Playful Eyes

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When the stars align and there’s a skillful set of playful eyes at the ready, play’s transitory essence can be distilled into a frame of now. This sequence of images – older sister shooting little brother – dates back nearly 10 years. I’m sharing it today in celebration of big sister’s birthday.

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Can there possibly be a better toy than the humble plastic colander? Through discovery and experimentation, a commmonplace item is elevated to a magical stratosphere while still retaining its intrinsic simplicity. The pleasure goes beyond the laughing of it.

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There is something elemental in the spontaneous belly rumbling giggles that burst out in a good session of play. I am happy to have rediscovered these images after a long absence. They embody so many narratives. There are the individual stories of my son and daughter (subject and shooter), the story of family and sibling relationships, the artful story of photography itself and of course the exuberant story of the moment, play for play’s sake.

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There can never be an overabundance of photographs that portray authentic moments of spontaneous joy. Engaging images like this of kids anywhere are always a gift to behold. For a passing breath, I step more lightly buoyed by an ethereal current.

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Rearranging the sequence of the images makes for new rememberings of linear events. Thanks for these shots Alexa and happy birthday my love.

To see Alexa’s more recent work, visit her on instagram @seriouslyalexa or visit the FB page for her photography business with her partner Luke – North by North Photography. This photographic duo based in Halifax, Nova Scotia are both graduates of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – NSCAD University.

The Village

It is only accessible by foot after a short trek through elders, balsam firs and scrub brush. Then it’s there before you, almost camouflage. The stream skirting the space runs fast now with winter melt and frequent rains. The water rattles over the rocks and whispers under the footbridge of fallen trees.

DSC03139The Weaponry with original siding

It’s here that the boys are building The Village. It started with two found pieces of siding. Nestled in the branches and leaning against trees, they become walls. Scavenging is now a favourite activity. New items have a structural, or decorative use and some become part of the weaponry. The Weaponry is one of The Village’s three rooms. It’s the place where tools are made. Note the garbage can lid shield and a bucket for sharpened spears.

Next to The Weaponry is The Lodge. It seems to be more about relaxation, less about imaginary warfare. A scraggly Christmas wreath made of woven synthetic wired fabric greets visitors at the main entrance. Just over the threshold there is a tattered old deck chair cushion faded yet serviceable. It’s a good place to grab a seat as it acts as a barrier to the wet, spongy ground.

DSC03153A makeshift chair offers an inviting spot to rest

The Lodge has a great view too, a vista of the water rushing past. It’s so close you can dip and dangle your fingers. This is a place of found objects – branches of trees, old crumbling logs, rocks, plastic pails, real estate signs, curved handles from shovels, a broken radio, a hubcap, siding and yes, a wreath. But check out the view of the water.

Across from The Weaponry and The Lodge is The Lumbershop. Here we see a few old logs standing on end. We’re told they are the raw material for tools. We’re on a 3G tour with our lad Noah showing myself and my papa all the sights. To Noah’s chagrin, his two young sisters and one of their friends are tagging along. He is not keen on either of them knowing the location.

DSC03159The Lumbershop

Noah stumbled across the location for The Village during one of the countless games of hide and seek and thought it would be a good place to build. The land is barren scrub. It’s located just a stone’s throw away from backyards. The kids are explorers but not too deep in the wilderness. From Noah’s perspective, there are a few things that are needed for The Village to prosper: a better pocket knife, or a saw; a bow and arrow and a target. There is a rudimentary washroom for boys but most prefer just to go in the woods.

In recent days, The Village has competed successfully against road hockey for our lad’s attention. With warmer weather on the horizon, we’re sure it won’t be long until he’s asking to take out picnic lunches to the hideaway that we can almost see from our back verandah.

DSC03161The Lodge with welcome wreath on right

Earlier in the week, just after the project had got underway, I asked our lad how the fort was coming along. “It’s the village, papa,” he replied with an emphasis that indicated that this distinction should be self-evident to me.

It takes a child to make a village of objects found lying about. What is junk, scraps and waste to adult eyes are riches beyond the imagining of it for kids on the build. In this village great things are happening – play, friendship, discovery, independence, resourcefulness….

DSC03154Looks like one of Dad’s 2x4x8s is part of one of The Village’s walls

I’m looking forward to news about The Village in the days to come. I’m curious too to see what other materials take a migratory path from our backyard to the new for the kids, by the kids space. Long live The Village!

​Amsterdam’s Wild West: Nature Play at Woeste Westen

Ed’s note – I’m a fan of Glasgow-based City of Play. I’m a sucker for cable spools and other playcycled materials. Though I’m born and bred in Canada, my roots are from Scotland’s west coast. Having had the good fortune to visit and stay with family on several occasions as a young boy, I have a soft spot for the places along the River Clyde where my parents both grew up.

When I heard that City of Play co-founder Grant Menzies was off on a bit of a play research jaunt, I asked him if he would like to guest post here at PlayGroundology. Here he is for your reading pleasure. Woeste Westen really seems like a crossover space to me where nature play meets adventure playground. More on Grant following the post.

