Happy 10th Birthday PlayGroundology

Ten years ago today, PlayGroundology published its first post – Manhattan’s Bronze Guy. It’s a look at sculptor Tom Otterness’ installation piece, Playground, what was then a new space for kids in an NYC residential area. We’re still going strong 428 posts later.

Playground by Tom Otterness aka Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

A big shout out out and thanks to readers and PlayGroundology friends for all your help along the way. So many of you have shown such generosity. Some of you share your stories, others provide technical help and tips, others still encourage me to keep writing and to get out and play. Then there are the tour guides who proudly show me how their organizations and communities are making a contribution to kids and play.

It’s a wonderful ride full of discovery and adventure. I’m looking forward to another 10 years to ‘just play’ and to experience how much play rocks….

2019 Media Perspectives on Play – An Even Dozen

Reporting on children and play is becoming more of a thing. First and foremost, this is wonderful for kids. It means greater public prominence given to play related issues and successes. News publications, broadcasters and online media sources are reporting on the needs, trends, shortfalls and benefits of play. Here’s a dozen stories from the past year selected from Australia, Canada, The Republic of Ireland, UK and USA.

Thanks to the journalists who are helping to shine a light on all the work that is left to be done and for lending a voice that informs parents, policy makers, planners, educators and others who make critical decisions that impact children’s play.

The GuardianBy mollycoddling our children, we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers. By Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky – January 2019.

“…free play in which kids work out their own rules of engagement, take small risks, and learn to master small dangers (such as having a snowball fight) turns out to be crucial for the development of adult social and even physical competence.”

CBC – The Current Anna Maria Tremonti with guests Paul McKay, Mariana Brussoni, Tracy Vaillalncourt. Why experts say schools shouldn’t shy away from a little physicality during recess – February 2019.

“Educators have been reimagining recess lately from introducing more of it to inviting a bit more recklessness into it. In Quebec, a handful of schools are introducing sanctioned roughhousing zones on snowy school yards. It’s a spot where the kids can get a bit my hands on.”

The GuardianToo poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground. By Harriet Grant – March 2019.

“Dinah Bornat, an architect and expert on child-friendly design who advises planners, local authorities and the mayor of London, called the development “segregation” and said she has raised it with senior planners at the Greater London Authority.”

The London Free Press School board’s safety crackdown triggers playground ‘play-in’ protest. By Heather Rivers – April 2019.

“Recently, there have been a lot of safety rules that are unfair — like not being allowed to pick up snow with your hands or feet. Now, we’re not allowed to play on the climber anymore,” said Julie Ryan’s daughter, Lily, 14. 

The New York TimesMaking Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous. By Richard Schiffman – May 2019.

“The Yard, for kids 6 through 13, lacks the usual monkey bars, slides and swings. It is, however, well-stocked with dismembered store mannequins, wooden packing crates, tires, mattresses, an old piano and assorted other detritus of the modern world.”

The Irish TimesWhat happens when you ask children to design their own playground? By Sara Keating – June 2019

“Ask a child about their perfect playground and their answers may surprise you. Swings and roundabouts and slides are not as important as freedom: to experiment, take risks, become invisible, invent the landscape as they move through it.”

The Globe and MailDesigning for fun – How to make a better playground. By Alex Bozikovic – July 2019.

“Play is an essential part of children’s psychological development and so is risk. Learning to assess risk and to get back up when we fall is part of growing up”

The Toronto StarReclaim the streets for play. By the Editorial Board – August 2019.

“But with street play, kids activity isn’t curtailed by the hours available at the arena or on the soccer field. They simply step outside their homes and play for as long as they want with kids in their own neighbourhood.”

FatherlyEat, Play, Love: The Science of Play and its Impact on Childhood Development. By Virginia Pelley. September 2019.

“Parents should want kids to play. A lot. But before they can start encouraging play behaviors, they need to understand what they are. What does play look like? It starts with eye contact — we’re talking weeks out of the womb — and catalyzes quickly from there.”

