Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Jamila Larson

Providing vital play for homeless kids.
Photograph by Jeff Elkins.
Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

It’s no mystery why poor children struggle in school, says
Jamila Larson. “Poverty is stressful,” says the cofounder and executive
director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. “When a child
experiences a stressful event—say, being evicted—his body is flooded with
cortisol.”

Cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone, erodes the area of the
brain regulating memory. When stress is the norm, kids can have trouble
retaining what they learn. But when their brains produce serotonin—created
by exercise and feelings of mastery, among other things—the cortisol’s
effect is negated. The problem is that homelessness steals things that can
raise children’s serotonin, such as the chance to learn games or even
chase each other around the house.

The Playtime Project assembles and staffs playrooms in DC
homeless shelters, aiming to create the brain chemistry kids thrive on.
“They need a lot more than play,” Larson says, “but while they wait for
essentials like housing, their childhood marches on.”

The project, founded in 2003, focuses on fun, though learning
looms in the background. Larson and her staff take kids on field trips—to
skate or visit the White House. They reward teens for attending tutoring
and for raising their grades, ensuring their return week after week. And
an army of volunteers shows up to play.

Larson knows what kids want because she asks them. She knows
what they need thanks to years as a social worker. And having just had a
son, she’s always observing the power of play: “Kids don’t sit on the
couch and tell you their problems; they communicate through play and art.
To be denied those is a human-rights issue.”

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