Requiem for Fallen Trees

Kids in trees are the natural order of things like bears in dens, or billy goats gruff on rocky outcrops. Trees are a roosting spot like no other free from the ground’s plodding predictability. The cool rustle of green’s shifting shades is a come hither and climb invitation. Hands and feet seek purchases pressing hard and making imprints against ridged, textured bark. From on high eyes pop and vistas roll away into the farther distance.

Aerially inclined

This summer and fall it’s tree-a-go-go in the backyard PlayLAB. Aerial is the unrivaled attraction and trees become the default play zone. It seems like the climbable trees all have their own complement of kids with disembodied voices and eyes squinting through leaves. It’s a wonderful state of affairs until the unrelenting winds and thrashing rain of Hurricane Dorian fells three trees, friends really, members of the neighbourhood gang.

Moving up

In one afternoon’s blow years of familiarity and fun are vanquished. No longer will super heroes, engineers, builders and highwire artists make the trees central elements of ever changing stories. No longer will shimmering whispers in the boughs precede a rainy wind’s arrival. The reduction in enticing billowing green means fewer birds to nest, less morning song.

Super Heroes Secret Lair

It is more difficult to experiment now. Hammocks, zip lines, looped ropes, pulleys and bridges will struggle to see the light of day in the backyard PlayLAB. And what of the drop down grin ‘n gasp when a tree dweller lands with a cushioned bump on the ground giving a start to an unsuspecting friend passing by underneath. These surprise gotcha moments are gone as are the hiding places for myriad games.

DIY Hammock

Many aerial adventures are preserved in images and memories. Parts of the tree have been repurposed. Twigs and kindling fuel fire. Stouter branches are walking sticks for Cub Scouts. For now, the trunks are testaments to the fragility of great strength and the resilience of children in accepting changed circumstances.

Before the snap

There is one tree left in the PlayLAB. It is in frequent use. I believe the kids have a better appreciation for its presence, for its possibilities.

Thanks trees, we miss you….

More treealicious reading here.

The last climb

 

 

Camping on the Campaign Trail

Canada is smack dab in the middle of a national election campaign. PlayGroundology‘s international friends may have twigged that something was awry north of the 49th with the flurry of TIME magazine-led media coverage reporting on some past transgressions of the current Prime Minister prior to him holding political office.

This post has to do with a particular campaign promise made this past Thursday nearly a week after TIME broke the news that made a surprised world sit up and take notice. Let me disclose at this point that:

  • I am a Canadian citizen;
  • I do not have a membership in any political party;
  • I am among the ranks of undecided voters – 11% of the electorate at the most recent reckoning;
  • the camping campaign pledge will not be a clincher or a deal breaker for me whoever I wind up casting my ballot for on October 21.

That’s right, you read correctly there is a campaign pledge related to providing young people the experience of camping in a national or provincial  park.

 

As part of a nature conservation package, the Liberal Party announced:

  • We will give every child the chance to learn how to camp by the time they reach grade eight, expanding the successful Learn to Camp program;
  • This will make it possible for 400,000 kids each year to learn the skills to enjoy camping; and;
  • We will give 75,000 less privileged children and their families an up to four night trip to one of Canada’s National or Provincial Parks:
  • This includes camping accommodations and a travel bursary of up to $2,000 so that families can more easily afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to more national parks like Banff, Gros Morne, Forillon and the Cape Breton Highlands.

Predictably, the small ‘c’ conservative media outlets and columnists pilloried the idea. One of the Sun Media chain’s well known writers opined:

“This is at one and the same time one of the most patronizing and one of the most naive policies ever proposed during a Canadian election.”   Lorne Gunter

John Ivison, a colleague of Gunter’s on the national media stage, had this to say in The National Post:

But handing over public money to fund camping holidays for low-income and new Canadian families takes nannyism to heights not even the Trudeau Liberals have reached hitherto.

Well, I did mention that we are in the midst of election sweepstakes. The fevered, adversarial campaigns are susceptible to hyperbole in the opinion sections and amongst the chattering classes.  Television news from Canada’s two major stations – CBC and CTV – provided more balanced coverage with a focus on the available facts as did Québec’s La Presse.