ABC NewsLetting kids play with discarded objects is great for their bodies and minds, and not as risky as you might think. By Dr. Shirley Wyver – October 2019.

“Teachers are often concerned they will be seen as neglecting their duty of care if they allow children to take risks, so they restrict play that they know is beneficial for children.”

BBC News‘Global epidemic’ of childhood inactivity. By James Gallagher – November 2019.

“The World Health Organization says children’s health is being damaged as well as their brain development and social skills. It says failing to take the recommended hour a day of exercise is a universal problem in rich and poor countries.”

BBC ScotlandThe children learning to love being outdoors. By David Alliston – December 2019

“The philosophy of getting pre-school children out and about and playing in the mud and rain is fairly common in Scandinavia and Germany – and it is catching on in Scotland.”

If you have a favourite media story on play that you would like to share, please post it here as a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Playback

Our youngest, Lila-Jeanne – PlayGroundology started just after she was born

Our three youngest kids are a never ending source of inspiration. Their ability to play with no goal in mind, to get lost in changing beats and laughter’s rolling sound really highlights the vitality of independent play, the richness of embracing its giddy reel.

Over the course of PlayGroundology’s nearly ten years, I have frequently fantasized about being an embedded photographer/videographer for a few days with the neighbourhood gang. Although I have thousands of photos and hundreds of minutes of video of kids at play, none truly capture the child perspective of their universe.

With PlayGroundology poised to celebrate its tenth anniversary in a couple of weeks, I wanted to say thanks to my kids for showing me what it’s all about day in, day out. They play with abandon, with joy, intensity, exuberance and the unspoken belief that the parade of discovery, adventure and fun will never end.

I hope you will enjoy these unedited, kid-led parade moments that they have so generously shared.

 

That’s our little guy in the yellow and blue tie-die shirt paddling around Salamander Playground in Montreal, Canada nearly ten years ago – more here.

 

One of our girls centrifugaling around on one of the last roundabouts in Nova Scotia at Dempsey Corner Orchard – more here.

 

Up and down the hill with whirling paper streaming in the sky.

 

One small step up. One huge leap for risk assessment…

 

Tagging along for adventure.

 

Seasonal shennaingans

 

Creative destruction…

 

Play training.

 

Our nature getaway – Kejimkujik National Park.

 

More play moments coming soon….

 

 

For Each Kid a Story

The Halifax South Common is popping, erupting in play. A ‘loose parts’ emporium is scattered in pods across a grassy canvas on what has been public land since at least the 18th century.  On this July day, kids arrive in family groups, with day camps and in gaggles of child care centre pre-schoolers. Before it’s over, 200 kids are dispersed throughout the pop-up zone intent on touching, testing, trying, telling – infusing this public play extravaganza with their joy, energy, words, motion and ideas.

Touching, testing, trying telling…

There is an abandon, some wildness if you wish. Standard conventions are no longer applicable. The assortment of recycled and donated items are the versatile props in an ever-changing drama featuring kids in starring roles as they reveal ingenuity, imagination and inventiveness. It’s play-a-palooza where deep curiosity extends time’s elastic stretch.

 Waiting for the Wildness

Kids and loose parts together are like bits and pieces of exponential merriment. A charged expectancy permeates these encounters and, perhaps counter intuitively, a steady hum of lightness ensues. The air is electric with possibility yet there is no pressure to perform. As the kids play out, rich thematic patterns emerge.

  • Wonder and discovery, play’s elemental touchstones, are rampant, discernible in facial expressions, in the inflection of voices, in smiles and laughter.
  • Cooperative play is an unspoken default cutting across gender and age as kids build up, tear down, design, transport and otherwise demonstrate that when fun is paramount no crowd is too diverse, or too large.
  • Movement and exploration, balancing, climbing, running, rolling – getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’ and so on with an accent on fun. With each step, skip, jump an incredible journey – fall here, hide there, disappear, dare.
  • Creativity, design and build, a smorgasbord of DIY forts, towers, cubby holes, dens, catapults, swings, teepees cobbled together with only the materials on hand and each one displaying distinctive character.

