 people, Rumbaugh says. The second year, 500 people joined in on the fun. This year, Rumbaugh’s hoping to see 1,000 people at her Play Day, set for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 24 at Takoma Park Middle School.

“It feels really, really good to be the catalyst, or the person, who encourages people to play,” she says of her mission.
But beyond feel-good fun, the play she’s inspiring is crucial to physical and mental development, says Danielle Marshall, director of community engagement programs for KaBoom!

“There is a play deficit in America, and it’s harming our children,” she says. “When we think about what’s going on, that lack of play is harming them in terms of physical levels, cognitive levels and social levels.”

In the uber-competitive D.C. area, the deficit may be even deeper. Children face increased pressure to take advanced classes and get into the best schools, which sometimes results in less time on the playground, she says.

“There’s this whole issue of, ‘I need my kid to be reading and writing perfectly by the third grade, and they’ll start learning Japanese the next year,” Marshall says. “... But if you look at the research, kids do better in class when there’s recess.”

Time on the playground, along with other unstructured, non-adult-led play activities, helps kids gain confidence, according to Marshall. With each trip to the playground, kids climb one step higher on the slide they were once afraid of, for example. They learn creative thinking — “This isn’t a box, it’s a space shuttle to the moon!” And interacting with their peers during play time helps children learn how to lead and negotiate.

Beyond that, play can sometimes be more educational than textbooks, Rumbaugh says.

“Kids need to discover a lot of things on their own,” she says. “If you teach kids about a forest, if you tell them there are trees and a creek, they might learn, but if they physically go out and play in that forest, they taste it, and they smell it, and they feel it. That’s so important.”

With each event Takoma Plays hosts, Rumbaugh hopes she’s helping to save play for Takoma Park and beyond. For Sarah Corcoran, a 34-year-old mom of a 2 ½-year-old boy, Rumbaugh’s enthusiasm for play is contagious. After meeting in church, Corcoran became a member of the Takoma Plays committee and has been going to its events for about a year.

“She just has so much energy and so much dedication to making sure people go out and play that she can really get people excited about it,” Corcoran says. “She doesn’t mind going up and talking to anyone, and her friendly nature and excited personality just rubs off on people.”

Corcoran says playful events like those offered through Takoma Plays let her son meet different people and experience different types of play. For Corcoran herself, they’re a great way to meet fellow moms and get out of the house, she says.

For Rumbaugh, play days are just plain fun.

“I love all types of play,” she says. “I feel like I’m just getting started, but I’m hoping to go far, that people will realize that the play lady’s happy, and why is she happy? She’s playing.”