Teachers Support Play Through:

Play to Thrive

Play to Thrive brings different experiences and backgrounds to a shared goal of renewing the prominence of physical and intellectual play in young people’s lives as a fundamental aspect of thriving in the 21st century. It is both a treatise on play and call to action. 

The core message about the how and why of helping children to learn and thrive through play is summarized in four simple declarative statements:

Let there be play so that children become their own and our own future.

Suggested reading: Let the Children Play by Pasi Sahlberg & William Doyle

Click/Tap image to view/download 24 pg document (Direct Download)
Source: Maximum City Website

Schematic Play

Schemas are described as patterns of repeated behaviour which allow children to explore and express developing ideas and thoughts through their play and exploration. The repetitive actions of schematic play allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing.

View/download guide
Use this guide to:
  • Get a visual overview of the nine types of play you may be seeing
  • Introduce schema play to your team
  • Reflect on your current practices

What Are Play Schemas? (Play.Learn.Thrive Post)
Early Years Guide to Schemas in Play (Toddle Post)
Encourage Children's Natural Play with Eight Schema Posters
Vocabulary Cards to Build Language During Schema Play
Posters to Support Schema Play
Source: Toddle, Play.Learn.Thrive 
View/download PowerPoint
Using this powerpoint, you are invited to:
  • Choose an icebreaker 
  • Choose conversation prompts and use our strategies to gather and group your participants
  • Set up one or two of the activities from each schema shared in the support at home section, for families to try out
  • Share the PowerPoint either as a presentation, or as a stimulus for conversation
  • Get ready to play!

Source: Toddle

Adult vs Child Led Play

"There is a time and place for both child led play and adult led play.

"That said, both styles have different functions that serve to give us information about the child we are playing with. When we as adults lead the play, we have an idea in mind for specifically what skills we want to accomplish and target throughout the play. 

"In many instances, adult led play provides children with examples of structure and organization of tasks. For older children with more developed communication skills, adult led play can easily transform into a turn-taking exchange in which both members feel equally involved.

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"For younger children with less developed communication and play skills, child led play allows for ample exploration of the creative play space and begins the establishment for trust between themselves and the adult they are playing with.

"Child led activities serve as the foundation of our relationships with our kids. As our relationships grow and strengthen, we begin slowly introducing adult led activities as well."

Source: PlaySpark

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Embracing Rough & Tumble Play

Click/Tap image to view  download resourceSource: Toddle
Discover the essence of rough and tumble play through this empowering guide from Toddle. It offers insights and strategies beyond traditional cautionary approaches, encouraging phrases that foster exploration. 
Central to the guide is the concept of "Essential Agreements," promoting mutual expectations and conflict resolution. Through stories, it illustrates consent and reflection. Embracing rough and tumble play as a learning opportunity, it transforms approaches to facilitate children's exuberant moments and developmental journey.

Making Learning More Playful

Click/Tap image to view  videosSource: Edutopia
Despite play's importance in early education, its presence wanes as students progress. Yet, research confirms its effectiveness in fostering diverse learning.
So, how do schools infuse joy and child-centric approaches, integrating play across grades? Explore these short but informative videos, hosted by Edutopia, to understand the transformative potential of play-based pedagogy that can enhance your classroom.

The Downside of Helicopter Parenting

Run Time: 2:55 - Feb 27, 2024
When I taught in Japan a few years ago, it was not uncommon for 5 and 6-year-olds to routinely walk to school on their own. Kindergarten students even took the train or public transit by themselves. There was generally much less of a ‘helicopter’ parent culture than we experience in places like Canada, Australia, the UK, and America.
Research, which this video reveals, found a decline in unsupervised activities like walking to school or playing outdoors, crucial for building self-reliance and confidence in North America. 
Despite parental recognition of the value of such autonomy, safety concerns often restrict it, reflecting societal norms and school policies that further limit children's freedom.Source: Kite-Key

Powerful Play Posters and Postcards

Click/tap image to view/downloadSource: Toddle
"Words are powerful. They can be encouraging and motivating, give meaning and inspiration, express ideas and feelings, instill curiosity and wonder!This collection of play posters does exactly that. It makes you pause, reflect, wonder, and reassure. These are not just any quotes, these are our top ten inspirations
Toddle has also created accompanying postcards that are a great way to share some gratitude, appreciation, and love.  You can view/download them here.
Also see: Encourage children's natural play with our eight schema posters

Play is More Than Fun

[Dr. Stuart Brown]

Run Time: 3:57 - Jul 20, 2009
A pioneer in research on play, Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults -- and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age. 