The unbridled joy, the immediacy of creation and the early stirrings of kids exercising agency are such a privilege to experience. They keep me coming back for more of this hopeful simplicity. Now I have heard some people characterizing loose parts as a nostalgia trip, a reach back to a romanticized golden age of play in some idyllic, kidtopian past. This doesn’t reflect my experience.

For Each Kid a Story

In the here and now, loose parts are becoming increasingly popular as a comparatively low-cost means of engaging kids in creative, physically active play. They are being integrated with positive results in child care settings, schools and municipal recreation spaces. As for nostalgia, there were no large scale, open ended, public play events back in the 60s when I was a kid. They just didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the 70s that the first wave of academic interest in loose parts came on the scene.  We had plenty of fun just the same and benefited from significantly more independence and greater mobility than today’s kids experience.

This particular July loose parts iteration is thanks to Dalhousie University’s Summer of PLEY, a giving back to the community following the Physical Literacy in the Early Years research study in child care centres. Event volunteers gathered recently on the Dal campus to share their reflections on the experience. It was affirming to hear how others had processed that day of play. There was much commonality. Listening to the project leads and other volunteers is what led to these musings.

And now for something completely different…

Each of the 200 or more kids who dropped in at the Halifax South Common that fine summer day lived their own story. The narratives varied giving more or less weight to different elements touching on creation, cooperation, adventure, fun, friendship and discovery. The kids were fully engaged, éveillés – awake.

With a growing body of literature that points to the efficacy and benefits of loose parts play, it’s time to press for it to become a more widespread part of the play canon in both institutional (municipal, school, etc.) and community settings.

Hard at Play

Bravo to the Dalhousie University team led by Michelle Stone. They brought together the largest selection and volume of loose parts ever collected in Nova Scotia, enabled a huge group of volunteers to participate in the planning and roll out of the event and exposed young graduate students to hands-on magic. Thanks for inviting me along.

All hail loose parts! Last word to the kids….

 

Shhhh…. Aarhus Secret Club Adventures

Ed.’s note – Earlier this fall, PlayGroundology got a note from Kenn Munk about a temporary play space in Aarhus, Denmark. ‘The Wildness’ opened over the fall school break and was free for all who wanted to attend. The project, part of a ‘secret club‘ for kids that has been in existence for the past 10 years, was supported by Aarhus’ Børnekulturhuset, or Children’s Culture House. What follows is Kenn’s lightly edited description of ‘The Wildness’.

 

Setting sail for adventure in Aarhus’ Vildskaben

The playground was inspired by the original 1940s junk playgrounds in Denmark and Great Britain, but with a few twists added. In a secret club, we treat play as an art form, so our take on the junk/adventure playground would be a bit different – we never want to paint a picture that has already been painted, to stick to the art analogy. Our adventure playground was called ‘The Wildness’. (Vildskaben in Danish – with the added bonus that ‘skaben‘ can be interpreted as ‘creation’).

In our work, we often subtly hint at a story that participants then can take in any direction they want. Annabelle Nielsen and I see ourselves as artists. We are self-employed and the ‘secret club’ is our full time job. In this project, we combined the practicalities of telling people about the risks and hazards of the play space with inviting them into a magical place using a grey-clad masked guard. 

The guard told them the basics they needed to know and also helped them decide on their mystic sign. This sign would be their name in Vildskaben. They would paint it on the fence around the playground. It was the first thing they did. Once the signs were created and they had familiarized themselves with some tools and materials, they could do whatever they wanted.

Signs and symbols

With all its dangers and wonders, campfire smell, old furniture and half-rotten pallets and logs, we (the adults) had envisioned The Wildness as ‘a shanty-town of magic users’. It was the story we were hinting at. We never told the participants about this vision, but they picked it up naturally from the visual clues, like the mystic symbols, and the actual magic of the camera obscura we had made from a small hut hidden in the back.

We learned how important it was to spend time on roofs and that people are perfectly capable of not getting hurt.

