Remember those long, unstructured childhood days playing hide-and-seek, building forts, imagining other worlds, trying on other lives? As American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is a happy talent to know how to play."
Trouble is, by the time we reach adulthood, that ability to imagine and pretend has all but disappeared, smothered by work and grown-up responsibilities. Even kids may be losing their penchant for play to the distracting lure of electronics and not enough free-form downtime.
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For Cynthia Gentry, founder of the nonprofit PlayAtlanta, there's only one solution: fill our cities with innovative play areas aimed at young and old alike. In other words, spread joy — and reap its many benefits — by creating more public opportunities for idle fun and creative lollygagging.
"We've got a lot of kids who don’t explore what’s inside them," she says. "That's the gist of what play is for me. If they're given free rein, if their play is allowed to be self-directed, then they explore who they are. I don't think people realize what getting kids — and grown-ups — outside playing in the parks can do for a city and even economic development."
Channeling Walt Disney
As a child, Gentry's playtime meant wielding her imagination and creativity. "I'd get all my friends together to write and put on plays, she says. "I'd organize carnivals in the backyard and spook houses. I always wanted to be Walt Disney."
But like many people, Gentry's ability to access her inner child seemed to wane with age. For years, she worked as a management consultant for large international firms — a job she never loved — and raised her son by herself. In her spare time, she pursued art.
Then around age 40, Gentry's mom passed away and she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, an autoimmune condition affecting the thyroid gland. She was exhausted and in bed for much of that year — plenty of time to ponder life.
"That was the beginning of knowing there just had to be more," she says. "I had this vision that my tombstone said: 'Well, she paid her bills on time.' I just didn’t think that was enough to build a life on."
Once doctors got her condition under control, Gentry shifted to part-time work, and with her small inheritance, she began volunteering to paint murals at an inner-city children's hospital in Atlanta. One thing led to another. She got a second mural-painting gig at Camp Twin Lakes, a camp for sick children outside Atlanta, and even developed an animated website for kids with sickle-cell disease.
"I didn't know where the path was going, but I knew this was it, or it wasn't worth it," she says.
Creating community after tragedy
Then the unimaginable happened. During a brutal thunderstorm in 2003, a giant oak tree fell on a car driving through Gentry’s neighborhood. A mom and her two young sons were killed. Only the father survived. They turned out to be her next-door neighbors.
Gentry jumped into action to help the dad through his grief and pay tribute to the victims. Her idea was to convert a rundown neighborhood park into a community playground. She rallied support from the city and community groups, and within six months, the park was a reality.
Not long afterwards, the national playground-building group KaBOOM approached her about helping Atlanta compete in its inaugural "Playful City USA" competition. She created the Atlanta Task Force on Play, which has since been renamed PlayAtlanta, and helped the city become one of 31 founding Playful Cities in 2007. (You can watch her first place-winning grant video here.)
"The more I found out about play, the more I realized the effect it'd had on me during my life and how it reflected who I was," Gentry says.
The magic of play
Suddenly her calling was clear. Gentry vowed that everyone should have equal access to the power of play — and not just old-school swings and slides.
"I think the rush of a swing is just awesome ... slides are fantastic," she says. "But I can't stand when people flatten the land in play areas, strip away everything that’s living and put in this big mountain of plastic. Maybe swings and slides should be mixed with other things, stretched along paths so that kids move with it. I'm trying to break up the playground."
Gentry, who is pursuing a master's degree in play theory from the University of Gloucestershire in England, is particularly smitten with the concept of "loose parts play," equipping play areas with assorted materials — sand, baskets, pallets, boxes and logs — to encourage open-ended creative exploration.
Her vision is to create "small pockets of play" for all urban dwellers — spots where Disney-esque magic is free to take whatever engaging shape it chooses. Recent projects include a playground in the shape of the letters ATL in Woodruff Park in the heart of Atlanta, a giant wheelchair-accessible treehouse at Camp Twin Lakes (at right) and a new playground she's helping develop in Atlanta's Chastain Park that will feature playpods, zip lines, an adventure hill and a treehouse.
Gentry also advises other cities on creating more play spaces and serves on the board of directors of the International Play Association. Coming up: a multi-year campaign beginning next year to make Atlanta more kid-friendly, bikeable, walkable and playable.
"I want designers, real estate developers and others to realize it's important to include play into their designs," Gentry says. "If a place draws people outside and brings them together, they're more productive, they're healthier and they're going to want to do business there. It's a win-win-win."
Inset photo of Camp Twin Lakes treehouse: Dan Matthews