ABC News on Dr. Stuart Brown’s book: Play

[Dr. Stuart Brown]

Run Time: 4:36 - Sep 2, 2010
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This segment from ABC News aired March 4, 2009. Dr. Brown was profiled along with published work in National Geographic, research on Charles Whitman and the general science of play.

The Decline of Play

[Peter Gray]

Run Time: 16:03 - Jun 13, 2014
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In this talk, Dr. Peter Gray compellingly brings attention to the reality that over the past 60 years in the United States there has been a gradual but, overall dramatic decline in children's freedom to play with other children, without adult direction. Over this same period, there has been a gradual but overall dramatic increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism in children and adolescents. Based on his own and others' research, Dr. Gray documents why free play is essential for children's healthy social and emotional development and outlines steps through which we can bring free play back to children's lives.

See: More Play and Less Therapy for Students (Article by Peter Gray)

Let Go, to Let Grow

[Gwen Coffey]

Run Time: 4:59 - Jun 6, 2022
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In this TED talk, Gwen Coffey expresses her concern over the excessive rules and restrictions in schools that hinder children's independence and learning. She believes that overprotective parenting and micromanaging can negatively impact children's anxiety levels and academic performance. 

To support her argument, she cites a study from the University of California, Berkeley. Gwen advocates for adventure playgrounds, where children can learn essential life skills without adult supervision. 

She encourages adults to let kids take on tasks independently and to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions, rather than constantly saying "no." Gwen shares her personal experience of being allowed to use tools under adult supervision, which helped her learn responsibility and safety.

Why Coercive Schooling is "Immoral & Unnecessary" - Play & Self-Directed Learning

[Peter Gray]

Run Time: 1:56:29 - July 3, 2022
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Hosted by James Manion: Peter Gray is a research professor at Boston College and the author of 'Free to Learn' and 'Psychology', a college textbook now in its 8th edition.

Here are some of the incredible things people have written about 'Free to Learn'::

“The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray's Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray's message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation. Free to Learn can have an immediate impact on the children in your life.” (David Sloan Wilson)

“A compelling and most enjoyable read. Gray illustrates how removing play from childhood, in combination with increasing the pressures of modern-day schooling, paradoxically reduces the very skills we want our children to learn. The decline of play is serious business.” (Roberta Michnick Golinkoff)

“Peter Gray is one of the world's experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform. Though I am not sure I agree with all of his recommendations, he forces us all to rethink our convictions on how schools should be designed to accommodate the ways that children learn.” (Steven Pinker)


Peter's research and Psychology Today blog

Alliance for Self-Directed Education

Let Grow Website

American Journal of Play - Guest Editor Peter Gray

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast
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The Power of Play-Based Learning 

By Andrew Boryga | Edutopia | August 5, 2022. 

New research shows play-based learning can be more effective than direct instruction at improving outcomes for early learners—particularly in the development of mathematical and spatial skills. 

The mere presence of the word play in the teaching method known as play-based learning can alarm some parents of early childhood learners. Students, even our youngest students, should be “playing” at home. They come to school to learn, they might say.

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That distinction—between “learning” and “play”—is a false one, according to early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis. Although kindergarten and elementary classrooms often devalue it in favor of direct instruction or seat time, play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development, and its “signature” is apparent in the bodies and lives of little kids who experience it: “Their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they have a chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given the chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment,” Christakis told Edutopia in a 2019 interview.

Children aren’t miniature adults. Nonetheless, a bias toward adult perspectives of childhood, with its attendant schedules and routines, has gradually exerted a stranglehold on our educational system, Christakis continues, trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel dreary, joyless, and alienating. “The notion that there is something of value in being a little kid—with little kid desires and, above all, needs—seems to have fallen out of favor.”

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the clear benefits of play, setting aside the time for even the youngest students can seem out of step with the academic demands of the school day. Early childhood teachers are pressured to meet strict seat-time guidelines in their classrooms, and they often feel that direct instruction is the best method to achieve the many curricular objectives that parents, principals, and other leaders expect.

