Chasing the Dragon

The mission starts with a brisk morning walk along the Gourock esplanade. We’re heading across the Clyde River to play in Argyll and Bute’s rolling hills and sea lochs. Our first destination is dockside for the passenger ferry to Dunoon. On the other side our independent garage car hire picks us up then it’s off to Argyll Street where we dine like kings on meat pies and beans at Black of Dunoon Bakers (5 stars for service and food in our books).

DSC08742Dunoon’s Victorian era dock, possibly the last on the Clyde River, is now in disrepair.

The Home Hardware just across the street from Black’s has all the items on our checklist though we’re a little disappointed with the lack of variety. For July in Scotland it’s baking hot and with arms full of supplies we walk up past the old church en route to a touch of guerilla fun and adventure.

Skirting tidal lochs, we wind around the base of hills thick with sky stretching firs before climbing steadily then dropping again through the valley of pheasants. The countryside is lush, dripping green. We’re on the lookout for a legendary quarry we last saw months ago. As we try to recall the location of a particular clearing, we stay alert for oncoming traffic on the long, narrow strips of single carriage roadway.

DSC08648 - Version 2Sky stretching firs

We’ve been bantering about this day for a few weeks. This is the one window we have to add our pastiche to a distinctive roadside attraction. As we slow down for road construction at the Tighnabruaich look off, we know we’re getting closer to our destination.

DSC08653View south and east along the Kyles of Bute from the Tighnabruaich look out

Then a few kilometres further on it’s upon us, a sculpture of stones ripped from the ground – bold, rampant, mythic – a greyish dragon partially encrusted in dried earth.

DSC08623Prepping the canvas.

Emerald green and sunburst yellow are absent as adornments for the beautiful beastie. The Dunoon hardware offers a limited selection of masonry paint. We toss about a few colour schemes and liberally begin to apply our palette of ochre red, pale yellow, black and white. I feel like a kid again creating something new, fresh, alive.

The air is heavy with the buzz of horse flies feasting on our legs and arms. It’s a three hour paint job in the salty, dripping sweat, afternoon sun. Quiet laughter, lighthearted complicity are the order of the day. With our hands caked in paint, there is contemplative appreciation for this new version of the rockin’ dragon of Tighnabruaich. We give a high five to the originators who brought together this magical combination of rocks. I think of the dragon as being under a creative commons license and of our daubs of paint as something building on and enhancing the original.

cIMG_0623compThe Dragon of Tighnabruaich casts a toothy grin on the Bxxxx

Traffic on the road is sparse as we go about our business but those who do notice us – lorry, delivery and post office drivers, tradespeople and families – give a wave as they zip past, a thumbs up, or a quick parp of the horn. Now I have to give credit where credit is due. This painting adventure is 100 percent papa’s idea. As the willing accomplice, it’s great to share this playful experience, a first of its kind for both of us.

New and freshDragon all dressed up with a fresh coat

Now some will say, like one of my colleagues, that this sculpture is a rendition of a rabbit. Looking at the teeth as the ears in the photo above, a rabbit’s head does look like the order of the day. But don’t believe it for a moment. This is just the result of a particular angle. This is a stone cold dragon that we’ve warmed up a wee bit with colour. Now I ask you, does this look like a rabbit?

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We survey our work one last time before we start back down the road to Dunoon. We hope it will be a little bit more noticeable now to passersby and that it will give kids and adults alike cause to smile and maybe even laugh. We’re both well pleased with this play that had a few elements of work associated with it. Although it is broad daylight, I feel we are living moments of campfires burning bright with dragon breath in dark of night.

If I’m ever back that way, I’ll pull over and remember this afternoon when papa and I were kids again.

20140710_104941Selfie with Dragon

Glasgow Green is Calling

Later today I do the Halifax – Heathrow jet skip with a final touchdown in Glasgow just a couple of weeks shy of the XX Commonwealth Games kick off that happens to fall on my birthday. It’s the second time this year that I’m a guest at a cousin’s wedding on Scotland’s west coast. Joyous days for the couples walking down the aisle and wonderful occasions for all of us to make new friends and reconnect with family on both sides of the Atlantic.

DSC06197Glasgow Green – Play Summit Pop-Up Adventure – April 2014
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My April trip coincided with the Play Summit spearheaded by Nils Norman (check Nils’ great photobank of playscapes here) and London’s Assemble. The Summit symposium featured leading play thinkers, advocates and activists in the People’s Palace and adventure play shenanigans for kids on Glasgow Green.

