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Prioritizing Play Conference- Speaker Bios

Alex Cote Alex Cote is the Playworker at Riverdale Country School (RCS) in New York. Alex joined RCS after working as a playworker in US adventure playgrounds for many years with her longest position being at Ithaca Children's Garden's "Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone" where she was lead playworker for several years. She found playwork through an initial interest in playground design, but she has since been completely captivated by playwork's focus on the deeper issues of children's lives, thanks in large part to connections built by Pop-Up Adventure Play across the country. To this end, she is as likely to be found with a child climbing a tree on the playground as she is at the front of a room talking to grown-ups about how and why to embrace play. Alex has close ties with a number of the US adventure playgrounds including Santa Clarita Valley Adventure Play's Eureka Villa in CA, Play:ground in NYC, and the Parish School AP in Houston, TX. Beyond her job, Alex hopes to move US adventure play and playwork as a whole into more spaces, and therefore, more children's lives. She's spoken at play conferences, run playwork trainings, and is a founding member of the newly formed North American Adventure Play Association. She writes about playwork at

Chelsey Bahe has been a professional nanny for 13 years, focused on making opportunities for rich play a daily reality for children, and helping adults understand its importance. Since 2015, she also been a practicing nature artist, which deeply informs her work with children. In 2014 she completed Pop-Up Adventure Play’s Playworker Development Course, and has appeared repeatedly on local news outlets for such events as Nanny Training Day (2017). She blogs regularly at, and runs the highly popular Facebook page Take ‘Em Outside. Her favorite way to play is making art in the woods.

Naomi Sukenik I am always up for an adventure. I have a passion for education, outdoors and play. I strive to enrich children's lives with as much outdoor unstructured play as possible while sharing my ideologies with others.

I studied special education and quickly realized that the classroom was not my domain; I belong outdoors and love climbing and hiking. I became affiliated with an organization whose main purpose is to provide equal opportunities for those with disabilities by using extreme sports as a learning tool. I became an expert with ropes--building rope parks, ziplines, and more--while working with children. Later I became specifically interested in Early Childhood and children at risk. I became the Director of Early Childhood at a community center as my MA is in NGO Management. I also established a Center for Children at Risk.

I advocate as a mother of three, a playworker and an educator to create a reality where children get to truly indulge and experience their childhood, allowing them to play freely, discover and explore- Play is a priority. I believe that children thrive through play. I hold nature play dear to my heart. I find the vast amount of loose parts to manipulate and the exploration that occurs makes the outdoors one of the greatest play environments. I Founded KOOP in order to make sure my children and others know that play and the outdoors is essential for their overall well being!

Kelsey Langley

For 3 years, Kelsey has been applying her background in Business Management and Organizational Development to KOOP Adventure Play as its Founder and Executive Director. Her experience as an unexpected homeschooling mom fostered a passionate belief in the vital importance of self-discovery and play in a child’s education. Kelsey blends her passions for community development, self- directed play, alternative education, event planning and entrepreneurship in the creation of KOOP and planning its future in the community and beyond. Kelsey’s work is focused on supporting children during their self-directed play and exploration, regardless of their particular educational path. As part of KOOP, she has designed programming and content, collaborated with many community partners and sought to make play a key pillar in her favorite cities of Champaign- Urbana. Kelsey continually studies to perfect her craft of playwork and daily learns a lesson from the sweet children around her. When she is not working, playing with kids or homeschooling, you can find Kelsey with her husband, daughter and puppy somewhere outside soaking up the sunshine and fresh air.

Lori Zoleman

Lori Zolman is a 21-year veteran kindergarten teacher for the Mount Vernon (Ohio) City Schools. She received her B.S. in Elementary Education from Ohio University and her Kindergarten-Primary K-3 work at OSU Newark. She and her colleague implement a play- and project-based curriculum for all 37 kindergarteners in Wiggin Street Elementary, where the students’ ability to demonstrate Ohio Learning Standards during play is being investigated in collaborative research with Kenyon College’s Andrea White and her students. Lori, along with her kindergarten class, designed and built an outdoor classroom for their school. Lori will be spending her 4th summer facilitating multiple summer Nature Camps promoting free play and risky play.

