Meryl Neiman – From High Powered Attorney to Playpreneur
(Mary Couzin interviews Meryl.)
Meryl and I have worked together on everything from breaking Guinness World Records at our Chicago Toy & Game Fair to pitching TV shows (it is a lot like pitching toys and games). Her story is interesting. She went from being a lawyer working on securities class action cases and multi-million dollar insurance coverage actions to playpreneur and children's play advocate. As a fellow play advocate, Meryl inspiring!
HOW DID YOU GO FROM BEING A LAWYER WORKING ON SECURITIES CLASS ACTION CASES AND MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR INSURANCE COVERAGE ACTIONS TO YOUR WORK NOW AS A PLAYPRENEUR AND CHILDREN’S PLAY ADVOCATE?
I’m sure my husband wonders the same thing! I’ve had a very unconventional career path. After my second child was born, I jumped off the corporate ladder to focus on raising my children and writing fiction, but I quickly found myself also getting drawn into advocacy efforts related to my children’s public school. This volunteer work culminated in spearheading a lobbying and fundraising campaign to convert the school’s barren asphalt lot into a playground. Fast forward a few years, and my best friend since first grade approached me with an idea she had for a way to make planning playdates easier, and things sort of mushroomed from there.
THAT IDEA OF YOUR FRIEND’S BECAME PLAYDATE PLANET?
Exactly. Playdate Planet is a free web and Facebook application that replaces the need for lots of scheduling phone calls, texts, or e-mails. You can post a playdate to as many of your child’s friends as you like, select the number of children you want to host, and the playdate is filled on a first accepted basis. That way you can get your child playing even in this world of crazy schedules. We also have a whole host of other parent friendly features like allowing members to include emergency contact numbers, child allergies, whether their home has a pet, pool or trampoline, etc.
SO THAT EXPLAINS THE PLAYPRENEUR PART OF YOUR RESUME, BUT YOU AND I FIRST MET WHEN YOU SPOKE ABOUT PLAY AT THE INAUGURAL WORLD CONGRESS OF PLAY. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO ENTER THE ADVOCACY SPACE?
I’m a research junkie and so while working on the playground project for my kids’ school, and again to support Playdate Planet, I dove deep into the science behind play. Everything I read confirmed that unstructured play was critical to every aspect of child development. Yet, I was learned that play was on a decline. I felt like parents were being misled about what was most important and I wanted to help rectify that problem.
AND THAT’S WHEN YOU BEGAN WRITING AND SPEAKING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY?
Initially, I blogged about play and spent a lot of time talking about it with expert guests on a talk show for parents that I hosted on Internet radio. That evolved into speaking to parent and teacher organizations, writing a book on the subject, and then as you mentioned, I also started connecting with people in the toy and game industry. When I spoke at the first World Congress of Play, my talk was about how the biggest competition companies faced was for the time and attention of families and provided ideas for ways to convince parents to prioritize play.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT PLAY HAS DECLINED? IS IT NO LONGER CONSIDERED IMPORTANT BY PARENTS?
By and large, most parents know that play is important. But when push comes to shove, they feel compelled to make other choices – structured activities, organized sports, academic enrichment – because of their fear that otherwise their children will lag behind their peers and ultimately won’t be as successful. The key is to get parents to move beyond that fear and have the courage to forego doing what the family down the street is doing. We need to arm them with the facts about the science behind play and tell them about what companies like Google are looking for in an employee and why those traits are best developed through play. Then they can trust that letting their children play will best serve their needs in the long run.
WHERE ARE YOU NOW WITH ALL OF THESE ENDEAVORS?
Playdate Planet has been iterating since we first lunched, gauging usage data and customer feedback to refine our patent-pending playdate scheduling process. We are finishing up some additional design tweaks now and then we’re going to build out a mobile app in conjunction with a corporate partner. I want it to be the go to resource for playful parents.
In the play advocacy space, I continue to make myself available to speak to parents, teachers, and organizations. But what I’m really excited about is that as an outflow of this past September’s World Congress of Play, I’m heading up a new umbrella non-profit organization to bring together all play stakeholders (for profit companies, non-profits, educators, advocates, parents and teachers) to facilitate communicate and support the cause of increased play for children. We’re in the midst of a seed money donor campaign right now. Although we have had some generous pledges, we are still looking to secure a few more founding sponsors and then we are going to build out the organization’s website and associated research database. If anyone wants more info on the project, or better yet to come on board as a founding sponsor, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org