Canadians do love to spend time in the outdoors to embrace a number of activities including camping as the Statistics Canada graphic below illustrates.  Our public parks are sought after with vacationers from around the world coming here to get a taste of Canada’s nature experience. This summer we met families who traveled from Europe throughout the three weeks we camped in Quebec and New Brunswick. Why not ‘less privileged children’ and their families too?

 

There’s a global movement working to reconnect kids with the natural world. Given the documented benefits of outdoor play and the growing body of research linking time spent in natural environments to positive health outcomes, this is something that we as a society should continue to focus and push forward on.

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As for the costing of this campaign pledge I have no expertise there. There is no arguing though that we need recruits to lead change on the environmental frontlines. Perhaps this type of program will provide an aspirational window that could turn into an organic eco-action incubator.

Our kids have been camping since they were infants. If there is still such a thing as leisure, or pleasure camping when they are adults, I am quite confident that they will be there enjoying and caring for the natural world. Making access to this kind of experience more widespread seems to be a laudable policy objective particularly when we need every hand on deck to save us from ourselves.

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This past weekend, people traveled from across the country to spend the weekend in the woods outside of Ottawa and take part in the Canada’s first Outdoor Play Summit. Educators, health care, recreation and design professionals, urban planners and others are looking to connect more kids with the natural world. Organizations like the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada and Earthday Canada are working to  make this happen. Perhaps there is a role for them and longstanding groups like Scouts Canada and the Canadian chapter of the International Play Association should this policy ever see the light of day.

PlayGroundology friends – what do you think, would this idea make your policy deliberations if you were leading the discussions? As for myself, I would potentially see this idea as a much better investment than tax cuts or any other kind of breaks for the 1%.

With Mobility there is Freedom and Adventure

Letting our children loose to explore their neighbourhoods, to get from home to school and back, or to play with friends just ain’t what it used to be. For over 40 years, kids’ independent mobility has been in a state of progressive decline. Visualize a series of ever decreasing concentric circles that in the most extreme instances become so constricted that children do not leave their homes without an adult in tow. Empowering – no. Fun – not much.

The fear of stranger danger, of motor vehicle traffic and of being judged as an irresponsible, or even worse, a neglectful parent are key reasons cited by parents and caregivers for restricting mobility. These fears are even more pronounced in relation to girls.


We have much greater concerns and anxieties about our               daughters than we do about our sons                                                    Guy Faulkner, UBC


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Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility, a new documentary produced by Dr. Guy Faulkner¹ a professor at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Kinesiology, is an optimistic narrative advocating for greater freedoms than is currently the norm. The film premiered last week in Vancouver and concluded with a panel discussion that has been captured as a podcast.

Three families share the journeys that lead to their children being empowered to get around more independently. Their stories are interspersed with research-based insights from three members of the UBC community – Dr. Faulkner, Dr. Mariana Brussoni and PhD candidate, Negin Riazi. Family members and researchers speak from their own experiences and expertise to build the case for increased independence.


When you give them the independence what you’re saying is I believe in you – you can do this. That’s a really great positive message for your child to hear                                                                   Transit Girl Mother


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One of the most striking measurements documenting the free fall of children’s independent mobility is the reduced numbers of kids going to school under their own steam. Two of the three family stories in the film focus on kids getting to school by transit and by walking school bus without parental support.

The day after the documentary’s premiere, I have an engaging conversation with a buoyant Riazi. Her energy levels are still high following the successful screening and lively panel discussion. She hopes the documentary will be a useful tool that will help kids to get a better shake in the mobility sweepstakes. She notes that while the challenges of the mobility – physical activity – outdoor play – mental health continuum are more prevalent in higher income countries the issues are also resonating on a global level due in part to ever expanding urbanization.

Riazi believes that with a collaborative push enlisting parents, schools and neighbourhoods we can improve on the current state of affairs and get the kids moving – independently that is. There is much at stake ranging from confidence building and risk-based decision making to enabling outdoors play and increasing the deplorably low levels of physical activity in kids.


