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.

Time to Play

There are a lot of sayings related to time. One that has stuck with me over the years is, ‘we’re all traveling at the same speed – 60 seconds a minute’. The deceptive simplicity of the phrase is intriguing. I heard it first from my father. Actually, with the exception of myself, I’ve never heard anyone else utter it.

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Having retired from the workforce a couple of months back I now have fewer prescribed activities awaiting, or ambushing me each day. Frequently there is much greater flexibility in how I tango with time. My dance card though is still quite full and more often than not, although ‘things’ are more leisurely it seems like I still have a shortage of units (an expression I heard our kids’ dentist use recently).

I am thankful to be able to focus my attention more on family and community. This resonates well with what I have been doing with the PlayGroundology brand and with community events. Perhaps most importantly I am able to revel in – and at times recoil from (we all have those days) – the finest gift, time with the kids.

I’m very happy to be working on a few projects at present. I’m part of a great team at Dalhousie University gearing up for a Summer of PLEY. PLEY stands for Physical Literacy in the Early Years. I’m lending a hand with their social media and with the programming of a loose parts pop-up play session on the Halifax Common – good people, good fun.

 

We are wrapping up our year at Cubs next week and are celebrating our last meeting with some loose parts play. I’ve got 100 or so boxes to pick up to supplement my personal loose parts treasure chest which gets played with regularly by the neighbourhood kids. Tonight I was able to snag three kitchen stove boxes….

I was also approached recently to see if I would be interested in participating as a presenter in a longstanding annual conference in Atlantic Canada. I’ve provided an abstract along with supporting documentation and will be very pleased if I am invited to present on play in natural environments.

I will be gearing up shortly to help spread the word about National Play Day in Canada. Led by the International Play Association’s Canadian branch, this celebratory, get out and do it event is in a rebuild stage. Nova Scotia led the charge last year (prior to my involvement). This year on August 7, we are hoping for more engagement from across the country as we re-establish awareness and participation.

My retirement was predicated on an agreement that I would take over all household chores and the primary care for the kids – lunches, meals, homework, appointments, activities, etc. I can do better in this area. Homework is the biggest kid-related challenge. On the domestic bliss (chores) side of the equation there is lots of room for improvement. My only excuse at this juncture is that I am still in transition. This however, will become pretty flimsy another couple of months down the road.

I also have to work on reversing years of habit to enable me to take on considerably more responsibility for what my wife and I refer to as mental charge. She saved my bacon today as one of the kids was walking out of the house without the project they were presenting later in the day. It will come as no surprise to women that they are the ones who take on the bulk of this mental charge, or as it was referenced in a recent New York Times article, ’emotional labour’.

There is really no shortage of things to turn my attention to including those embryonic photo projects (embedded photographer with neighbourhood kids on the move and playing), more writing and research, investigating the potential of a traveling exhibit and so it goes….

It’s time to play.

Short Meditation on Play

There’s nothing comparable to the ricocheting crescendos of laughing kids engrossed in play. In urban environments and natural settings, kids just want to have fun.  Is there anything more hopeful than a gaggle of kids playing together, leading their own adventures?

Our kids live to play. In the morning they are thinking of what they will be doing after school with their friends. It’s a simple and compelling rhythm. Each day the dance varies but it is always recognizable.  It’s been about 50 years since play has been my ‘core’ activity. I think it’s high time that I start to nudge it back in that direction.

 

I’m going to look to my own kids for inspiration and see if I can plug into a little  of their mischief and merriment. Moments spent in play with them are thoroughly enjoyable.  I count myself as fortunate when I’m invited to participate, or get to see this play up close. It fills my heart. In fact, I’ve been dreaming of a job as an embedded photographer documenting the spontaneity of kids at play. Please recommend me if you hear of any openings.

And there’s always a vicarious bump of adrenalin and excitement when I witness kids immersed in the moment. The tumultuous racket of school recesses never fails to grab my attention. The next time you pass by a school during recess, stop, look and listen.

 

For the 15 minutes of glorious release, the school playground is like an orchestra in motion, kinetic soundscapes of bobbing colour. This is where the kids rule, where they run, talk, laugh, find common cause and resolve disputes. This is where their thirst for free form fun is getting quenched. When I do get the chance to hear it, that rolling wave of sound made possible by a critical mass of kids, I invariably smile. It takes me back to my own childhood, to british bulldog, red rover, tag, sports and the freedom to play.

Where are you transported to when you imagine yourself at play?

Slip, Sliding Away – The All New Icy Slopes

I’m on the lookout for the girls. It’s about -10°C and they’ve been out for close to two hours. Truth is I’m a little worried. I can’t find them in any of their usual haunts. Thinking rationally, I tell myself that there is nothing to be concerned about. We’re talking three smart girls together just out and about having fun on a weekend afternoon. Nevertheless the fear is gnawing away so I’m out in the car trying to locate them. I’m on a mission.

Rounding the corner of the school I see their heads popping up as they make their way to the top of a slope bringing them level to the road. They are happy to see me and I am ecstatic to see their ear-to-ear smiles. The fear daemon quickly recedes as I am invited to witness their game. Actually they would like to see me play too but I graciously decline.


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Kids create the darndest games. What they have concocted is a glacial strip playing field about 10 meters long and just over 2 meters wide. The concept is simple enough – run up the 30° incline icy slope all the way to the top. The girls are keeping score. One point each time a player makes it to the summit. I hear some talk about rules but I can’t really pick up on what they are.
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The game is by times competitive – first to the top and by times cooperative – trying to help another player from sliding to the bottom. One thing is certain the girls are having a great time. They are giddy with excitement. Each attempt on the slope holds the promise of unknown consequences. The only thing that they can safely predict is that they will wind up at the bottom more frequently than the top. The giggles give it away, this game is the highlight of the afternoon.

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I am sure they will be back another day to continue with this game or invent something else new entirely.

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