Bringing Out The Best: Fran Mainella

Fran Mainella has been actively playing since she was a kid. She is a role model for helping everyone have that opportunity.

First as the director of the Florida State Parks and later as the first woman Director of the National Park Service back in 2001, Fran Mainella worried about the absence of children playing in parks. So she began to advocate for the importance of nature play and has been an important advocate for play ever since.

Fran is adamant that play skills are innate, and feels strongly that our society has changed in a way that leads us unintentionally to teach our children not to be playful. She insists that play should be fun—that it can be exercise but it does not have to be.

Fran’s ultimate goal is that we get to a place in the United States where it’s no longer necessary to talk about how important play is—that it’s a given that incorporating daily play for everyone is as important as eating well. Daily play, she says, is at the heart of helping kids—and adults—to develop and maintain their social skills, cognitive skills, creativity, decision-making, risk-taking, problem-solving and imagination.

Fran has focused her entire career on working towards this goal. After the Park Service, Fran became a visiting scholar at Clemson University, where she helped to launch the US Play Coalition, a network of individuals and organizations that promotes the value of play throughout life.  

The US Play Coalition hosts an annual conference that brings together educators, parents, physicians, health scientists, park and recreation professionals, psychologists, architects, landscape architects, playground manufacturers, and others to build partnerships and offer educational opportunities around how we can make play an important aspect of life for all ages.

When Fran talks about the importance of play, it is not an abstraction. She sees play as having a very direct impact on her life and career, most notably in her ability to take on the challenge of being Director of the National Park Service. 

Fran believes that back in 2001 when there had never been a woman in that role before, her ability to rise to the occasion was possible because of the imagination and resilience that she had developed through play. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to her that she should spend the rest of her career unleashing the power of play to bring out the best in everyone else, too!

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