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From Pittsburgh On Up: Catching Up With Michelle Figlar

Welcome back to our new Q&A series, where we are checking in with Pittsburgh’s movers, shakers, thinkers, and remakers of learning throughout the city and region.

We caught early education expert Michelle Figlar in a moment of major transition. The executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children is headed to Harrisburg this month, as she has been named deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

What are you most proud of about your work at PAEYC?

After nine years at PAEYC, one of the two things that I am most proud of is that we have built an incredible team and incredible partnerships in the region. When I think about PAEYC, the first words that come to my mind are team and collaboration. We stayed true to that mission, from the minute I walked in the door, that we would be a good partner. And I am really proud of that.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newamerica/13449378694/Is there a specific educator or organization from the region whose work or approach is emblematic of
what PAEYC does well?

I think that for us it’s all about the work of Fred Rogers—the Fred Rogers Company, and now the Fred Rogers Center, two of our very good partners. I think about how Fred Rogers always listened to the children and he listened to the parents and he listened to the providers. At the core, that’s what PAEYC wants to stay true to.

How did you experience being part of the Remake Learning Network influence your work at PAEYC?

Gregg Behr and the Grable Foundation bring people from very different sectors to the table. Early on I got to meet Illah Nourbakhsh from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics genius. Being able to sit in a space with him and think about innovative ideas that could really impact kids, families, and their teachers—that’s the space that allows PAEYC to be innovative, to meet people we never would have met. What are the chances of an early childhood organization meeting a robotics lab and really making something wonderful happen?

What will your priorities be in your new role at the Pennsylvania Department of Education?

For me it’s going to be about the governor’s vision and making sure all kids have access to high-quality early learning. My priority right away is: How do I help my team put that at the front of their work and really think differently?

What are you most excited about?

What I’m excited about is bringing some of the great innovation that we have been able to pilot and really get to work here in western Pennsylvania to the state level. How do we bring these partnerships to scale? When you have an unlikely partnership with a place like Carnegie Mellon University, you think differently about what is possible. How do we make sure we are listening to those voices?

What are the chances of an early childhood organization meeting a robotics lab and really making something wonderful happen?

As the issue gains traction nationally, many advocates feel we may be at a turning point around early childhood policy. Do you agree? And, if so, what signs or markers would you point to?

It’s an exciting time to be stepping into this position because I think policymakers get it. It’s not about convincing them anymore. Now it’s about designing things and finding the resources to make it happen. Federally, you have the Obama administration placing a huge priority on universal pre-K. You also have the Child Care and Development Block Grant being reauthorized, which gives states the opportunity to think differently about how they serve families and children who receive subsidized child care. That says to me that young children have become a priority. You also have a lot of national research, even newer brain research. And then across the country you see more and more states investing more and more dollars in the earliest time of life. And we see policy that is rethinking K-3, that is actually embracing early childhood.

What is the toughest part of the work you do?

At least for the state of Pennsylvania, it is finding the resources to be able to invest in these programs. Pennsylvania has a budget deficit, so how do we convince folks to make sure that this is a priority?

We also have to invest in our [early education] workforce so we can make sure we have the best and the brightest and make sure they are compensated so they will stay in the field. I think as a country we really need to think about how we recruit and retain a workforce that can really ensure that children are getting the highest quality of care.

What will you most miss about Pittsburgh?

I think what I’m going to miss on a day-to-day basis is just the natural way that people collaborate. It’s just so easy here.

I’ll also miss walking to school with my kids. And I’m going to miss just being in my neighborhood. I love Hazelwood—that’s where I grew up. I’m going to miss not seeing the redevelopment of Hazelwood in real time.

Photo of Michelle Figlar/New America Foundation

Making Pittsburgh Playful

Last February, a group called the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosted its second community conversation at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The topic? The role of risk in children’s play. And although it was the dead of winter, more than 300 people registered for the event

It took the collaborative by surprise.

“This was the community conversation that surprised us the most,” said Cara Ciminillo, operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). “It was such a thought provoking conversation starter that you really pulled in lots of people.”

The conversation drew educators, parents, city officials, nonprofit organizations, and even two grocery store owners who wanted to know what their role could be in supporting play in their neighborhoods.

Indeed, the conversation was thought provoking. But it’s only part of a wider discussion happening in Pittsburgh and throughout the country on the importance of play for children’s development and the roles of cities in creating more opportunities for kids to play.

“Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining,” wrote psychologist Peter Gray, “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”

One study found that since the late 1970s, kids have lost 12 hours of free time per week. They’ve also experienced a 25 percent decrease in play and spend half as much time doing unstructured outdoor activities. This decrease comes from all sorts of overlapping factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and—after No Child Left Behind—an increased emphasis on academic skill development (in lieu of activities like art, pretend play, and recess) at ever-younger ages.

But play today is more important than ever. In addition to building necessary social and emotional skills, experts say play naturally fosters the types of skills needed for 21st-century learning—problem solving, creativity, self-regulation, and collaboration.

The organizations that make up the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative are harnessing their resources to educate and advocate for play throughout the city—in public spaces, in schools, and at home.

Collaborating for Play

The idea for a collaborative fist started in the early spring of 2013, just after construction workers outside the Carnegie Museum of Art installed the last piece of a long, orange tube that twists and turns and overlaps itself.

Called the Lozziwurm, the opening of the Swiss play sculpture kick-started a relationship between the museum and PAEYC. Eventually, 11 other groups joined, including the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The play collaborative is drawing on the resources and partnerships of Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem—a large network of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, higher education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community working together in specific ways to support learning opportunities for kids throughout the community.

“We’re all able to support our individual goals without any mission drift at all—that’s very unusual,” said Marijke Hecht, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “Play is the kind of topic that crosses many sectors.”

Hecht said each group in the collaborative speaks to a different audience and can advocate for play in different circles. But work with the collaborative has informed each individual group’s work as well.

For example, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a local nonprofit with expertise in working with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, is in the middle of building a new environmental center at Frick Park. Part of the agreement reached with the city is that it will also manage the surrounding 115 acres.

“I think we have a real opportunity to look at where we can do some small-scale interventions in the park for natural play spaces,” Hecht said. Rather than a playground, Hecht and the conservancy are planning to rearrange natural materials in the park to create more opportunities for visitors to play. As families walk the paths, they might be able to balance on a log or hang from a sturdy branch.

“Some of these things happen naturally,” Hecht said, “but we have the opportunity in a park, which is a designed landscape, to make these more deliberate.”

Play Everywhere

The collaborative knows that for play to reach all kids, it has to be integrated into everyday life—not only at play “destinations” like playgrounds or museums, which take planning, packing, and driving to get to. (Plus, only one in five kids in the United States lives within walking distance of a park of playground.) In 2015, the collaborative is planning programming in the Hazelwood neighborhood to “activate” a new playground and other underused play opportunities.

Some national experts believe work like this could be key to making sure families stay in urban areas. National nonprofit Kaboom! recently released a report that found playful cities are more walkable, workable, and family friendly. In Chicago, 80 percent of business owners near “People Spots,” or parking spaces transformed into mini parks, said the spots brought more foot traffic.

With so much vacant space left from Pittsburgh’s population decrease, Hecht said Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to keep play in mind as the city moves forward in figuring out how to redevelop these parcels.

“Because we’re a city that’s lost so much population, we have a lot of vacancy, and a lot of underused green space,” Hecht said. “We’re just thinking about how the idea of play everywhere fits into our open space plan.”

But before more widespread interventions can take root in the city, PAEYC’s Ciminillo says they’ve realized the very meaning of play needs to be reframed.

“We know there’s a segment of our work that needs to be about just educating around the word ‘play,’” Ciminillo said. And as of now, she says too many people think of it as frivolous and siloed off from anything truly beneficial for learning. “We know people see it as a luxury, and not as an inherent part of people’s lives.”

At the same time, so much discussion happening in education reform relates to the types of skills play fosters. Innovation? Problem solving? Risk taking? Ciminillo said learning advocates constantly talk about the skills that play naturally lends itself to—they just don’t use the word “play.”

“We sort of said, ‘Should we just not use the world play?’” she said. “But we all were like, ‘No! We’re using the word play. We’re taking back play. It’s ok!’”

To highlight the deep benefits of play, last April the collaborative hosted an Ultimate Play Day at Schenley Plaza and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The day’s activities were carefully designed to make them easy for parents to replicate at home.

Kids and their families could be found digging around in buckets filled with pine cones and wood, painting on the street with washable paint, and chasing giant cardboard soccer balls. Here’s to hoping it was only the first of many play days ahead.


Homepage screenshot/ Carnegie Museum of Art