What always seems to come up is the parental perception about the environment – how they feel about traffic, stranger danger      and these are always recurring…                                                             Negin Riazi, UBC


The double whammy fear of loss and public censure can be paralyzing even in its imagining. Never mind how irrational the thought process may be, the gut wrenching is familiar to many of us as parents and caregivers. When our son first started riding off into the proverbial sunset at about 10-years-old, I was a basket case running through terrible scenarios and tying myself up in knots if he didn’t reappear back home at exactly the agreed upon time. I started to chill relatively quickly but there is always a little niggling voice squirreled away in some dark recess whispering away, talking up those unfounded fears.

Now if I get spooked that something could be going wrong with one of the kids, I think back to my own childhood. At 11-years-old, two-wheelers were our trusty touring ticket to a two square mile area of suburban Toronto. This was an area  that experienced high traffic volumes and included a mix of residential, commercial and riverine land use. A few years later, I was given free rein to travel solo in daylight hours on the Paris métro system. These were not extraordinary privileges. My peers had similar independence and freedoms.

Our youngest – self-portrait

The worst scrapes I encountered left no permanent scars. At six-years-old, I remember the terror of being lost. I missed my turning coming home for lunch from school. The snowbanks were piled so high that every street looked identical and I unknowingly passed our street and continued two more blocks before turning down a street that didn’t look at all familiar. I was rescued by the mailman who took me home and reunited a bleating boy with his mom. After a hug, getting my tears dried and a warm lunch I was good to go. I need to keep this in mind as our girls come on stream for increased independence. The youngest is just on the cusp….

As the documentary unfolds the families chart their progress toward independent kid mobility. They are convinced of its merits on a number of fronts. The researchers set the scene. With a soft and empathetic touch they call into question unfounded parental fears and offer encouragement based on research.


It’s important for parents to know that play is a safe activity. There is the opportunity to provide them those chances to get out, to play, to take risks because the likelihood of something serious happening is incredibly low.                                                      Mariana Brussoni, UBC


About three-quarters of the way through the documentary, the viewer is introduced to Philip Martin, founder and chair of Waterloo, Ontario’s Cycling into the Future. A retired teacher, Martin works with with grades 5 and 6 kids to ensure they have a strong foundation in the safety rules for biking and can make minor repairs. Brilliant – a big boost to independent mobility. Do you remember your first two wheeler? Mine was a red CCM. When I bike now, aside from the uphill huffing and puffing, it’s an exhilarating experience that never fails to transport me back to childhood. All hail the bike and those who are working to make our urban spaces more bike friendly.

There is no template, no one size fits all when bestowing this gift of independence. Needs, maturity levels and comfort with decision-making vary with each child. Kids have a variety of transportation choices – skateboards, inline skates, scooters, bikes of all sorts and public transit. Insights from the experts combined with real world stories make this documentary a solid example of what the academic world refers to as knowledge translation – moving research into the hands of people who can put it to practical use.

There are also unintended bonus consequences to increasing independent mobility for kids. It enables them to experience alternatives to car culture through active transportation and transit. Getting woke to this choice will align well for those youth and young people who are grappling with how they will influence policy, decision-making and action around climate change. It can also make them prepared, on the travel side at least, to participate in climate strike actions…

If you or someone you know is curious about independent mobility or is struggling with how to integrate it into family life, this documentary could serve as a valuable touchstone. Pull up a seat and get comfortable. Each of the three family stories are relatable and profile a variety of different considerations that can help inform parental choices and decisions.

 

 


Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility
Available on YouTube
Running Time – 26:25
Producer – Guy Faulkner
Director – Donna Gall
Completion Date – April 2019


1. An earlier mobility study involving Faulkner was the subject of a popular 2015 PlayGroundology post – Goin’ Mobile – Keep ‘Em Movin’.

On the Road

It’s an on the road again kind of summer for our family. In Baie Comeau, Quebec near the beginning of our camping safari, this sign makes me think about that late, great 1940s American road odyssey immortalized in print by Jack Keraouc and celebrated in song by the 10,000 Maniacs.

 

In contrast to that rowdy, beat defining Americana, our 2,000 kilometer camping tour across three provinces in nineteen days is a distillation of simple pleasures. Roads and ferries connect us from one pocket of green to another. As we cozy in to explore, we soak up sounds, sights and smells that have no parallel in urban landscapes.

The kids are steeped in play and adventure in equal measures. At Parc du Bic, Parcs du Fjord-du-Saguenay, Lac Témiscouata and Cap Jaseux we climb, hike swim and revel in the natural surroundings. From Tadoussac’s coastal boulders we see whales blow then roll gracefully beneath the surface. In the parks there are deer, eagles, herons, hawks, groundhogs, chipmunks, squirrels and each morning darting songbirds nudging us into wakefulness.

Back at the campsites, there are endless rounds of grounders, tag, capture the flag, 50 – 50 and other games with a varying cast of kids from Québec, Europe and other parts of Canada. The Parks system provides free bikes for children. There’s a lot of active transportation along the dusty serpentine roads…

 

All the while, a slate of Summer of PLEY activities and events led by Dr. Michelle Stone’s Dalhousie University crew continues in Halifax. Just prior to our departure on the camping trail, an outdoors loose parts extravaganza with 200+ playful kids creates a new wave of ambassadors for unbridled fun and demonstrates alternatives for outdoor play that are not playground dependent.

The Summer of PLEY moves from the spontaneity of kids with loose parts to the more studied style of public presentations. Dr. Mariana Brussoni from the University of British Columbia and a frequent media commentator on risk and outdoor play comes to town for a couple of public engagements including a keynote – Risk, Resilience and and the Renaissance of Play  (click through for video). Additional videos from the Summer of PLEY series available here.

Dr. Brussoni is in Halifax on National Play Day, August 7.  The day is being revived by the Canadian chapter of the International Play Association (IPA) to encourage public play events across the country – disclosure, I’m a board member. Dr. Brussoni, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage and the Chief Medical Officer for Nova Scotia, Dr. Robert Strang are game to get their play on for the cameras in support of kids and play. This is one of my favourite pics from their photo session.

Dr. Strang, Mayor Savage and Dr. Brussoni getting their play on at Fort Needham Memorial Park on IPA Canada’s National Play Day.

Maybe we’ll be able to use these pics for promotional purposes next year….

Our meander through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Québec finally comes to an end as we pull into our Eastern Passage home for a couple of days. Before we know it, the girls and I are off to Prince Edward Island where I make a short presentation on the value of outdoors nature play at the Atlantic Summer Institute Forum – Supportive Environments for Youth Mental Health.

It’s an honour to be there to listen to stellar presenters with deep experience supporting mental health. The keynote speaker – Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Health for Nova Scotia helps to set the tone with a meditation on welcoming and attachment.

The conference inspires me to launch a new project, Atlantic Canada Adventures, still very much in the early days – more on welcoming and attachment coming soon. The adventures relate to identifying activities, places and strategies to help kids develop a deeper connection with nature and with Atlantic Canada’s rich natural ecosystems.

Not long until school starts back now. We’re off on our last summer camping trip today. Back in September….

Balls and balls of fun at the Outdoors Loose Parts Emporium

“Play outside” is a regular refrain at home from us adult types. It’s not that the three kids are unfamiliar with the concept. Sometimes they just need a little impetus, an encouraging word. On most days, they are outside playing for hours on end. Our son is in the habit of calculating how long he’s been outdoors on a given day and then enumerates his activities – pick up basketball, road hockey, man tracker, catch the flag, fishing, biking, or just playing around in the backyard with our assortment of loose parts. The girls do likewise just not as sports fixated….

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Frequently, I imagine being an embedded photographer traveling with a gaggle of kids, documenting their adventures over the course of a few days. As much as I’d like to join our local neighbourhood play crew, I’m not as limber as I used to be and my stamina is far from top notch when compared with the pre-teen set’s seemingly limitless reserves of energy. But maybe I could tag along if I could create something inventive like the multi-colour catapult, or a manual massage rocker, hand crafted pretty much from scratch.

In any event, even if this dream job could be realized, I’m not sure they’d have me for more than short bursts of time. Let’s face it, one of the attractions of independent play is getting away from the inquisitive gaze of grown ups and their sometimes penchant for ‘interfering’, or putting a stick in the spokes. Though I’m not sure I’d have much gumption to get out of that rocker and poke a stick in any spokes!