 

Pick a hammer

Once inside, the kids could pick up tools and supplies from the tool shed. Building materials were also around this area. At the tool shed, there was also additional information about how everyone was allowed to change what others had built, unless it had been marked with a black cross. A black cross meant that the builder had plans to return and continue building. The ‘black cross’ idea was abandoned as the playground equivalent of an edit war was more interesting. The tool shed was also the place were they could claim prizes from hidden tickets they would find around the area.

Creation all sorts

The grounds used to belong to the scouts, and when we went through the piles of wood, we found treasure upon treasure – oddly shaped pieces of wood and even a small cast-iron oven was found under the wood pile. The place overflowed with serendipity. We often take inspiration from psychogeography and hauntology and the grounds very much inspired the project. This wasn’t place-making, this was working with the cues the place gave us such as the found oven.

Families really took to ‘The Wildness’ and it was free for anyone to use.  Some kids and families came back two or three times over the week. We only saw people whip out their phones to take pictures.

‘The Wildness’

Some of the materials were already there. The rest we scavenged from the streets. We often work with found materials, not just for environmental reasons, but mostly because these things come with a history that will inform what you will be doing with them. It’s strange that old furniture, building materials and such are seen as a problem rather than as a resource.

We made it clear that destruction was allowed, kids enjoyed prying off boards from the fence. The destructive aspect of making was very, very important to us. There was no need for insurance.

We didn’t need insurance, the guard made people take responsibility for their own lives by making them sign a form – this was right before he asked them to throw wet blobs of toilet paper at a target…

Beware the guard

The space is now closed and is slated to be turned into a park. We hope to be able to let it all grow over and fall apart for a few months and then briefly re-open in spring.

Kenn Munk and one of the kids at ‘The Wildness’

Art and play are frequent companions. Another great Danish example is Copenhagen’s Amager Ark.

Do you have a favourite play experience or play setting you’d like to share? Get in touch with PlayGroundology through the Contact page. We’d love to hear from you.

 

Making Way for World Children’s Day

World Children’s Day commemorates the joys of childhood as well as the responsibilities of families, communities and governments to safeguard children’s rights including their mental, physical, social and economic well-being.

New York City – 1959. Sourced from The New York Daily News.

First established in 1954 as Universal Children’s Day, it is celebrated annually on November 20 “to promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare.”

Also on November 20th 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. And on the same date 30 years later during the 44th session of the General Assembly, then UN adopted, opened for signature, ratification and accession the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 1989, the General Assembly was profoundly concerned that:

the situation of children in many parts of the world remains critical as a result of inadequate social conditions, natural disasters, armed conflicts, exploitation, illiteracy, hunger and disability…

The Convention has been ratified by most countries with the significant exception of the United States. Current status of signatories and parties to the Convention is available here on the UN site including a list of declarations and reservations.

Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong  – 1989 – Sourced from CNN

Article 31 of the Convention states that:

…every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

Play is an integral component of any holistic celebration of childhood. The opportunity for kids to play independently in a secure environment is central to their well-being and their discovery of the world around them. For an in depth treatment of play considerations associated with Article 31, please consult General Comment 17 to the Committee on the Rights of the Child by the International Play Association.

Communities in various parts of the world are celebrating this day with play related activities and programs. In Alberta, Canada a full day has been set aside for the Calgary Play Summit with a goal of Transforming Calgary into the City of Play.

Calgary has been on a roll for a few years with events, policy development and programming. In 2017, the City hosted the International Play Association (IPA) Triennial Conference. The Calgary Play Charter was signed to coincide with the conference bringing together “leaders from 36 Calgary and area organizations joined Mayor Nenshi, the Canadian Ministry for Sport and Persons with Disability, and MLA Robyn Luff in a celebration of play, community and partnership to sign this play charter.” More recently, the City took a leadership role in developing a guide to champion Mobile Adventure Playgrounds.

There is much more going on for, with and by children. Kids are the change that adults can’t contain as referenced in the UNICEF video below. How can we encourage our communities and governments to engage?

All the best from Nova Scotia on #WorldChildrensDay

 

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