Woeste Westen is an exceptional natural ‘playscape’ a short bike journey west of Amsterdam City Centre. Natural playgrounds are not uncommon in the country however this is one of the few that has the psychical presence of an organisation to support it.

Considering the country’s unique geography it is perhaps unsurprising that water features quite heavily in park. To be honest, it’s the main feature. The site was once harvested for peat leaving a series of manmade waterways which have been bridged, dammed, pumped and… eh… rafted? That is, there is a water pump and a raft.

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There are also any number or den building, climbing and balancing opportunities; bonfire sites; and animal habitats both natural and man made… /child made. This amazing (and it is amazing, look at the pictures) natural playscape is supported by the weekly run Adventure Club and onsite clubhouse/ parents cafe.

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Woeste Westen is a truly inclusive landscape offering challenges and opportunities for all ages and abilities. A series of crossing points present different challenges to span the water with varying degrees of difficulty. Rope bridges, felled trees, wobbly bridges, rafts, stepping stones and shallows ensure that the body and mind are continually tested without being forced to encounter unmanageable risks. This is a land and waterscape to invite and excite all.

The abundance of water and wildlife not only provides play value but is a soothing and calming influence. Although chaotic, Woeste Westen is peaceful and pleasant in a manner rarely achieved through other designed “Nature” playgrounds.

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Our arrival coincided with the rain. We witnessed the Adventure Club dress in waterproofs building fires and making popcorn showing that this is an all weather experience.

At Woeste Westen we met founder Martin Hup a former biology and environmental education teacher. Martin discovered this publicly owned piece of land around 8 years ago not much different from what it is now, as a playground with the raft and bridges, but it was rarely used. Although only a few minutes from the bustling city it was still in the middle of nowhere; children/families had no need to pass by and therefore it was not used.

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Martin – as a self confessed adventurer, former Boy Scout and expert in environmental education but with no vision of continuing to be a teacher – saw an opportunity to exploit an underused resource to promote environmental education and facilitate outdoor play. He sought funding from the local government to install a hub with a cafe, toilets and office, to create a perimeter fence and to form the Adventure Club. He says ‘This lets parents feel it is safe, they know there is usually someone here and it has a secure gate – of course it is not “safe” it is about risky play! – but the perception is different.’

Still he insists he is not a play worker, he/they programme events and are ‘facilitators’. The playground, although now fenced, is still public property but without their presence – running the Adventure Club and serving “fine coffee” – no one would use it.

Martin knows his stuff, and he knows that even with Amsterdam’s abundance of playgrounds that free play is on the decline and that parents are to blame. ‘They are scared of cars and the “dangerous man” that wants to harm their children. In fact, there is no more danger than in the 70’s.’

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Concerned, if not dismayed, by reports of schools in the Netherlands removing skipping ropes and balls from pupils due to parent complaints of injury, Martin and the Adventure Club warn that they actively seek risks in their sessions.

Many new parents and even children visiting the park show the same nerves we commonly see in our risk averse time; many concerned by how often their child might climb a tree – God forbid they should get a scratch or a bruise! In Woeste Westen you may well break a leg… But *shrugs* “so what?”. Although it might surprise you to learn that with 57,000 visits per year they still haven’t had any serious injuries.

Martin describes that when children visit, despite initial reservations, they are somewhat set free. They can run and explore and experience the joy of discovering nature for themselves but also they experience a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi ‘ – in a rare moment of broken English described as like “touching their inner Neanderthal” they are wild again.

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Grant gained his Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from the University of Strathclyde in Nov 2012. Inspired by the birth of his first daughter, Grant’s thesis focused around the needs and rights of children in urban design. Subsequently, Grant developed an understanding of, and passion for, play and ensuring its proper and right provision.

Grant also spent a semester studying Landscape design under Henry WA Hanson at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Having funded his time while at University working in the building services Grant has an interest and skill at making, fixing and up-cycling as can be seen in works such as The Twits Chairs.

If you have a play story you’d like to share with PlayGroundology readers, give us a shout. Cheers

Breaking – Stockholm to Name a Play Laureate

Ed’s note – found while browsing the internet this morning and reposted here for your reading pleasure.

(Nordic Nyhetstjänst) – In what is believed to be a world first, the City of Stockholm plans to name an official play laureate. Long known as a city that honours individuals who embody the excellence of the human spirit, Stockholm is now set to celebrate the wonder of play in a manner that reflects the city’s singular character. A senior municipal official who spoke on condition of anonymity, because details are not yet finalized, indicated that the concept has been bandied about in the Stadshuset on a number of occasions by municipal politicians and administrators.

StockholmPlayground – Vasastaden, Stockholm. Photo credit – Jesper Wiking. License – (CC BY-ND 2.0).

It seems that the time is right to identify an individual who will lead a rejuvenation of play and playfulness for the city and its citizens. According to the source, Stockholm wants to become a global leader in championing the well-being of children. By creating a play laureate, the city believes that the activity of play, which is essential to good physical and mental health, to discovery, to experiential learning, to assessing risk and to having fun, will gain greater prominence and become a foundational cultural value.