So, I’ve done the next best thing. I’ve become a member of play crews organizing pop-up, loose parts events for kids in public spaces. For the last few months, I’ve been hanging out with the Play Outside NS play crew. The first event of the  Summer of PLEY series (Physical Literacy in the Early Years), was a loose parts shindig on the Halifax South Common, that wrapped earlier this afternoon. I’ll echo a comment a lot the kids were using – “this is awesome!”

Check out this DIY swing created by the Dupuis family who were at a CanadaPlays crew organized event in the same location two years ago. I was happy to be part of the instigators on that crew who created some loose parts fun and buzz with American and Brit friends from Pop-Up Adventure Play. There were other returnees from the initial Halifax South Common loose parts pop up too. It was great to see their undiminished enthusiasm.

Global TV and The Chronicle Herald took the time to steep themselves a little in a series of eureka moments seasoned with chaos light. The videographer and writer had plenty of material to work with. Many thanks to the parents who agreed to have either themselves or their children interviewed. Thanks to the journalists as the media coverage will help spread the word about how much creative fun kids have with loose parts.

One family on vacation from Newfoundland explained to Global TV viewers that they spontaneously joined in the festivities. When they saw cardboard forts being constructed as they whizzed by the event, they started searching for the first available parking space and made their way over. The father thought that loose parts are how play should be…

Before I bow out and go play in nature at Kejimkujik, I’ll give shout outs to another couple of crews I’ve had the pleasure to play with. Drum roll please – let’s hear it for the Youth Running Series loose parts crew, the originals from five years ago. The Adventure Play YHZ crew did an October loose parts pop-up where pre-schoolers in costumes ruled the roost. Last but not least is the Cubs loose parts crew – we will be reconvening in September.

Thanks also to all the businesses that have helped put on these events and other bodies who have helped to make them happen.

may the Loose Parts be with you

Until next time, goodbye forts, pirate ships, DIY teeter-totters and swings, restaurants, club houses, teepees and of course let’s not forget whichamajoogers….

PS – I met the most wonderful gentleman who was visiting his grandchildren in Halifax. Being of a certain age, we were both reveling in the shade and got to talking. Turns out both of us were in Dakar, Sénégal at the same time more than 40 years ago. We swapped a few stories from back in the day and then got back onto the play track. Pleasure to meet you Ralph Kendall…

For Nova Scotia readers, find out more information on the great events still to come in the Summer of PLEY series at Play Outside NS.

 

What if this was your Wake-Up Call !?!?

Don’t kids just love noise? The louder, the better. They are on the audio autobahn…. What if this was your wake-up call? Where is the snooze button?

 

Freestyle Soundgarden Symphony.

 

A Kid’s Purpose

In our contemporary society, there is much energy, thought and in some cases money being invested to explore ways that will make outdoor play more accessible and attractive to kids.  Numerous studies document a general penury of active, outdoor play across many of the high income countries. Kids are more sedentary, spend greater amounts of time indoors and when they do get outside, their freedom of movement, the territory in which they have permission to range is greatly restricted in comparison to previous generations.

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Today’s kids are inhabiting a space where special strategies are required to get them outdoors to well, play and have fun. As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, independent, outdoor play was the default – a by the kids, for the kids daily dosing of discovery, amusement and anticipation. Not to get lost in rose-tinted nostalgia, but back in those heady days it was a self-evident truth that there would be play and plenty of it – a kid’s purpose so to speak.

Now, not so much. Gains are being made though. Signposts point to a play renaissance. There are hosts of engaged professionals from the worlds of design, health, recreation, education, urban planning and other disciplines who are working hard to help reverse play’s eroded fortunes and create an environment where it can flourish. Through the development of policies, public education campaigns and programs, collective action is laying the groundwork to reclaim kids’ attention and interest while allaying parents’ fears and concerns.

Safeguarding outdoor play is in the public good as it helps equip kids with lifelong skills and attributes – creativity, resilience and empathy are front runners. This shared responsibility cuts across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions. Local governments for instance have a highly visible role in the provision of public play spaces and recreation programs. Institutions can’t go it alone though.

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For all the good work currently underway to truly take root and resonate, it has to get down to individual action. What is a parent or caregiver to do to support play as a central feature in their kids’ lives?

