Bringing Out the Best: Life is Good Kids Foundation

How Steve Gross and the Life is Good Kids Foundation play to ‘goodify’ life

With the advent of Playworks’ 20th Anniversary and our aim of reaching 3.5 million kids in 7,000 schools by 2020, I've launched a blog that I am calling "Bringing out the Best." I welcome your ideas and suggestions for stories! 

Steve Gross, founder of the Life is Good Kids Foundation, is quick to point out that the foundation isn’t really in the ‘play business.’ “we are in the spreading the power of optimism to kids business.” he explains.

Nevertheless, Steve and the foundation are pioneers in using playful engagement and relationships to overcome the devastating impact of early childhood trauma. What really sets them apart is that they have chosen to do this work in partnership with childcare groups, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and enrichment programs across the country. By providing support at the organizational level, the foundation hopes to have a systemic impact.

The key insight from the foundation is that if you want outstanding human services, you need outstanding humans. And so a few years ago, after developing some amazing programs that helped individuals become more effective ‘playmakers’ (their term for people who dedicate their careers to making positive, life-changing differences in the lives of children)”, the foundation decided to shift to focus to working with organizations.

Steve is remarkably practical when talking about what it takes to ‘goodify’ human services. Essentially, his experience was that training individuals was a great way to spark optimism, but it didn’t go far enough. The real challenge, Steve says, is in sustaining that spark. A big part of how the Life is Good Kids Foundation sustains the spark is through play, defined as the motivation to freely and joyfully engage in, connect with, and explore the surrounding world. For Steve, play isn’t what you do; it’s how you do everything you do.

Steve put it this way, “We don’t call our workshops with care providers ‘trainings’. Instead, we call them ‘Discoveries’. It is our hope to guide participants to discover—or uncover—their most joyful, loving, inspired, and empowered selves so that they can share these social, emotional, and cognitive superpowers with the children in their care. In other words, professional skills will only take you so far. Working effectively with children requires that providers work to cultivate their most optimistic disposition as well.”

There is a simplicity and brilliance to this way of thinking. In this framework, asking the questions, “Is this joyful? Is this connecting, empowering, and engaging?” goes a long way to assessing the value of any given experience. It’s a reminder that if kids and adults aren’t connected they’re not playing, and they’re certainly not learning.

When this is how we think about play, it isn’t a big leap to start defining education the same way: freely and joyfully engaging in, connecting with, and exploring the world. That idea is at the very root of spreading optimism and ultimately “goodifying” the world.

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