Duties of the play laureate are not yet fully defined. There has been conversation that the official role would be charged with developing a research plan and budget, consulting with children and families about play opportunities in public spaces and helping to organize community-led events throughout the city. The source tells Nordic Nyhetstjänst that the city wants to invest the laureate with the opportunity to define aspects of the position thereby providing some independence and flexibility.

15970280980_2670f2cf6c_oMulle Meck playground, Stockholm. Photo credit – Mac Kalkosinski.

If the source is accurate, the new role will be announced in early June just in advance of public schools breaking for the summer holidays. There is no confirmation yet on whether this will be an honorary role, or a paid position.

If only this wasn’t published on April 1……

Look Mom No Safety Codes

Here are the wilds of the urban forest. Stands of birch and pine overlook a partially restored 19th century canal. Woods, rocks, water in ever-changing sequences shape the contours of possibility. And much is possible for young children alert to the rustle of leaves, or the allure of pathless terrain.

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At the convergence of two paths there is a feeding spot. Here chickadees take an airy dash from overhanging branches and alight for a heartbeat or two on small outstretched hands awash in seeds. Lila experiences her first solo close encounter of the chickadee kind and cherishes the fleeting lightness as it lifts from her fingers. The memory of their sparking touch lingers and surely will echo still, days, perhaps even years from now.

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Somewhere below the canopy there is an insistent tap-tapping. Nellie’s keen eyes pick out a woodpecker hammering away for some grub. She is at the ready with her camera, nature girl strikes again. One small step for woodpeckers, one huge leap for aspiring ornithologists.

Off the paths the ground is uneven requiring concentration and surefootedness. An old dwelling reduced to rubble makes for a teetering traverse as the girls negotiate their wobbly, winding way to flatter ground.

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And of course there is wood – tree trunks, cut logs, natural falls, roots, twigs, sticks, leaves, bark. There is climbing, balancing, posing, running, chasing and watching. The girls are a skylarking spectacular, curiosity and wonder never far below the surface. For the moments we pass through we are the guardians.

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The place is fraught with danger and risk, accidents waiting to happen at practically every turn. As if the land-based hazards are not enough, there is water in great abundance – a canal and a lakeful with beach to boot. All of these hazards elicit an exploration for the next fun thing, the one that will get the adrenalin pumping, get the hilarity surging and draw on skills real and imagined.

There are a couple of falls and no wonder – there are abundant above ground root systems, rock outcroppings and steep banks leading to the canal. The last is my only real concern because of the water temperature and and the heavy clothes we’re wearing. The girls tire of my harping to stay far back from the canal bank. I can’t help it, I don’t want to have to fish one of them out of water that still has a sheen of ice on it.

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The girls’ boisterous play generates a bit of a din but still this oasis is peaceful. Although I ask them to be quieter, I love to hear them calling each other’s names, having their young voices sweep through the space and claiming themselves as part of these natural surroundings.

We spend two hours in this nirvana for squirrels and dare I say for little girls too. It is a space where play is earthy and organic, where hands get dirty and faces smudged, where curiosity is piqued and the natural world held in quiet awe.

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In this small urban forest, there are no safety codes for walking in the woods and the kids play free.

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Take PlayGroundology for a Spin

PlayGroundology Readers

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The sky is wavy blue as our 3G walkers (grand-papa, papa and les filles) make their way to the beaver lands. As we start down the path, the girls discover another adventure, an attraction even more potent than a beaver lodge and a small stand of pointy stumps with tell tale gnawings. A long line of giant boulders unfolds before us.

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It’s up and over, climb and slide, balance and big air. The girls are fully engrossed – measuring, gauging, examining each boulder for the right approach, the perfect purchase, the highest summit.

DSC02522Eyeing the summit

There are more than 50 of the oversize rocks that are placed just over a meter apart to prevent vehicles from driving onto an otherwise open field. Though not designed as a play area, it pretty much screams out to kids. The rocks – and I’ve never seen such a glorious abundance – are like magnets for the girls.

The rocks offer differing levels of difficulty, risk and excitement. Some are great jump off points for the next rock on the trail. Others might seem at first blush like little mountains of impregnability. Each one has its own contours, jutting ends and striated surfaces.

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The girls are happy to strut their stuff for grand-papa. I am proud to see them eager to test their physical abilities and stretch a little outside their comfort zones. We are here for nearly 20 minutes hop, skip and jumping along the line and back again.

There’s a natural staircase…..

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…a table top…..

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…and plenty of jump off spots too.

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Today this is the highlight of our visit. These supersized stones are affordances inviting kids to imagine them for something other than their presumed purpose. PlayGroundology friend Tim Gill wrote a lovely post on affordances in Rethinking Childhood – a blog you really can’t afford to miss.

After our field of stones, we head to a playground less than five minutes away by foot. The girls don’t appear to be nearly as inventive or daring here. If all the big rocks were marshalled onto the playground I wonder if there would be problems linked to liability, if they would be deemed too dangerous, too risky?

Seems like people can cause more damage at this off the shelf playground than they could in the field of rocks….

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We’ll be back to climb, jump, slide and all the while we’ll keep on rockin’.