The playful season

adv. club glasses

Fun activities during PEM’s Arts Adventures Club. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

The fine summer weather has finally arrived, and with it high spirits and the annual Education & Interpretation Department retreat.  Recently, we took advantage of a beautiful  Monday to investigate some of the creative life of Cambridge.   When we all split up in the afternoon to explore the neighborhoods featured on the Cambridge Arts Council’s Public Art Tour, I headed towards the City Hall Annex on Broadway.  I used to pass by this building regularly the summer after graduating college, on top of a red double-decker bus while giving tours of local history.  I had, until this excursion, never actually gotten inside, and so had years of curiosity to satisfy.

: “Town Green” murals by Michael Glier, photos by Meg Winikates

: “Town Green” murals by Michael Glier, photos by Meg Winikates

The murals I was seeking were quite appealing, but what really drew me in was a coral reef of gray and green plastic blocks and a hanging curtain of bright pink ribbons on the second floor, which led to an exhibit called “Let the Public Play.”


C-Strands” by Skylar Tibbits, photo by Meg Winikates

That is not the sort of invitation I can refuse, so I gamely folded and shaped the entryway sculpture into a new configuration (despite some very creaky squeaky hinges that sounded quite out of place in a quiet office building!) and ducked through the curtain to investigate further.

Spurred by the city’s Healthy Parks and Playgrounds Task Force, Cambridge is in the process of revitalizing their parks and playgrounds to incorporate more open-ended, accessible, creative, intergenerational play, and this exhibit turned out to be a testing ground for possible installations as well as a way to collect ideas from city residents.

let the public play

chalk paint

My favorite element was the giant chalkboard-painted corner with an invitation to paint with water on a large scale.  There were not only paint brushes of varying sizes, but spray bottles and even long-handled mops.  It reminded me of the Buddha board activity we had in the Art & Nature Center’s “Ripple Effect” exhibit a few years ago, which was one of my favorite interactives in the last five years.

The other element that drew me in was the crawl-in/climb on hive structure, which benefited from being both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to destroy.  (And yes, I did climb in and up, because what’s the point of being encouraged to play and not taking up the opportunity with both hands and a chuckle?)  As you can see from the stickers all over it in the picture, the overseers of this exhibit were clearly willing to roll with a certain amount of mess in the pursuit of creative play.  Disorder can be good!  Scribbles can be productive!  Stickers are way more fun when stuck somewhere other than on top of a test!


We can’t afford quite that level of devil-may-care towards mess in the Art & Nature Center, but otherwise I felt right at home in “Let the Public Play,” because that’s a big part of our founding ideals as well.

Our Center’s vision statement (what we aim for when designing spaces, picking artworks, creating interactives) is “to awaken creativity, inspire wonder, encourage inquiry and foster environmental stewardship.”  In other words, through providing welcoming, entertaining spaces with a variety of ways to encounter the connections between art and nature, we hope that you, your families and friends have memorable experiences that help you think about who you are and where you fit among all thewonders of the world.

One of the best ways to do this is through intergenerational play.  Since I started working in museums, I have been saying “Grown-ups get to play too!” and it’s heartening to see how many of you agree.  The importance of play in childhood development has been well documented (check out the amazing resource round-up from the Providence Children’s Museum, for instance, but it always impresses me when people take the next step beyond and think about the impact of inter-generational play.   Whether those generations are small children and their caregivers, parents with their adult children, siblings, grandparents with grandchildren, or any other configuration, the sharing of experiences both in the moment and from the past can be beneficial for all.

Local play expert Ed Klugman puts it this way:

“Research shows that children who play with adults demonstrate greater creativity and higher levels of language and problem solving skills than when playing solely with other children.”

And from the adults’ perspective:

“Play has psychological and health benefits, reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and giving perspective to the demands of life.”

You can check out Klugman’s chart of the cognitive, social, physical, and emotional benefits of play for both adults and children hosted on the Institute for Self Active Education. The benefit that rings truest to me is the idea that through play, both children and adults can imagine and experiment with new roles for themselves: not just ‘I want to be an astronaut’ but ‘I can let my child teach me something’ or ‘I can be a creative partner with someone who sees the world very differently.’

So I urge you, this summer, to make a pledge to yourself to make this a playful season: find a new way to play every week, if not every day.  Indoors or outdoors, up trees, under water, using familiar toys or materials in new ways, letting your creative partner (kid or grown up, family or friend) lead you to something new—go ahead and play.  It’s good for you.

Plus, if you’re looking for ideas, you are always welcome to come play with us:

July 17 – Going to Extremes PEM/PM

July 20 – Story Trails: Spun from Clouds

July 30 – PEM Pals Minifest

See our calendar for details.

Pem Pals in bartlett

PEM Pals, photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM


  1. Sylvia Belkin says:

    Meg, I found your comments very exciting and informative. Getting our visitors, both adult and children, hands on involved in art is one of the most important directions we can take. It’s so exciting to do it as well as to see it! I bought a wonderful book in the gift store, “How to Paint Like Turner.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a ” paint like Turner afternoon and give our visitors, adult and children, a go at watercolor? I’d love to work on that one!!

  2. Hi Sylvia, we quite agree! In fact, on Saturday, August 9, my colleague Katie Theodoros in Family Programs has a great painting program planned for Studio Discoveries inspired by Turner. From 1-3 pm, visitors of all ages and artistic interests can meet abstract painter Rachel Desrochers, talk about Turner’s paintings, and ‘push, pull, scrape, and stamp’ paint themselves.

  3. ylvia Belkin says:

    I’ll look forward to it!

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