Jeanne Bennett and Mary Sisson, Board Chair and Secretary at Columbia Play Project, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to creating exploratory play opportunities for the young and young at heart.


The Importance of Play in our Community: Columbia Play Project

August 16, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

The sound of laughter is unmistakable.

It evokes feelings we instantly recognize, relate to.

It brings up memories and emotions.

It can be contagious or distracting.

Studies have shown that the strongest catalyst for laughter is our desire to connect with other people. It’s a rare gift to share your most unguarded, watery-eyed, chocolate-milk-through-your-nostrils belly laugh with someone else – and feel safe enough with them to do so.

Of the many different types of laughter, the loud and effervescent shrieks of children are most universally appreciated. It’s pure bliss, unaffected by the layers of complexity and distraction that populate grown-up minds.

For most, learning to share in the joy of laughter begins during childhood through game play. From those first peek-a-boos between parents and babies, to unstructured play on grassy knolls, imaginative play on rainy days, to structured games and horseplay.

If laughter sits at the very heart of a shared human experience, play is one of the key doorways to getting there. Given the immense stress our world is under right now, play is one great activity that is tied to a host of meaningful solutions – laughing has been scientifically proven to help us heal, learn, and get closer to others.

You might argue that the presence of people laughing and playing together provides signs of a healthy community; it shows that people feel connected. With this in mind, how do we fully embrace the role that play can bring to our shared spaces?

To dig in and think more broadly about play as a force for social good and a design element that can enhance spaces across every community, we’ve been speaking with some of Clark County’s resident “play experts.” Our hope in this series of conversations is to unpack some of the ways that play can be a boon for community growth, development, planning, and more.

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Columbia Play Project Pop-Up Event

In the first installment of our four-part series, we interviewed Jeanne Bennett and Mary Sisson, Board Chair and Secretary at Columbia Play Project, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to creating exploratory play opportunities for the young and young at heart.

The organization currently hosts pop-up play events across Clark County for all ages and families and offers activity kits online, as well as a range of other exciting events.

As a force of positivity, they are literally spreading joy by going into shared public spaces and providing the tools, prompts, and permission to goof off shamelessly. But their purpose is much larger than that. The organization has two main goals – raising funds to launch Clark County’s first museum on wheels – a concept that we’ll talk through during this interview. The second is to meet their stated target of opening the county’s very own children’s museum, which will be a hub where all families can safely engage, connect, explore, and ignite their imagination.

Creating Opportunities to Play is an Investment In Long-Term Community Health

Playing games teaches us a lot about life at a time when lessons need to stick. Things like compromise, sharing, how to win, how to lose, how to begin again from zero. How to resolve conflict respectfully. It’s all there, packed into a game of freeze tag or Legos.

“We know from research that play is important for cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development. When children are playing together, they are building important social skills,” says Jeanne Bennett. “Not only does it contribute to the ability for little children to build bigger brains, but it is also beneficial to their development as they grow up to become the next generation of stewards, scholars, parents, and employees.”

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A critter's guide to play in the Pacific Northwest - official Playkits by Columba Play Project

Play Is a Healthy Stress Reliever

Stress is ubiquitous and amplified by our need for constant information and stimulation. Phones and technology are increasingly distracting and detrimental to our (kids and adults) ability to be present with one another. Given all of the hardships and ambient stresses that are prevalent right now, how can play help kids and families find ways to connect and spend time together?

“When people play, they reduce the stress in their bodies. Right now, with the pandemic, political unrest, and everything that is happening, people are generally under immense stress. As we (consciously or unconsciously) process these events, there has to be a way to counteract the stress,” Jeanne Bennet explains. “One of the ways we know works is to get out in nature. That’s why our pop-up parties and our mobile units are outside, in natural settings that lend themselves well to free play. Just having the opportunity to have fun and be outside playing will reduce your stress level.”

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Columbia Play Project Pop-Up Event

“When you play, your body is self-medicating with all of the natural molecules of emotion,” Mary Sisson says. “It releases dopamine (connected to anticipation and goals), oxytocin (the cuddle hormone, related to trust), serotonin (released when we’re recognized for something), endorphins (which mask pain). When you’re silly, it shows that you’re comfortable being vulnerable together. These are all good, natural antidotes to the cortisol, which is released when you’re stressed.”

Play Is a Vehicle For Community Empowerment

When we first started talking about the children’s museum in December of 2019, the plan was to build a beautiful place for families. Access and equity were very important to us from the beginning. However, the pandemic presented a unique opportunity for us to start providing services immediately. In doing so, we came up with this idea for a mobile unit. With a mobile museum, there is an opportunity to go directly into communities,” says Mary.

“We know from statistics around the country that children who attend children’s museums tend to be from white, upper-middle income families. We want to make sure that all children in our community and all families have access to this. With the mobile unit, we’ll be able to go directly into communities – BIPOC, English as a second language, lower-income – and bring the toys directly to families,” Jeanne adds.

In an effort to advance these goals, both Jeanne and Mary have done an incredible job of activating the community through events that create awareness for Columbia Play Project, generate interest, raise funds and connect with communities.

“The museum aims to meet a very important need in the community. So many people are excited about the opportunity to have a full-scale children’s museum that they’re jumping right onboard,” says Jeanne. “Some people might see the museum as a ‘want’ - something that would be great in theory but not absolutely necessary. I definitely see this as a ‘need.’ I see it as something that contributes to the health of our community in many ways.”

Broader Hopes for Columbia Play Project

“A long-term goal for us is creating a more connected community. We have so many amazing partnering organizations, accessible public spaces, and opportunities. I would like us all to be more connected to them, so that families across the region understand what their options are and where they can go to have more experiences,” Jeanne says.

“One of the areas we could really use help with is including more voices from our communities. We recognize that our board doesn’t have diverse representation. We have been working on trying to expand our reach. While we’re partnering with organizations like the NAACP and Boys and Girls Club, we don’t have a diversity of representation on our board, and we are wanting to change that by having people from diverse backgrounds join. To nominate someone, please drop us an email or feel free to attend one of our board meetings – they are fully open.”

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We are deeply grateful to Jeanne and Mary for their time and look forward to supporting their efforts to expand the reach and impact of Columbia Play. Great design should respond to culture and empower people. We’re hard-pressed to think of a more empowering idea than giving children and families the opportunity to connect with each other and be silly.

To connect with Columbia Play Project, follow the link to their website or follow them on social media. To nominate someone for a board member position, send an email to: