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.

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.


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.


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



The Pure Joy of Goofing Around

Can there possibly be a more endearing premise for a documentary than kids and a far-flung menagerie of animals starring in a true life scientific investigation? Invite a few academic luminaries along to drive the narrative and you get a story that must be told. “The pure joy of goofing around” as host David Suzuki intones during the opening sequence while a gorilla in a shallow pool spins around in absolute abandon.


The Power of Play debuts on Canada’s most popular and beloved science series, CBC’s The Nature of Things later this week. The documentary examines one of the most compelling and richly layered activities of kids the world over – PLAY.

But wait, it’s more than just kids having fun, more than homo sapiens and their primate cousins even. The filmmakers take a walk on the wild side trekking far beyond the somewhat predictably playful domestic dog and cat to check in on other species from the worlds of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. Be ready to get acquainted with the lighter side of turtles, rats, hamsters, elephants, an octopus and even a komodo dragon.

A year and a half in the making, Nova Scotia’s Tell Tale Productions shot kids, animals and passionate advocates of kids’ play and animal behaviour in Norway, the US and Canada. What we see are kids being kids, animals being animals and the scholars speaking to why we should care about human and animal play, why this spontaneous and intrinsically motivated activity matters.

There is something in our deeply rooted nature that is able to communicate with a whole range of life on this planet.

Gordon Burghardt, Reptile Ethologist

The show is as entertaining as it is informative exploring little known aspects of animal behaviour. Who knew that fish play and I don’t mean some anthropomorphic Nemo-like gyrations. It took hours to capture a short segment showing a fish playing with a tin foil decorated ball at Dalhousie University’s Aquatron Laboratory. The investment of time is representative of the effort and patience required to understand how play displays in animals outside our relatively constrained domestic orbits.

Behavioural ecologist, Johnathan Pruitt’s research leads him to conclude that, “things like play occur all over the animal kingdom.” I now admiringly think of Pruitt as Spider Man. His startling discoveries about public displays in the not so secret lives of – you guessed it, spiders – are expanding our understanding of play. And it’s not just any old spiders, his painstaking study is drawing back the veil so to speak on social spiders, a small subset of arachnids made up of a mere 20 species worldwide.


Spoiler alert – there are seriously cute cats and other social media sourced clips of inter-species play in the program. Tune in to see some surprising pairings and determine yourself if there is a clear winner in the cute sweepstakes. As Suzuki comments, “the impulse to have fun seems to cross all kinds of divides in the animal kingdom.”

Bonobos give play pride of place. It is a core component of their social interactions. Their adoption, or adaptation of play differentiates them from their close relatives the chimpanzees. A frequent chimp response on encountering other groups of their own species is to fight. Bonobos are more prone to make play, not war.

Play is pervasive in bonobo society…  It’s difficult to understand if empathy is at the basis of play, or if play is at the basis of empathy…

Primatologist, Elisabetta Palagi


Empathy brings the journey squarely into the camp of human experience. The program’s timing is spot on as caregivers, researchers, educators, healthcare and recreation professionals and journalists are examining attitudes and benefits associated with play, risk, resilience and independence. In the process there is a reset underway of some more recent cultural norms.

Over the last two or three decades in North America and to a lesser extent Europe a pervasive adverseness to exposing kids to risk has supplanted independence, unsupervised play, and many aspects of outdoor kid culture that were thriving right through the 1970s.

The preoccupation has been so pronounced in some quarters that in the UK for example the fixation has been tagged cotton wool culture, known too in other jurisdictions as bubble wrap kids.


Informed by observation and evidence-based findings across a number of disciplines, there is a meaningful shift taking place related to risk. International collaborators Mariana Brussoni and Ellen Sandseter from Canada and Norway respectively are changing the way we perceive risk as it relates to kids at play.

I came to the counter-intuitive conclusion that engaging in risk was actually a very important aspect of preventing injuries.

Mariana Brussoni – Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Individually, each of the university-based researchers have devoted years of investigation to various facets of play. Brussoni recently launched “to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.” Sandseter published seminal work for her doctoral degree – Scaryfunny: A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children.


Together they are being inspired by the children around them and are currently collaborating on remodeling playgrounds in eight Norwegian child care centres with the goal of making them more thrilling. Sandseter has it on good authority what it is that triggers those thrill factors. Through her interviews with children, she has developed a risky play inventory.

They (the kids) usually say it tickles in my tummy. I get so happy and so excited that I just had to laugh out loud.

Ellen Sandseter – Professor, Early Childhood Education, Queen Maud University College


Independent, adult-free outdoor play is not dead but it’s greatly diminished and that’s a concern for the health of our kids now and into the future

The pre-school children in Trondheim, Norway embody the adventure, the boldness, the hope that we can take back play. There is a renaissance, a resurgence that will help counter some of the problems we are seeing linked to overuse of devices and screen time, to low self-esteem and more serious mental health issues in young people.

As adults, parents and caregivers we have a responsibility to be play enablers in our communities. So how do we go about advocating for play? Tuning in to The Power of Play is a great first step.

There is much more that I have not touched on here so choose a healthy snack, kick back, get comfy and play ‘watch a doc’ on Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST….

Let’s give the last word to Stuart Brown. A student of play for over 50 years he aptly sums it all up.

What you find is that it’s necessary for a sense of optimism, fulfillment, for a sense of competency, for a sense of an authentic self. These are all components that play produces and many more for the well-being of individuals.

Stuart Brown – Founder, The National Institute for Play


  • Huge finding – girls play outside more when unsupervised. I can corroborate this here at home with our two girls, 11 and 9. PlayGroundology friends are you noting this too?
  • Those who participated in the making of the film overwhelmingly felt that it was an honour, a significant opportunity to help present research to a broad audience that documents the far-reaching benefits of play.
  • David Suzuki loves this show and and immediately saw the wisdom of the message about play. He was a real outdoorsy kid and encourages his kids and grandkids to do the same.  He biked to the playground where he did the standup for this show.
  • The film is being distributed internationally by SidewaysFilm. To date sales have been made to Sweden and Finland.
  • The Power of Play‘s director, Christine McLean remembers being shooed outdoors with her siblings on cold winter days so her Mom could wash the kitchen floor. Mom wrapped them up warmly and gave them shovels and spoons to keep them busy in the snow. Looking back McLean sees those days of play as one of the best gifts their mom ever gave them. Where do your play memories take you?


The Power of Play
Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST on CBC’s The Nature of Things
(check local listings)
Production company: Tell Tale Productions
Producer: Erin Oakes
Director: Christine McLean


What Shall We Do Today?

A wonderful music find today that examines childhood’s bittersweet fading star through friendship, transitions, impositions and blue skies. At least that’s what I see and hear in Brit punk duo Slaves new video Photo Opportunity from their latest album, Acts of Fear and Love.

The activities of the two boys in the video and the spaces where their exuberance explodes speak to the freedoms of childhood, skylarking with friends away from adult eyes. But there’s also a sense of impending change signaling that childhood’s time is slipping away. It makes me think of my son and daughters as they approach the vanishing point – that place and time where play is no longer their daily self-directed magic.

Watch the video and see. I’d love to hear what PlayGroundology readers think.

Thanks to Vero – a Truly Social Network – for introducing me to Clash where I read about Slaves and embraced this new-to me gem.

