The Ultimate Block Party: ETFO Sponsors Play-Based Learning in the Park (Early Learning)

Janet Millar Grant

Imagine thousands of children and adults making cityscapes with blocks, or creating art and sculptures with paint, cardboard boxes, and plastic pipe. Now picture that happening on a sunny day in a city park at an event hosted by leading educators, community organizations, and cultural institutions, and you have a picture of the Ultimate Block Party. It’s a scene that will unfold in Toronto this June.

Last fall, I was one of 50,000 people who attended the first-ever Ultimate Block Party in New York City’s Central Park. Renowned psychologists Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff led a coalition of organizations that created the event. Their goal was to highlight the importance and effectiveness of play-based learning, not just in kindergarten but in all elementary grades. Their 28 education partners hosted play centres, each one demonstrating a different aspect of learning.

My colleague Joan Littleford and I were two of a number of “play doctors” who walked through the park dressed in smocks and red noses, answering questions about play-based learning. Parents wanted to know how play shapes learning and how to play with their children. Teachers wanted to know how to introduce more play into

their schools. They expressed frustration with New York’s test-driven kindergarten program, which has led many districts to cancel recess and outdoor play time. I saw only two cell phones in use during the entire day, a remarkable demonstration of the power and engagement of play.

While ETFO has been a strong advocate of play-based learning for over a decade, learning through play and its connection to enhanced brain function is not well understood or valued by many educators and parents. That attitude needs to change, particularly because the Ontario government has just introduced a play-based early learning curriculum that is “historic for the world,” as Hirsh-Pasek told those attending ETFO’s Partners in Early Learning conference last August.

ETFO’s commitment to play-based learning has prompted us to take the lead in hosting the first Ultimate Block Party in Ontario – and in Canada. We have received commitments to participate from some of Ontario’s most important cultural institutions, including the Ontario Science Centre and the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as theatre groups and other organizations. The event has been endorsed by Right To Play. Our goal is to press education officials and educators to ensure that play-based programs are instituted in all schools.

ETFO’s Ultimate Block Party will take place June 5 at Fort York in Toronto. Like the Central Park Block Party it will let thousands of people – parents, educators, government officials, and the general public – experience first-hand the essential role of play in children’s learning.


children drawing on paper

Kimberly Maich talks about some of the classroom strategies she uses to engage and motivate her students to advocate for their own future.