Carissa Christner

When Carissa finally discovered her career as a children’s librarian, all of her cousins said, “Of course!” as she’d been trying to get them to listen to her read picture books for years. She currently works as a Youth Services Librarian in Madison, Wisconsin which she likes much better than her first job in high school, working at a theme park. During her time there, she has developed many new programs for the library featuring Toddler Art, STEM for preschoolers and an app storytime called the Supper Club. About two years ago, she was lucky enough to hear a presentation by Ms. Cheng Xueqin, founder of the educational philosophy known as Anji Play. Since then, she has been working closely with the Anji Play professionals to create an out-of-school version of Anji Play for libraries, rooted in that philosophy. She is passionate about returning the right to self-determined play to all children. More information about Anji Play. Carissa blogs here about her library adventures.

Cassandra Hustedt is the Creative Director at Brainstorm Escapes in Champaign. She started working in the escape room industry 5 years ago and soon learned she could apply her background in Communications and Small Group Processes to encourage educators to incorporate the cooperative play of escape rooms into their curriculum. Cassandra uses her passions for game design, playful learning, and creativity to travel the Mid-West partnering with schools, corporations, and youth services hosting escape room workshops and urging participants young and old alike to explore, learn, and collaborate. When she is not busy locking people in rooms, you can find Cassandra with her puppy, Scooter, taking pictures outside or writing the next great American musical.

Ursulla Idleman- Clague

A perennial nerd, Ursulla has been sharing science with others for most of her life. She first became inspired by playful STEM learning as a pre-service observer in the classroom of Gina Isabelli at Champaign Central High School. Since then, she has worked with several area programs to bring engaging, interactive STEM and ELL education to underserved/underrepresented groups. Formally, she studied integrative biology, secondary science education, and curriculum design at UIUC and EIU. She now works as the Outreach Coordinator at Brainstorm Escapes. She recently launched a blog, Igramo, where she discusses play and gaming as learning resources.

In her spare time, Ursulla can usually be found exploring the great outdoors, playing tabletop & video games with friends & family, or reading with a cat in her lap. She thinks that The City Museum in St. Louis is the happiest place on Earth.

Elise Belknap is the Social Emotional Development Specialist for Champaign County Head Start a program of the Regional Planning Commission. Elise is trained as a elementary school counselor and holds a doctorate in Counselor Education from Penn State. She has worked in the mental health field as a provider and a trainer with at risk adults, children, and their families. She discovered her professional passion for play while a graduate student. She became interested in play therapy as a modality and in the process of digging through the literature on play and child development discovered fascinating play scholarship across disciplines. Mental health professionals, historians, play workers, psychologist, anthropologists, educators, neuroscientists, psychobiologists, child life specialists, recreation and leisure scholars were all contributing to our growing understand of the importance of play across the lifespan. Since then she is always kept play in the forefront of her practice and explorations of how to best serve children and families in an education setting who have been impacted by trauma. Elise finds value in using Stuart Brown's play personalities as a frame to understand her own self-care, she identifies as an Explorer, Storyteller, and Joker.

Ann Clare After moving twenty-three times, Ann finds herself at home with her family in Urbana, Illinois. Spring finds her looking up for migrating birds and butterflies, and looking down for bluebells and milkweed. Growing-up she loved...swinging, nature in every season, and playing school. Now she loves...swinging, nature in every season, and playing school! After working as an early childhood teacher and social-emotional consultant in various school and community settings, Ann is currently the Kindergarten/First Grade teacher at University Primary School in Champaign, Illinois where she looks forward to collaborating with children and adults every day to make school a space for play and wonder. She believes in children as meaning-makers and theory builders, and play and story as languages of childhood. As a teacher/learner she is inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy as well as the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, Selma Wassermann, and David Sobel among many others. Playwork, of course! And children's play every day!

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