Who says play is just for kids?

A group of educators posed this question during the PAEYC (Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children) conference in 2012 which attracted some 1800 educators from across the country to Pittsburgh. With new studies touting the positive benefits of playful learning, educators wondered if teachers needed a few lessons in playfulness?

Turns out that teachers just want to have fun too, especially if it helps them see the world through the eyes of their students. The inaugural Pittsburgh UnConference was born in 2013 with “Game On.” Hosted by PAEYC, the daylong playdate gave educators an opportunity to delve into the sandbox of Carnegie Mellon’s Create Lab, learn how to hack apps and fly through outer space.

“It was the best conference that I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to a million of them,” says South Fayette teacher Chuck Herring. “I knew CMU was doing some super cool things, but it was mind-blowing.”

Today it’s one of the hottest tickets around. If you didn’t get one in time for the sold-out UnConference next week, mark your calendar for 2017. PAEYC plans to offer the intimate event biennially in the years between the larger PAEYC conferences, says Cara Ciminillo, interim executive director of PAEYC.

The UnConference is open to everyone, from teachers to caregivers. Play has no age limit.

“For adults, it’s an opportunity to exert physically as a way to manage stress,” she says. “For older adults, it’s a way to keep our mind agile, and like children, learn through all of our senses.”

UnConference 2015: Children+Arts! takes place on Aug. 6th at CAPA in collaboration with the Reggio Emilia Pittsburgh Initiative. The “Wonder of Learning–The Hundred Languages of Children” exhibition opened this month highlighting the importance of the arts and the evolution of innovation in early childhood education as seen through the lens of Reggio Emilia’s philosophy.

Adults, especially educators, want to be creative and use more than just their ears as a learning opportunity, says Ciminillo. They are eager for hands-on, experiential learning opportunities.

It was an “eye opening” experience for many, she adds. “When you’re physically doing or making, you’re fully immersed in the learning. You lose sight of (the process) because you’re full engaged.

“Putting themselves into the world of a child can be a big risk for many adults. Adults are the gatekeepers. This is a real opportunity for educators and caregivers to experience things in a way that are not necessarily in their comfort zone. If they are comfortable, they are more likely to include it in their own teaching.”

The day is designed around sensory experiences. This year’s UnConference begins at CAPA with a keynote by Jennifer Strange, education consultant and expert in the Reggio Emilia Approach, followed by a tour of the Reggio exhibition at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Participants then set out on foot through the city to workshops. There are opportunities to dance and learn creative movement with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Pittsburgh-born artist and teacher Alison Babusci of Buzzword Pittsburgh will demonstrate how storytelling, puppetry and art can encourage family engagement and increase vocabulary.

Traveling through space with Dream Lab
Traveling through space with Dream Lab

At the Andy Warhol Museum, participants will tour the new exhibition, Andy’s Toy Box, and learn strategies for engaging children with toys. Other stops along the way include Gemini Theater Company, Carnegie Museum of Art and the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh.

“It’s an opportunity to really delve into what Pittsburgh has to offer by way of the arts and take this back to an early childhood setting,” says Ciminillo.

“There’s a whole synergy in reaching kids through a constructivist, progressive approach,” says Herring, who believes the UnConference is one of many opportunities for teachers that has put Pittsburgh on the educational map. “Partnerships are starting to emerge. I’ve found that when the word gets out beyond Pittsburgh about what’s going on here, suddenly people in Pittsburgh take notice.”

This article is part of the Remake Learning initiative, a multimedia partnership between NEXTpittsburgh and WQED Multimedia, Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA. Click to see their stories on Learning innovation in Pittsburgh.

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Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.