According to a new study, there’s a middle path. A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed decades of research on “guided play”—more commonly called play-based learning—and concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on the acquisition of skills like math, shape knowledge, and task switching than more traditional approaches that prioritize seat time and explicit instruction.

“In redefining play as a spectrum with varying degrees of child autonomy and adult guidance, guided play has been situated as a ‘middle-ground’ between free play and direct instruction,” the researchers concluded. The learning is inherently rich and meaningful because “play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.”

Incorporating key elements of play—like wonder, exploration, and student agency—into loosely structured lessons that are gently supported by teachers provides an “optimal” approach for students, according to the researchers. For Christakis, this means that play-based learning experiences should provide students with a “steady diet of free, unstructured time and access to open-ended materials” that allow them to engage in “rambling” storytelling and provide plenty of time to just “mess around and make their own rules.”

Play, with an Objective in Mind

In a successful play-based learning class, teachers often have a clear “learning goal” behind the play they let students engage in ahead of time, according to the Cambridge study. A teacher should keep this goal in mind during the play and subtly guide the child toward the goal.

Don’t pull the strings too tight: According to primary teacher Maggie Sabin, teachers shouldn’t necessarily expect students to produce specific outputs. For example, to teach students how colors can be mixed to form new colors, you might avoid giving students instructions to mix specific colors and instead model one example and then allow them to make their own combinations. “Be well prepared and intentional in planning, but allow for flexibility and inspiration,” writes Sabin.

One way to make sure that students are playing with purpose is to structure your classroom with deliberate spaces or centers containing materials, games, or objects intentionally chosen for students to engage with and make sense of.

An area in Sabin’s classroom, for example, contains a “tinker tray” of items that might seem random but are related to lessons or units she is using direct instruction to guide students through. During a unit on nature and natural materials, for example, the tray is stocked with items like pebbles, leaves, or sticks that students can both practice naming and manipulating. The materials can also be used to practice early math skills through the course of play by simply asking students how many pebbles they have or how many pebbles they have left after giving some to a friend.

Providing Choice and Agency

Effective play-based learning should be child-led when possible and give students “freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior,” the researchers assert. However, their findings suggest that the level of autonomy being given to students in play-based learning scenarios is often less than the amount needed to “cultivate children’s agency, motivation, and curiosity.”

To foster that agency, San Jose Unified School District kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow often starts the day by allowing students 30 to 45 minutes of “choice time” to explore various spaces in the classroom—a block center, math center, science center, art center, book nook, or dramatic play corner.

The items they encounter are related to previous lessons and the interests her students have expressed. For example, after reading the children’s book Miss Maple’s Seeds, Arrow said, her students became fascinated by the author’s process of creating the book from her imagination. As a result, Arrow’s art center included materials for students to create stories of their own and to practice speaking, listening, and writing standards in the process.

Arrow writes that their bookmaking interests eventually carried over into other areas of learning. For example, one student created a number book. After Arrow shared it with the class, number books became popular, and her students were referencing number grids and creating their own number books that helped them count and identify large numbers in the process.

“Once my students had experienced play-based learning, they were more focused, motivated, and purposeful,” writes Arrow. “Most important, they were happier. Bringing play-based learning to my classroom created balance, deepened our learning, and defined our classroom community as a place where we could learn and grow together.”

When to Step In

As children play, teachers should be observing closely to gather insights about the way students are learning and use open-ended questions, hints, and prompts to gently nudge students and encourage deeper thinking. You might step in “when a child appears to find an activity too difficult or too easy” so that you “can help them learn beyond what might be possible in independent play,” the researchers say.

For example, when children are playing with blocks, open-ended questions can be posed to encourage problem-solving, prediction, and hypothesizing, according to veteran teacher and curriculum manager for Edmentum Winnie O’Leary. A teacher can bring awareness to math standards by asking students low-stakes questions such as “I wonder how tall this tower can get?” or “I wonder how many blocks you need to make that tower as tall as your friend’s?”

Simple questions can also encourage practice recalling information and identifying shapes, objects, or colors, according to O’Leary. During a game of Go Fish, for example, you can ask, “Hey, who had the number 4 in the last round?” Or during a game of Uno you might ask, “Hmm, what color card do you need to add to the center deck?” Games involving strategy—like checkers or tic-tac-toe—are great to get students thinking critically about their objectives and how to adjust them based on what is happening during the game. Try questions like “I wonder what move you could have made to win?”