I was able to pop in for a couple of hours and immerse myself in conversations and presentations about adventure play. It was exciting to meet and chat with people like Hitoshi Shimamura who flies the adventure play banner in Tokyo where, he told me, there’s an aversion to fences around playgrounds. The goal is to offer an inviting, open space that presents no boundaries or barriers with the surrounding community.

Tim Gill and I sat down for lunch and a chat. Early on in my exploration of playgrounds I had sent Tim a few questions on the possibility of developing a play index that could capture how local authorities were measuring up to enabling play opportunities for their young citizens. He sent me a thoughtful and informative response that included suggested contacts and the friendly pointer that an undertaking of this nature would present unique and complex challenges.

No FearClick photo for free download courtesy of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundtation

True to form when we lunched under the glass dome of the People’s Palace, Tim was generous with his time and gave me a broad overview of the UK play landscape from his vantage point. PlayGroundology reblogs some of Tim’s work from rethinking childhood and I never tire of referencing his book, now in its third printing – No Fear – Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society – to parents, educators and the media.

Over the years, I’ve seen some great photos and video from London’s Glamis Adventure Playground. It was a thrill to be in the audience for Mark Halden’s presentation on some of the problems Glamis is encountering with fundraising. He bemoaned the significant time and energy that had to be dedicated to this activity. In an environment with small teams and already parsed budgets, the effort associated with financing can detract from programming for the kids.

Mark has a Canada connection too and has spent time in BC. He made me aware of a well loved and regarded play advocate, Valerie Fronczek who passed away last year. Many people spoke her name when they heard I was from Canada. Valerie was a respected and engaged member of the play community and worked tirelessly for kids. From what I heard, it would have been great to have known her.

What struck me during my brief interlude at the Play Summit was the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the participants. It was one of those gatherings where there was a lot of information flow and the delineation between presenters and practitioners was very porous. Many of of those in attendance had dedicated much of their working lives to help kids and play.

Just before I hopped into a cab to take me back to Central Station, I came across a playground with huge slide structures. I had to grab a few shots while the taxi waited. They sure looked like Spielgerate designs to me. When I visit again in a few days, I’ll give them a test run if I’m not chased away by parents.

DSC06992Towering, twisting slides on Glasgow Green
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April’s pop-up adventure on Glasgow Green was an early days event for the Baltic St. Adventure Playground which is located nearby in the Dalmarnock district. Their official opening weekend is on for July 19 and 20. I’ll be back in Canada by then but playworker Robert Kennedy has kindly offered to give me a tour during my visit. It will be the first time I set foot in an adventure playground. It would be perfect if I could have our three kids with me – another time…

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I’m hoping to get over to Fife too and learn a bit about some of the play happenings there from twitter friend @MairiMo. Mairi was a great help during my April visit and set up a meeting with Theresa Casey, a play author, consultant and President of the International Play Association. I’ll have more to share on the IPA and the meeting with Theresa in a subsequent post.

Glasgow Green and Edinburgh was time well spent and the first real opportunity I have had to meet with and hear the experiences of so many play people which is resulting in both pragmatic and inspirational returns. The Glasgow Green pop-up really got me juiced to work with others in Halifax to create a similar event. It will be taking place in September in association with the Youth Running Series. I’ll be picking Robert’s brains later this week to see what he can share and suggest.

DSC06231Pop-Up will be playing in Halifax, Canada soon. Thanks to the Play Summit and Baltic St. Adventure Playground for the inspiration

There may be some surprises of the dragon variety on this trip too. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m wrapping this post by giving a big shout out to my papa who will be 80 later this year. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of and sometime photographer for PlayGroundology. Yesterday, along with one his brothers and my brother and sister-in-law, he completed a six-day walk across Hadrian’s Wall. Their longest day was 27 kilometres. He did a number of interviews along the way with people from a variety of countries and is considering putting it all together to share on YouTube. This man just continues to blow me away.

It’s well past my bedtime and I need to get some rest for the long day ahead. Glasgow Green is calling and play is piping the tune. In this year of the Homecoming it’s Scotland Forever.

PlayGroundology on CBC’s Maritime Noon

Today, I’m an in studio guest with Norma Lee MacLeod, host of CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon. We’ll be talking playgrounds and I’m looking forward to hearing from listeners in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia about their perspectives on the state of public play spaces. If you’re a PlayGroundology friend in the Maritimes, tune in for the conversation. We’ll also be giving away a copy of Brenda Biondo’s beautiful photography book – Once Upon a Playground.

I’ve cobbled together a few storify stories that Maritime Noon listeners and regular PlayGroundology readers can explore. Just click through on the bolded titles below or the accompanying photos and you’ll be whisked away to curated content that includes journalism, videos, blogposts and more.