The Irresistible Lightness of Playing

I take the Metro straight to Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles. The latest smile inducing installation does not disappoint. Large pink, turquoise, orange and yellow interior lit tablets shaped like PEZ™ lozenges are arranged side by side on raised platforms. Standing on end à la dominoes, they are waiting for a push. Warm, ethereal tones synch with luminous sweeps through each sequence making for mini light and sound shows…
The play area consists of a half-dozen or so installations along rue Jeanne Mance. Here in the shadows of the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal public sculptures become the activity, the conversation, the beacon, a signature authenticating the irresistible lightness of playing.
Just One Small Push
This festival city knows a thing or two about play, fun, divertissement. The Quartier des spectacles immerses le grand public Montréalais in experiences that liberate and transport beyond the daily ho-humocrity. It’s all part of the creative continuum from mega street shows with global jazz greats to participatory playfulness for passersby.
domino effect by Montreal interactive design firm Ingrid Ingrid is part of the 9th edition of Luminothérapie. No better time for a little light and lightness in Canada than during our cold, dark, crisp winters.
All Fall Down
A well dressed, elderly man, approaches me and asks if I am responsible for the musical dominoes, or simply an admirer. We both agree there is some capital ‘F’ fun on offer for anyone inclined to pause and embark.
The thunkity-thud sound of falling ‘dominoes’ pulls people in to the half-dozen or so installations. Each has a different colour scheme, configuration and melody.
Rainbow at Dusk

There are only so many ways to make the dominoes fall. Only once throughout an afternoon and early evening do I see the ‘split and part’ – the manoeuvre recorded in the GIF above. More commonly it’s an end to end run, or the two ends set off against each other and colliding somewhere in the middlish.

There is no shortage of style, élan, flair and flourish as players set up and knock over the dominoes. It’s an active experience in sound, light and motion that appeals to a broad range  – young and old, couples, singles and families, the well heeled and the hard up.

Line ’em Up, Knock ’em Down
When there is more than one player, the dominoes inspire cooperation: getting everything set up to go; and, sharing by taking turns to dispatch them on their musical colliding runs of colour.


Luminothérapie, Ingrid Ingrid and le Quartier des spectacles make a concrete, palpable call to action – play and have fun.

domino effect until January 27, 2018.

Warning – you won’t be able to play just once and you may wind up speaking with strangers…

A Selection of 2018 Media Stories on Play

Over the course of 2018 there have been some great stories on risk, design, parenting and health as they relate to play. Click here or on the image below to access 15 stories from outlets as varied as The New York Times, Quartz, National Public Radio, BBC, The Sydney Morning Herald and others.

Play in the Press – 2018

Do you have a favourite media story for 2018 that speaks to play? Please share through comments or on PlayGroundology Facebook.

All the best in 2019. May the play be with you…..

If This Is Work Sign Me Up

Take a 70 foot long hallway, overhead lighting on timers, chairs with wheels, an abundant supply of paper and a common area with a wall mount TV and what do you get? The office play zone, a place where mom or dad can take the kids while they squeeze in a little extra work time over the weekend.

The Office Play Zone

Our kids haven’t spent much time with me at the office in the recent past. Before they started school it wouldn’t be uncommon  to bring them in for a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon. This visit marks a special occasion. I am cleaning in preparation for retirement, sifting through nearly 20 years of files looking for gems that have enough value to pass down.

The girls makes this wrap up a lot less wistful. Their hide and seek shenanigans, the stop clock races from one end of the floor to the other keep pulling me back into the moment enjoying the fun they’re making. Their presence is a bright buzz, a beacon of exuberance and creativity

The girls have no prescribed norms or conventions regarding the office, or for that matter work.  Transforming the commonplace and sometimes humdrum to to wonderment and discovery is a magical sleight of hand. Not too much discovery though – a few basic ground rules ensure a relatively disaster free time.

  1. Only use common spaces – no exploring individual offices.
  2. Do not be tempted to give the office machinery a whirl. We’re talking photocopiers, shredders, fax machines (they still exist!!), etc.
  3. Be respectful of the space and furnishings.
  4. Be responsible and clean up any mess you make.

A stash of bubble wrap that I had squirreled away with the intention of bringing home becomes the prop with pop. It has real start attraction when I break it out. What other plastic provides such simple fun.


Our workplace’s social highlight of the year is the Kids’ Xmas Party. It’s a full morning of snacks, games and Santa. Off in a room all its own is the box extravaganza a hit since it was introduced a few years ago.


A bit more play, a little more out of the box – could be a kick start for creativity. I treasure this last office play date with the girls – a great way to honour the past and embrace the now.