TEDx shows locals that it pays to ‘play’

Staff Writer

 TEDxNavesink attendees enjoy playground games in front of the Two River Theater in Red Bank during a break from the conference. The day’s theme was “play.”  KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF TEDxNavesink attendees enjoy playground games in front of the Two River Theater in Red Bank during a break from the conference. The day’s theme was “play.” KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF The concept of “ideas worth spreading” has clearly taken hold in central New Jersey following the wildly successful second incarnation of the TEDxNavesink conference on May 10.

Held this year at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, the locally run offshoot of the internationally renowned TED Talks sold out six weeks in advance.

Despite a maximum ticket price of $90, hundreds of local residents, business owners, educators and community leaders flocked to the theater to participate in an increasingly interactive day of “nonfiction theater.”

“I think it’s an opportunity to get out and start meeting people, and see some of the great local minds in this area,” said Chris Reppy, an Ocean Township resident who also attended the inaugural TEDxNavesink conference last year at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft.

“It helps bring all of these little sparks together, and maybe it can get a little bit of a fire going.”

While TED Talks, which have featured speakers such as Bill Gates and Jane Goodall, mostly focus on large-scale issues and are held throughout the world, TEDx events are organized and run locally, often featuring themes and speakers relevant to the area.

After last year’s TEDxNavesink conference on rising sea levels, economic revitalization and the future of central New Jersey, this year’s event focused on a somewhat lighter concept: play.

Featuring acclaimed musicians, comedic acts, academics and industry professionals from across North America, along with interactive exhibits and outdoor activities, the event was designed to engage the local audience as much as possible, lead organizer Brian Smiga said.

“The primary point is to get people to meet each other. It’s part of our mission statement,” he said. “So we needed to create an environment where people could do that.”

During the lunch break in the conference, local partners such as the Red Bank YMCA encouraged attendees to jump rope, hulahoop and engage in other playground games on the sprawling sidewalk in front of the theater.

In the lobby, attendees both young and old lined up to perform mock “invasive surgery” using a robotic surgical machine on loan from Monmouth Medical Center.

Inside the theater, musicians and speakers such as Mike O’Keeffe, creative director of the Improv Jam Comedy Lab in Red Bank, regularly brought audience members on-stage to play along and engage in improvisational comedy.

Gift bags given to each attendee contained specific items for the talks, such as a red plastic cup for audience members to bang on during a “spiritual drumming” session by Dennis Daniels, dean of the Hope Academy Charter School in Asbury Park.

However, the conference was not all fun and games, as many speakers delved into the serious social and psychological benefits underlying the concept of play.

Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, outlined decades of clinical research and study on childhood development that has found a definitive link between a recent decline in play and a rise in psychological disorders.

“Childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of résumé building,” he said.

Gray said students today go to school an average of five weeks longer than their counterparts in the 1950s, with significantly more homework and much less time for recess and other outdoor activities.

While children today are engaged in organized athletics, those activities involve regimented schedules and constant supervision by coaches and parents.

But play, which is practiced by nearly all mammals and helps to develop vital social, physical and educational skills, cannot be so highly structured, Gray said. By definition, it must be “self-controlled” and “self-directed.”

However, due to expanding school obligations and largely irrational fears spread by the media and public officials, parents today are less likely to let their children play, interact and learn from one another in an unstructured setting, Gray said.

As a result, children develop depression and anxiety disorders at exponentially higher rates than children in the 1950s, something researchers have found in rats and primates that were also denied the opportunity to play.

“When these young animals develop, they are socially and emotionally crippled,” he said.

Children also struggle with creativity and the concept of self-determination, Gray said, largely due to the widespread American belief that “children learn best from adults.” In contrast, anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer societies across the globe have found that children there who play unsupervised “from dawn to dusk” are bright, happy and well-adjusted.

Gray advocated for less-restrictive recreational opportunities for American children, suggesting open gym periods after school, staffing local parks with relatively detached chaperones, building more interactive “adventure playgrounds” and periodically closing off city streets.

At a time when children are more depressed and anxious than they were during the Great Depression or the Cold War, Gray said society needs to re-evaluate its approach to education.

“The human cry that we hear everywhere is for more school, not for more play,” he said. “We’ve really got to change that.”

Marie Jackson, a critically acclaimed pastry chef and owner of The Flaky Tart bakery in Atlantic Highlands, spoke about how the concept of play changed her life and gave her hope in one of her darkest moments.

After years of searching for personal enlightenment, which even led her to an ashram in India in 1997, Jackson decided to open a pastry shop and pursue her dream.

Soon, however, she was “working herself into the ground” and spending less and less time with her husband and three children.

Then, in 2012, superstorm Sandy destroyed her husband’s beach club in Sea Bright, and two months later she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Prior to starting treatment, she found out she had an unrelated neck injury, requiring what she thought would be routine surgery. When she woke up in intensive care, she was paralyzed on one side of her body. Jackson said she was lower than she had ever been.

“That was it. That was the knockout punch,” she said, referencing her children’s graduations, weddings and other life events she always thought she would have time for but suddenly realized she may not see. “Everything I thought I had was gone.”

But one day, as she slowly recovered in the hospital, Jackson’s friends and family converged on her house to fix things up and prepare for her homecoming.

A friend decided to videotape the event, capturing the friends, children and dogs playing in the yard, drawing loving messages with sidewalk chalk and coming together in Jackson’s honor. The friend set the video to music and gave it to Jackson in the hospital, where it made more of a difference than all the ashrams in the world, she said.

“A total calm came over me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore,” she said. “I knew that no matter what happened, everything was going to be all right. When I look back on the last year-and-a-half, it’s not with sadness or regret. It’s with gratitude. I found what I was looking for.”

Small, seemingly insignificant things that have a profound impact in our lives was the central theme of the conference — from Jackson’s short, inspirational video to Dr. George Sheehan’s decision, at age 45, to start running.

Sheehan, a physician and co-founder of Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, had been a college track star but gave up running after graduation. Facing a midlife crisis decades later, Sheehan picked the hobby back up, finding a fulfillment that he had never experienced before.

He would spend the rest of his life running and writing about running, setting an agegroup world record for the mile, completing the Boston Marathon and becoming one of the most recognized voices of the running community prior to his death in 1993.

Tim Sheehan, George’s son, spoke about his father’s philosophy and the importance of valuing playfulness and fulfillment as highly as all other pursuits, no matter how old one may be. He also showed a documentary on his father, in which a running George Sheehan posthumously implored the TEDx audience to go out and play.

“Man, at any age, can still marvel at the universe,” he said.

Full recordings of all TEDxNavesink talks will be available on www.tedxnavesink.com.

Plans are already in the works for next year’s TEDxNavesink conference, Smiga said. A number of smaller talks are scheduled for the near future. The first will be held at the Two River Theater at 5:30 p.m. June 11, prior to the performance of the play “Third.”

Reservations for the 90-minute talk — featuring food and beverages provided by Sickles Market and Carton Brewing — can be made by entering the promotional code “THIRDx” when purchasing tickets for the performance.