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  • Meredith Shaw

Time to Play! Watch Parties, Playtime, and Returning to our Why

Updated: Feb 16, 2023


Have you ever watched something that really struck a chord deep within you—not only validating what you already know and believe, but also awakening you to want to take action in your own life and community? You find yourself saying “Yes! This is so true. What can I do to help?” —and also— “Wow. This is big. How can I encourage others to take action with me?”

This is the response from many in our community who have watched the documentary film Chasing Childhood, especially coupled with the recent presentation from Dr. Peter Gray “What Exactly Is Play?”

“After attending the TTC screening of Chasing Childhood, I wanted to send the film link to everyone I could, saying ‘You have to watch this!’” said Lynne Strobl, a 6th-grade teacher at Proctor School in Topsfield.

Donna Ellis, a 5th-grade teacher at Proctor School, said she also hopes more people in our community watch it. “It's important to give our kids unstructured, independent experiences to help them grow and thrive. This film helps us, as adults, to see how this can happen.”

Andrea Green, Executive Director and Mary Gigandet, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher from The Village School preschool in Boxford, also attended the Chasing Childhood screening. “This is an important issue on so many levels of children’s growth and learning, and we’d really love to help families become aware of the importance of free and imaginative play while their kids are still young,” they said. “Watching the film is a great way to start.”

In addition to pre-k and elementary-ages, the film’s message also addresses concerning trends in teens and young adults. Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, who is featured in the film, is well-known for her thoughts on the importance of helping young people develop self-efficacy. In her book “How to Raise and Adult” she asks:

“What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents? … Is it too late for them to develop a hunger to be in charge of their own lives?”

Boston College research professor Dr. Peter Gray, who is also featured in Chasing Childhood, is a fierce advocate for the importance of free-play in healthy youth development. He says:

“Self-education through play and exploration requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time—time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgment, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions.”


The Cycle of Transformation, an essential theory in the Science of the Positive, a foundational TTC framework, says that there are four key stages in affecting positive change: Spirit, Science, Action, Return. Once we feel the spirit—often driven by empathy and compassion—the science is when we naturally begin connecting, researching, learning more, talking to others about what is possible, and planning what is in our capacity to do first.

Tri-Town Council Executive Director Meredith Shaw reflects, “TTC is committed to fostering, strengthening and supporting the health and well being of our young people. What Chasing Childhood and Dr. Gray remind us of is the role of true play - unstructured, self directed and free - in our kids' lives. It's foundational and critical. If we want to raise healthy, connected, compassionate young people, we have to help them make space for dreaming, creating, and imagining in their lives --- all offered through free play."

Action: Tag-It

Every two weeks on “Tag-It Tuesdays,” Tri-Town Council staff prompt a question to Masconomet Middle-School youth during their lunchtime to foster awareness of developmental assets and well-being.

On January 24, youth were asked to think about “play” and why it is important at any age. They wrote various responses, many of them profound in their genuine clarity, hand-written in colorful markers across the large paper banners.

Their responses included “Play helps with our social skills,” “to relieve stress,” “to grow your imagination,” “to get physical activity,” “to get me off my phone and outdoors,” and “to stay interested in life.” The words “happiness” and “fun” appeared many times in their responses, along with playful-in-themselves responses about robots and pigeons.

Throughout the activity, another frequent response was a thoughtful pause while youth took a moment to really think about the definition of true free-play, their own lives, and when they have time to play.

Like all of us, they took pause to think about this aspect of well-being, and its role in their busy lives.

One of the flyers on display provided a definition from Dr. Gray, highlighting the five primary characteristics of true free-play.

What is Play?

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed (not directed by an adult)

  • Play is intrinsically motivated (no reward except for the play itself)

  • Play is guided by mental rules created by players (to make it most fun for everyone)

  • Play is creative and imaginative (somewhat removed from reality)

  • Players are alert and active, but in a non-stressed frame of mind (ideal for learning and creativity)

The other two flyers on display showed illustrated hedgehogs playing games, while talking about the upcoming “Global School Play Day” on Wednesday, February 1. 7th-grader Rose Leon designed the flyers for her Innovation Project (where students learn a new skill based on a personal interest), and also to help Tri-Town Council promote this event.

Action: A Global Cause in a Simple Event

On Wednesday, February 1, schools all over the globe altered their typical schedule to make time for children to engage in free-play, also building awareness of its importance. This movement, however, is more common in elementary schools. Tri-Town Council saw an opportunity to extend the message into Middle School, as the official Global School Play Day happens to fall on Wednesday, which at Masconomet has an earlier dismissal this year. It was a perfect chance to have youth stay after school for some free time together.

"We were so delighted with how the event went," said Bonnie Thornborough of Tri-Town Council."The middle-school youth played freely, and our high-school volunteers simply played along. It was a great reminder of how fun it can be to have time for unstructured play."

Action: Chasing Childhood Watch Parties

As a deeply caring community, clearly committed to the healthy development of our youth, our Tri-Town as a whole tends to be motivated, curious and thoughtful. It’s just that we are also so busy, and can become so exhausted by our packed schedules. We care, and we want to be part of so many good causes, but it’s so hard to make time to attend a screening, join a discussion group, or add really anything scheduled to our busy schedules—in which we can barely take care of everyone and (hopefully) ourselves.

Which is partly the point.

Even as we struggle to gather together, we nevertheless face this challenge together: How can we use the spirit of ‘play’ to take a small but effective step for the sake of our youth? and: How can we build community around this theme, when the community has a hard time coming together?

So here’s our suggestion—our next collective “action.” And the good news is that it’s pretty easy, flexible, effective, and—in the true spirit of “play”— it’s fun, and (at least somewhat) self-directed.

The Action is: Throughout our community, small groups of friends, organizations, families, or individuals host “Chasing Childhood Watch Parties.”

A link to the film and a Discussion Questions Guide are provided below. Think about who you’d like to watch with, reach out, set a date, and make it happen. The kids can play while the adults share some good food and drinks, watch the film, have a discussion, and see what kinds of thoughts and ideas develop in your group. What kind of Spirit emerges in you? Are there any initial plans and actions you’d like to take?

It’s like a book club, but you get to see it together, and all in one night.


The last step in the Cycle of Transformation is Return. Return is an essential step of reflection that sparks new inspiration to begin the cycle again. And it’s worth noting that by simply planning an event, watching the film, and having a discussion, you and your group will have already been through one full cycle of transformation!

At the community level, we would also love a chance to connect, share, reflect and see what could happen next.


On Thursday, March 23, at 7pm, Tri-Town Council will host a virtual discussion for this step. Maybe only one representative from your group can attend, and that’s okay. We’d love to hear how many attended your watch party, and what thoughts emerged from your group discussion.

Our guiding question will be this: What aspect of the film did your group feel most compelled to take action on, and how might you—or we— begin?

Our “why” is clear: we care about the well-being of our youth—these precious lives in our care, and the hope of the future.

But we all know the “what” and “how” are bigger, more complicated and soul-searching questions. As a caring community, we are constantly weaving and reinforcing a vast network of support for our young people, so it’s important that the network is threaded with some cohesive intent. The “what” and “how” touch parenting, education, programming, policies, community and youth culture. We must all ask ourselves: What, ultimately, do we want for our youth? And perhaps most importantly: what do THEY want in their lives? What skills and dispositions help them access whatever that is? What work do adults need to do for this cause?

In her reflection, teacher Lynne Strobl said: “The film is incredibly powerful and moving. It reminded me how capable and self-reliant our students really are. Kids need more opportunities to build confidence, accountability, and self-efficacy, and we as teachers can provide that.”

Here are some flexible guiding steps to host your own Chasing Childhood Watch Party:

  • Think of a group with whom you’d like to watch and discuss.

  • Reach out, plan a location, date, and menu.

  • Gather, watch, and discuss.

  • Decide who from your group will join our virtual discussion on March 23 @7pm.

  • Decide what highlights your representative/s will share, and how your group would answer:

What aspect of the film did your group feel most compelled to take action on, and how might you—or we— begin?

We look forward to seeing you and learning what you think!

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