Celebrating a Visionary of Play: Dr. Nancy L. Benson | Aug. 23, 1948 – Aug. 11, 2012

Dr. Nancy L. Benson captured in joyful play and celebration, exactly one year before her death.

Ten years ago, on August 11, 2012, Treehouse Learning founder and visionary, Dr. Nancy L. Benson, laughed her last laugh and smiled her last smile and her human body ceased to live and breathe. Her legacy at Treehouse Learning endures, and her impact on the world through her work in the lives of young children, as a champion for childhood, an entrepreneur, a visionary, a mother, and a human being remains a decade after her death. 

Nancy was a champion of childhood and play, which she used as her guiding principle to build a quality early childhood education program 25 years ago. Treehouse Learning grew organically into a play-based program out of a deep respect for children and childhood. Nancy knew children are natural-born scientists arriving on earth ready to learn, and that we shape their development through the opportunities and experiences that lead to discovery and understanding. These optimal conditions happen within safe and secure relationships where the brain is optimally lit up to learn and develop life skills like courage, compassion, confidence, curiosity, resilience, critical thinking, creativity, connectedness, and problem-solving.

Nancy’s play-based approach was informed by researched-based ideas from some of the great explorers into the world of childhood- Vygotsky, Reggio Emilia, Piaget, Montessori, to name a few, as well as research on brain architecture, child development, and professional standards of excellence and best-practice. Research in neuroscience and attachment theory support the play-based curriculum methods that Nancy cultivated. Our program continues to grow and blossom, though always rooted in our fundamental guiding principle that nature perfectly designed children to play and learn through playing. Our role as adults in the lives of young children are to guide and facilitate this learning, and support building relationships and thriving.

Nancy’s vision of quality early child education began with adult-centered empowerment and she was committed to supporting parents and staff to build skills, tools, and resources in order to become more effective parents, teachers, and human beings.  A mother of two daughters, Nancy, like all parents, did the best she could with her skills and resources at the time, and she continued to grow, learn and build tools as a parent and leader of Treehouse Learning. She also continued to discover the wonders of play, believing that all of us are born creative movers and that nature optimally designed children to learn through play and our role is to seek to provide a safe and secure environment where all humans can engage in the discovery, creativity, curiosity, resilience, and explorations of play-based learning. She discovered that the needs and benefits of play don’t disappear as children grow into adults; play simply shifts and looks different the more trips around the sun. A lifelong writer, she also discovered her own big ideas through dance, running, and movement, or in other words– play!

This picture was taken almost exactly a year (to the day) before her death. Our family reunion included an evening at Kennywood Park, outside of Pittsburgh. The day before, she’d found a lump in her breast, which proved to be a persistent and aggressive form of breast cancer. I (Amy Benson May) was about 30 weeks pregnant with my first child and unable to ride anything but the carousel, but I’ll forever remember the connection shared between my mother and I that night. This picture so beautifully captures her essence as a human being experiencing joy and love despite the unavoidable human condition of uncertainty. This picture was also taken during a brief season of overlap as I approached my own naisance into motherhood. Nancy only met one of her eight grandchildren, but her spirit runs through her two children, her 8 grandchildren and her legacy continuing to unfold at Treehouse Learning every day. 

Nancy received her Ph.D. in Education at the University of Colorado, and has a dedicated memorial bench on the CU campus in the Shakespeare Garden outside the Education building. We encourage you to enjoy a bike ride, fold a paper crane, or share a cookie with a friend in honor of Nancy. Most of all, we encourage you to pause wherever you are, find a moment to connect with someone or something important to you, and discover a moment of joy revealed through the choice to play.  

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