One resource that I would like to single out that may be of interest to listeners is No Fear – Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society (free download) written by British play advocate Tim Gill and published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

And now, on with the storify content.


Adventure and Loose Parts

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A Greater Risk

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The Makers
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Right to Play
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Resources for Play
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If you are able to tune in to today’s program, thanks for listening and thanks to the Maritime Noon team for making it happen.

Roots of Play – Sculpting Social Landscapes

Now here’s a sweet spot that would put a spring in Joni Mitchell’s step. In Pasadena, California, an artist with a love for play liberates a parking lot and puts up a piece of paradise.

Katya Khan’s Sculpting Social Landscapes installation interweaves elements of art, community participation and landscape architecture practice. With concept in hand, sweat on her brow and recognition in the guise of local arts funding, Katya transforms a small parcel of urban land into a child’s temporary shangri-la.

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The lot in northwest Pasadena is home to Side Street Projects an entirely mobile artist-run organization. It is frequently used for community events and engagements. Over the course of several weekends the space blooms with simple pleasures, an oasis of discovery and play. Hand built stone labyrinths (centre-bottom in photo above) and adobe huts (centre-top) co-exist with school buses and trailers.

I reflect on opportunities children have for free play in modern life. I notice that kids do not spend enough time outdoors, they rarely play without adults’ supervision and at the same time there is a deficit of in-person interaction between young and older generations.

The interactive, intergenerational project is based on the premise that the making of play is play in the making for children and adults alike.

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This participatory approach takes many forms such as planting seeds (above) as well as making adobe huts and small hilly mounds.

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Over the course of nearly two months, Khan collaborated with artists from various disciplines in five separate workshops. Throughout there was an emphasis on tactile activities providing kids and adults with opportunities for hands on creation.

This project was inspired by early adventure playgrounds and reminiscences from the sweetest moments of my own childhood. I thought what if there was a place where children would be able to touch plants, manipulate a landscape and get messy?

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Khan remembers never ending childhood summers. From an early age she played outside coming home as the sun started to set. At her grandma’s house in the Russian countryside she immersed herself in nature. She loved the woods, playing with plants, making dens, being a part of the landscape and breathing the outdoors.
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kids mounds

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Prior to coming to the US, Khan studied environmental design with a fine arts focus in St. Petersburg. Her final project was a concept for a children’s garden. Since then she has been dreaming of the time when she could create a playscape that incorporates her love of art. community and the natural world. Sculpting Social Spaces is her largest public canvas to date.

It’s rewarding to see how people use the space that I imagined and that it actually works. Spaces for children should be fun and challenging. I’m not a big fan of all this standard, off the shelf equipment.

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Khan has nearly completed a three-year program in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Her influences include Noguchi and Danish landscape architect, Helle Nebelong. She is still looking for her niche and sees this project as being more along an art, rather than a design, continuum. From her artist’s viewpoint she is trying to solve landscape architect type problems.

At one point during the installation, Khan and a group of friends started playing with movement and meditation in the labyrinth. Their improvisation turned into a silly walk and gales of laughter. It made her think that she herself and adults in general should be playing more frequently.

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She presented Sculpting Social Landscapes at the Community Built Association Conference in Davis, California. Khan plans on keeping plugged in to play. With her nine-year-old son as one of her inspirations, I’m sure we will be hearing more about her creations.

Experimenting with music was another playful activity for the kids.

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Adults too let loose with sounds.

this piece was composed by Joe Berardi and Kira Vollman from the sounds collected at an interactive space installation during public art events. read more at social-landscapes.com/

Thanks to Katya Khan, other participating artists and the kids for liberating a parking lot and putting up a piece of paradise.

Cosby the Comic Prince Riffs on Playgrounds

Did any comic have a better ear for kids? I came across this gem today while curating content for PlayGroundology FB. From the maker of Fat Albert and so much more…

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Cosby lets loose targeting parents as the masterminds behind a playground plot to get rid of kids.

I’m on the lookout for other playground routines by comics. Drop me a line if you know of any.

Pop-Ups On The Road 2014

Itinerant playmakers and PlayGroundology friends Pop-Up Adventure Play are on the road in a big way this year. PlayGroundology asked Suzanna Law if she could contribute a guest post to share some of her thoughts and experiences about the group’s recently concluded US tour. We’re happy she took us up on the offer. Stay tuned for future tour dates, perhaps you can organize to have them come to a community near you. I know we’ll be looking for an opportunity to bring them to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Exactly two months and eleven days ago, I was a ball of anxiety. I was in a snow storm with my colleague Anna and her two children battling our way to Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA to meet Morgan, our other colleague. As the car fought its way through the thick blanket of snow, I started to wonder if a two-month tour of the USA was a good idea.

