Researchers who study child development have a message for the nation: Let the kids play.

As psychologists well know, when children scribble in a notebook or build elaborate block towers, they aren’t just goofing off, they’re learning skills that will prepare them for adulthood. To get that message to the public, on Oct. 3 a group of authors, educators, business leaders and psychologists will make a plea for more play in New York City’s Central Park. The event, dubbed the “Ultimate Block Party,” aims to let families experience the benefits of play firsthand. The party will consist of more than 20 activities that research suggests foster the development of much-needed skills. Participating in the “World’s Largest Simon Says,” for example, can help children hone their motor skills, language, memory and more. Building paper airplanes fosters creativity, spatial learning and social collaboration. Kids will also be able to take part in drumming, sing-a-longs, theater, dancing, sidewalk art, science experiments, an obstacle course and much more. It will be a chance “for everyone to just feel and taste and see what real learning is all about,” says Temple University psychology professor Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, one of the block party organizers.

According to Hirsh-Pasek, encouraging more play in learning is just one change the education system needs. “So much of what we’re doing is outdated,” she says. “It’s almost like we’re trying to run a Model T Ford on a modern highway.” Rather than asking kids to focus on “learning factoids,” Hirsh-Pasek says, the science suggests that we should be encouraging critical thinking, confidence, creativity and communication skills through interactive activities that keep kids engaged.

The hope is that the Ultimate Block Party will become an annual event and spread to other cities. “We want it to roll out as a movement,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “Sort of like Earth Day.”

—C. Willyard

Go to The Ultimate Block Party for more information.