Jump, skip, toss – children and parents get a lesson in the art and science of play

Thousands of children, from toddlers to 12-year-olds, did something yesterday that seems almost novel in the age of computers and digital games: They went outside and played. In the chilly air of the first Sunday of October, Rash Field at Baltimore's Inner Harbor became a sprawling playground.

Over six hours, boys and girls skipped rope, jumped rope, hula-hooped, played with sticks and created works of sidewalk art with colorful chalk. They chased big, soapy bubbles created by a clown on stilts. They made paper airplanes. They doodled with crayons and made things out of clay.

It was Baltimore's first Ultimate Block Party, modeled after one that drew thousands of children and parents to New York's Central Park a year ago. Sunday's event was organized by Play for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that promotes play as an important part of childhood growth and development. The Baltimore school system, along with Port Discovery Children's Museum and the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, among others, organized the event. Susan Magsamen, the organizer and director of interdisciplinary partnerships at the brain science institute, estimated that 10,000 families participated in the event; at the very least, 5,000 "play books" were handed out.

"We really saw families from all over Baltimore," Magsamen said. Part of the success, she said, was in the number of organizations that participated — more than 125 with an interest in children and learning, many of which had never collaborated before.

"I think this is something long-awaited, and hopefully annual," said Anana Kambon, who brought her two grandchildren to the party – Kirin Kambon, 10, and his sister, Yuanchu, 6. "It is so very, very important for people to understand the value of play.

"Kids don't have enough still time," Kambon said, using her term for play or down time. "They are so busy with technology and with academics within the school day, they need time to be still. In that still time, they learn patience, tolerance and understanding."

And, say researchers, they learn to use their imaginations.

But play time sans computers or digital games has been in decline. Last year, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children between 8 and 18 now spend an an average of 71/2 hours a day with TV, video games or computers. And because they are good at multitasking, the study found, children "actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 71/2 hours." Backers of the Ultimate Block Party decry those kind of statistics.

So standing out Sunday among the classic childhood activities — within easy toss of a bean bag game — was a tent with laptop computers. T. Rowe Price's Piggy Bank Adventure invited children to play a game by asking: "Are you ready to be a financial smarty pants?"

Kambon's grandchildren went to that tent first. "I let them go there and try it because it was a game about money," Kambon said. "But after a little while, I kind of cajoled them away from it, to look around and see what the other possibilities were," Kambon said.

Within 45 minutes, Kambon's grandchildren had become engaged in the other activities, including "four-square," a simple playground game involving a rubber ball with lots of bounce and four contestants, each trying to stay within their "square." Playworks, a nonprofit that runs recess activities at 28 city schools, supervised the game as 10 children at a time lined up to play it, some for the first time.