We’ve found an approach that works for us that I’ve tagged the home base principle. It’s pretty straightforward and I’m sure many families are embarked on similar paths. Here are some of the defining characteristics that support the home base principle.

  • Spend unscheduled time at home
  • Welcome the neighbourhood kids and get to know them
  • Make your yard a home base for play – see above welcome the kids
  • Give the kids permission to play
  • Introduce some kid/play magnets
  • Allow for risk, be alert to hazards
  • Be there for the kids when they need you (occasionally someone might get stuck in a tree)
  • Acknowledge their accomplishments and creations
  • Repeat all of the above

Mélanie, my wife, is a real champion in the ‘welcoming neighbourhood kids’ department. This is the foundation for everything else. The sticky social glue keeps pulling them back to a place where they know and sense they can be themselves.

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The other day, one of our frequent visitors appeared out of nowhere in our front room. Turns out he had let himself in the back door and walked upstairs unannounced. He is not alone in having reached this comfort threshold. A few of the kids have embraced this familiarity as standard operating procedure.

I asked this grade one lad how he was feeling now that summer holidays were nearly upon us. It seems that the pending release from school is an unreserved cause for happiness. There are a few things on his dance card. In fact, he has a summer fun list. I had to know if coming over to our place was on the list. “No”, he said. “I don’t have to put it on the list because I come here all the time.”

He is one of the several neighbourhood kids who knock on our door, or walk right in as the case may be, multiple and I mean multiple times a day. The outdoors appear to offer no shortage of adventure and play options for the kids. Their discoveries (salamanders are the cause célèbre this week), dust-ups and derring-dos are frequently centered around our backyard.

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Our permanent kid magnets consist of two climbable trees with dangling ropes, a small loose parts treasure trove and a couple of adults who let the kids do their own thing and play independently.

The loose parts are important material attributes that I may never have stumbled across had I not become interested in discovering more about play a few years back. It is amazing how a few milk crates, boxes, tarps, car and bicycle tires, odd pieces of lumber, cords of rope and other bric à brac become the stuff of dreams. Without fail they consistently enable imaginative and creative fun.

Thanks here to all the Nova Scotia folks who have helped to bring loose parts experiences to kids at public events. A special shout out to my good friends at Pop-Up Adventure Play who offered some great long distance hand holding during my early loose parts forays and then kicked off their cross-Canada tour here in Halifax a couple of years ago.

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There is a lot of FT (Fun Transfer) happening in our backyard and it looks like we still have a few years of this heady world to enjoy. The kids do play elsewhere throughout the neighbourhood but always get pulled back here. They know we’re open for play and experimentation. When they come here they have permission – read an expectation – to do just that….

Mélanie and I often wonder how much the kids will remember of these days. We hope their memories include the great moments of FT, the friendships and the excitement and freedom of playing outdoors.

Caution – if a nice looking yard and manicured grass are important to you, our example may not be your cup of tea. Better Homes and Gardens would run away aghast from the horrors of our small parcel of paradise. In a bow to normalcy, I’ve had to designate a far corner of the backyard as the only zone where digging and worm prospecting can take place. Even so, I arrive home on occasion with a couple of shovels abandoned on the front lawn, accomplices in an illegal dig. Let’s put it this way, I think we’ve been successful transmitting the permission to play message….

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Every now and again we need to take a breather and shut down the kid activities to rediscover peace and quiet for a couple of days. Invariably, it isn’t long before our own guys are lobbying and before you know it, the kids come tumblin’ down to start playing again.

Just in case you’re wondering we don’t live in some antediluvian, leave-it-to-beaveresque time warp. Like all parents we have taxing times trying to manage  the double-edged sword of tech – mobile devices, PS4s and streaming entertainment. For the time being we seem to be keeping our head above water but we have to be constantly vigilant. Playing outdoors can be an excellent antidote….

outsideplay.ca has some great insights on, you guessed it, outside play. Have a playful start to summer.

 

For Nova Scotia PlayGroundology friends, get ready for the Summer of PLEY a series of activities led by Dalhousie University that kicks off on July 22 with a loose parts, pop-up adventure play extravaganza on the Halifax Common.