This then triggered a whole wave of other thoughts: Will the hosts be ready for us? Would the little yellow car we chose be able to complete the journey? Are we really ready for this? But really, my biggest question was this: Was I going to make it to the first stop of the tour? Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Two months and six days on, after “sleeping for a thousand hours” (as Morgan put it) the tour is complete and I am ready to reflect on my adventure. And wow, was it incredible.

PopUp1Here is our little yellow car! It traveled through 28 States and did around 11,000 miles!

Let’s talk about some details first. Ever since Pop-Up Adventure Play was formed about 3 years ago, we have been invited to communities across the world but primarily in the USA. People have been wanting to find out more about playwork and to find out how they can bring more playful opportunities into their own homes. Above all, they wanted some people who have worked in the field before to come into their community to tell everyone that play is a good idea.

The biggest barrier to our visits has been the cost of travel which isn’t always an enormous amount, but is a stumbling block for many. Having mulled over this for a while, we decided to organise a tour! This would reduce travel costs as we’d already be on the road, and we would also be able to go where we would be invited. And that’s how we began the Pop-Up Adventure Play and Special Guests Tour 2014!

PopUp2Cardboard Sledding at Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky

As the Tour Organizer, I had a personal aim of getting 7 locations on the tour. In my mind, it would be a success if I had one event every weekend. Morgan and I would form the core tour team and we would bring in our friends to be part of the tour. Using a combination of social media and reaching out to some of our existing contacts, we started the tour with 14 confirmed locations. Two weeks into the tour, we had somehow booked another 2 stops on the tour and had reached our limit: Pop-Ups Tour 2014 would be a 16 stop tour. I still can’t believe it.

PopUp3Chasing the robot at Manhattan Beach, CA

Oh goodness, and how could I not talk about our Special Guests? Grant Lambie, Andy Hinchcliffe and Erin Davis joined us for parts of the tour, bringing their expertise to communities who asked for a little extra; who wanted knowledge and experience that we didn’t have. They truly brought an extra spark to the tour, supporting us with their know-how, encouragement and car care.

Some really stand out moments of the trip have been with hosts at their locations. They have been absolutely amazing and inspirational, standing on the frontline of what feels like an American Adventure Play movement. They are brave and bold, and determined to create a playful, adventure-filled future for their children and for the communities in which their children live, all the while working within a society that isn’t all too familiar with play for it’s own sake. I have been blown away by their passion for play.

PopUp4Adventure Playground at the Parish School in Houston, TX

PopUp5An incredible place to play in Cary, NC

It may have been hard work driving a tiny yellow car across the US and stopping mostly to deliver workshops, run Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds and to sleep, but it was totally worth the journey. Anxiety and tiredness aside, the Pop-Up Adventure Play and Special Guests Tour 2014 was a complete success. I’m so chuffed (British for “really pleased”) about this whole thing which you can read more about on our blog and am proud to announce that we’ll be doing this all again in 2015! If you want to be part of our next adventure, please email me on suzanna@popupadventureplay.org.

PopUp6Bouncing off the inflatable loose parts in Portland, OR

Playing the Dragon

To the south and west of the Argyll Forest in Scotlands’s Bute and Argyll region is where the mythical beast can be found. As we round a corner on a narrow winding road shaded by towering firs there is the rocky, rough hewn dragon.

Dragon III

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We are on high alert so we can pull over and admire this roadside gift to travelers. Located somewhere between Tighnabruaich and Loch Tarson, the rest of the Nova Scotia band had seen the beast on their way overland to Islay in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides a couple of days earlier.

The dragon sighting was one of the first stories I heard when I rejoined our gang in Islay. My youngest daughter, Lila-Jeanne, had warned me to watch out for dragons just before I left for Scotland. It turns out she was right on the money.

With two grandchildren and a son in tow, my papa, the only Scot among us, is taking no chances. It’s time to play the dragon.

Dragon taming

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The skill he demonstrates in handling his prod suggests earlier encounters of the dragon taming kind. With the dragon subdued, we all take the time to stretch our legs, enjoy the tall, tall firs and get ready for our final dipsy-doodle through the hills to the day’s last ferry in Dunoon.

Thank you to the builders of what could be Smaug’s baby cousin. You instilled a dash of lightness, fun and play in our day. For me this dragon will forevermore be known as Lila of the Towering Firs. Who says dragons don’t exist?

Towering Firs

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More adventures from Scotland’s Glasgow Green, Edinburgh and Islay in coming posts.