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Saving Play

Pat Abramski Rumbaugh ’80, left, with Colleen DiPaul M’78 during September’s Play Day in Takoma Park, Maryland

Pat Abramski Rumbaugh ’80, left, with Colleen DiPaul M’78 during September’s Play Day in Takoma Park, Maryland

On a gray September morning, there might be several Pat Rumbaughs at the annual Play Day in Takoma Park, Maryland. Here she is, swaying and clapping to the music of King Bullfrog. There she is, encouraging a dozen eager children to get their faces painted. Looking in on the quiet crafters, cheering the cornholers, grinning as Congressman Jamie Raskin leads Simon Says, checking on food donated by local and national companies.

And has there really been only one Pat Rumbaugh collecting all those awards—three in 2018 alone? Founder of the nonprofit Let’s Play America and author of Let’s Play at the Playground, Rumbaugh has organized more than 110 events since 2009 just so thousands of people of all ages can come together, build community, and rediscover the joy of unstructured play.  

Back at IUP, there was just Patricia Abramski, a health and physical education major who competed on the field hockey and tennis teams. A1980 graduate, she married Tom Rumbaugh ’81, of Homer City, who received IUP’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008. Then came a master’s in sports psychology—her thesis was on positive talk—and three decades of coaching at Washington International School. In 2009, the Washington Post named her All-Met Girls’ Tennis Coach of the Year for the region covering DC and suburban Virginia and Maryland.

But it’s spontaneous play—the pickup games, attic dress-up, tag in the front yard, “What do you see in the clouds?”—that concerns her most these days. 

“All human beings need play,” Rumbaugh tells her audiences. She hopes every recreation director, elected representative, school official, and eldercare worker who hears her goes home with that message.

“It helps us learn, communicate, express ourselves creatively, explore,” she said. “Since the 1980s, kids have lost 8 to 10 hours of playtime a week.” Rumbaugh cites the American Academy of Pediatrics in saying kids need play and recess every day. In August, AAP published a report, The Power of Play, that linked creative play to the ability to buffer toxic stress, build parental relationships, and improve executive functioning (decision-making skills). 

Already having a sense of this back in 2009, Rumbaugh gathered a few neighbors and officials in her Washington, DC, suburb to form a play committee, which became TakomaPlays! Six months later, the first free Play Day attracted some 200 people.

The city’s recreation department now cosponsors two Play Days a year. A third primarily targets adults. Leaders make special outreach to seniors and teens; Rumbaugh estimates as many as 1,000 young people have volunteered at these and related events over the years. She takes particular pleasure in mixing generations.

“Older people need play as much as anyone,” she told AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) a few years ago. “As we age, we lose our strength, flexibility, and sometimes we have senior moments, but when we laugh and play, we feel great.”

When Rumbaugh heard about the nonprofit KaBoom—which aimed to have a playground within an easy walk of every American child and which set criteria for official Playful Cities USA—she wanted Takoma Park to earn the designation. It did, nine years running, until KaBoom ended the program.  

It was Congressman Raskin who suggested that all this energy could have an influence statewide or even nationwide. Rumbaugh and TakomaPlays! had been thinking along the same lines. In 2015, declaring “Free play is dying, and we need to save it!” she cofounded Let’s Play America to encourage people to start play days in their own communities. 

Seeds for the movement, though, were planted long ago, when young Patty ran wild in the Pennsylvania outdoors—in California, New Brighton, and Monongahela. Her father, Charles Abramski, spent 35 years teaching physical education and coaching high school football to generations of boys, including future NFL star Joe Montana. If you earned a spot on the team, he used to say, you earned playing time as well. Everyone deserved a chance.

Grownup Patty says the same. “I do believe we’re born to play, and people like me need to help others find what it is they enjoy,” she said. “When you dig deep enough, you find it.”

Sustaining that mission will require even more communication: writing a book for adults, speaking on campuses, growing Let’s Play America’s internship program, planning new events…

Maybe she’ll need a few versions of herself after all. Would that be fun?