Use these strategies wisely, though, the researchers caution. In the end, hints and questions should not feel like directives.

Christakis agrees, telling Edutopia that she often coaches teachers to stay away from “checking questions” such as “What color is the apple?” or “What are you drawing?” Instead, she says, teachers should ask questions like “Tell me about your drawing.”

“The open-ended response really opens up a huge space for spontaneous and deep learning,” Christakis says.

Source: Edutopia
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Healthy Childhood Development Through Outdoor Risky Play 

By Lenore Skenazy |LetGrow | January 25, 2024

Children should engage in activities like climbing trees, jumping off things, and riding bikes fast. Who says so? It's the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). They deserve credit for releasing a significant report titled "Healthy Childhood Development Through Outdoor Risky Play."

This might seem like a significant shift, and it is. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been advocating for risky play for over a decade.

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In 2015, she, along with a distinguished commission, emphasized the importance of risky play for children. Although some CPS doctors were part of that commission, according to Brussoni, the Society wasn't fully prepared to support the declaration.

However, that has changed now.

Risky Play: A Form of Preventative Medicine

Confronted with alarming rates of childhood anxiety, depression, obesity, and even myopia, the Society realized that "allowing children to engage in outdoor play could be a solution to many of these pressing issues," according to Brussoni.

This realization stemmed from the acknowledgment of two fundamental truths:

Risky Play Fosters Courage in Children

According to the report, when children engage in play without adult intervention, it enhances their social-emotional abilities and can "substantially reduce children's susceptibility to heightened anxiety."

This phenomenon is rather evident, notes Let Grow co-founder Peter Gray, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College. "From an evolutionary standpoint, why do children engage in risky play? It's because this is how they develop courage," Gray explains. "They intentionally place themselves in situations that evoke fear to gain a sense of control over it: 'I can experience this fear and manage it.' Consequently, when confronted with genuine emergencies, they are slightly less prone to panic. They also exhibit less fear because they understand, 'Something might happen, but I can handle it.'"

Source: LetGrow
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Kids Can Learn More From Guided Play Than From Direct Instruction

By Jackie Mader | The Hechinger Report | March 24, 2022. 

A review of seventeen studies found that guided play is as good as or better than adult-led, direct instruction. What happens when you stop teaching young children via direct instruction and instead set up purposeful opportunities to play? They could learn just as much—or more— when it comes to literacy, numeracy and executive function skills critical to early academic success, according to a new review of 17 studies of play.

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Researchers looked at 39 studies of play and included 17 in a meta-analysis that found when children ages three to eight engage in guided play, they can learn just as much in some domains of literacy and executive function as children who receive direct instruction from a teacher or adult. (The studies that were excluded did not fit the review’s criteria of assessing child learning and development outcomes.) Guided play, unlike free play, means there is a learning goal set by an adult and children are ‘gently steered to explore. The study found children also learned slightly more in some areas of numeracy, like knowledge of shapes, and showed a greater mastery of some behavioral skills, like being able to switch tasks.

These findings, which were published in the journal, Child Development, add to a growing body of research that has found play is not simply a carefree tangent to learning, but rather an effective way to teach important early skills. Continue reading.

Articles/Blogs/Websites & Books

Articles/Blogs About the Importance of Play

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(Focus: Play, self-directed learning)
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When Adults Step Back, Kids Step Up:  At Let Grow, they believe today’s kids are smarter and stronger than our culture gives them credit for. Treating them as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future — and ours. Let Grow is making it easy, normal and legal to give kids the independence they need to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults. Co-founded by Peter Gray.

Let Grow Programs

Wonderful Ideas for Replacing traditional "Homework" with activities that promote independence, resilience and responsibility. (see Home Learning)

These programs give students the freedom to do things on their own and they change forever. Let Grow’s school and community programs give young people a bracing dose of the rocket fuel known as independence. Let Grow’s school programs are designed to unlock young people’s brilliance and resilience. Read about the programs for K-8 students in this free download of the chapter for educators in the brand-new edition of Free-Range Kids!

Website features

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(Focus: Child-Led Play)
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Nature Play® is about creating a space for the children to lead their own play, and a place for the adults to learn how to support that. Child-led play' means each child is free to follow his/her own play urges while, at the same time, respecting others. Successful child-led play depends on observing behavioural boundaries, such as no violent or aggressive behaviour. Both children and adults are asked to help keep Nature Play® a safe and calm place for everyone. Child-led play is where the child takes the lead, so that they can follow their own play urges.

Website Sections

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Play: Peter Gray's Blog/Website

(Focus: Play, self-directed learning)
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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 8th edition). He has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children's natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. He a founding member of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education and a founding board member of the nonprofit Let Grow. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long-distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.

A Few of Peter's Blogs


A Few Play Research Articles

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(Focus: Family Engagement, Home Learning, Adult Playful Learning, Primary School, Early Childhood, Outside the Classroom, Classroom Examples)
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Hello and welcome to the official blog of the Pedagogy of Play research project! In 2014, some folks from the LEGO Foundation and Project Zero, a research organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, began thinking together about learning through play. What is the role of play in empowering children to be lifelong learners? In helping them develop critical and creative thinking skills? What does school-based playful learning and teaching look and feel like? How can a culture of playful learning be cultivated and sustained in schools?

The Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project officially took shape in 2015 with a playful participatory research project based at the International School of Billund (ISB), Denmark. With a mission and vision founded on the belief that play is a core resource for how children learn, ISB was fertile ground for exploring our questions. This co-created research inspired a working set of playful learning principles, practices, and tools and the inspiration for an evolving pedagogy of play framework.

Yet we know that playful learning is shaped by culture and context -- that is, what play looks and feels like in one place is likely not the same in another. So we have begun to explore other contexts of playful learning: how learning through play might be similar or different to what emerged from ISB and what a cross-cultural pedagogy of play might look like. 

We hope this blog provides a mental playground for tinkering with ideas and building a community of playful thinkers and thoughtful players.



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Play: Center for Playful Inquiry - Blog

(Focus: promotes voice, agency, and strong community. by prioritizing play, the arts, and meaning-making.)
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The Center for Playful Inquiry partners with adults who care for children to embolden their practice, improving living and learning conditions that promote voice, agency, and strong community. By prioritizing play, the arts, and meaning-making, we strengthen the relationship between childhood and adulthood to inspire justice, democracy, and beauty through curiosity, compassion, and courage.

A Few Blogs

Review or buy it here

"How Children Learn" by John Holt is a seminal work that challenges traditional notions of education and offers profound insights for teachers. Holt emphasizes the importance of understanding children's innate curiosity and their natural inclination to learn through exploration and experimentation. His observations underscore the significance of creating environments that foster active engagement and allow for authentic learning experiences.

One of the book's strengths lies in Holt's ability to debunk myths surrounding education, such as the idea that learning is solely achieved through formal instruction or standardized tests. Instead, he advocates for a more child-centered approach that respects individual interests and learning styles.

Teachers will appreciate Holt's emphasis on the role of play, hands-on experiences, and meaningful interactions in the learning process. By embracing his perspective, educators can better support their students' intrinsic motivation and intellectual growth.

Overall, "How Children Learn" offers valuable insights that can inform and inspire teachers to create dynamic learning environments that honour the natural curiosity and creativity of children. It's a must-read for educators seeking to cultivate a genuine love for learning in their classrooms.

** Must read: Review of How Children Learn by Peter Gray.

Key Learnings


Review or buy it here

A leading expert in childhood development makes the case for why self-directed learning -- "unschooling" -- is the best way to get kids to learn. In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that in order to foster children who will thrive in today's constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development.

Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, he demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient. A brave, counterintuitive proposal for freeing our children from the shackles of the curiosity-killing institution we call school, Free to Learn suggests that it's time to stop asking what's wrong with our children, and start asking what's wrong with the system. It shows how we can act—both as parents and as members of society—to improve children's lives and to promote their happiness and learning.


Published three times a year by the National Museum of Play, the Journal of Play features interviews, book reviews, and original peer-reviewed research for a wide readership of scholars, educators, policymakers, museum and industry professionals, healthcare workers, and those who seek to understand the importance and impact of play in our world. The Journal is free online.

300+ Top Play Resources

Check out this site curated by Carol Torgan, Ph.D. that is a wide-ranging list of play resources that includes organizations, resources, guidelines and reports, current news stories, books, audio and video, e-newsletters, blogs, twitter hashtags, image and design collections, programs, locations, and events.

Download Resources