Breaking New Ground – Loose Parts and the School Board

Ed’s note – It’s a pleasure to have a guest post on PlayGroundology from Tanya Moxley, a fellow co-founding member of Adventure Play YHZ, and as you will read below, a creative animator and leader for Halifax area pre and after school programs. With two young boys of her own, Tanya is a firm believer in the value of independent outdoor play. As she has shared with me on a number of occasions, their yard at home is a loose parts creativity and testing zone – a bit of a dream time for kids I would say. Tanya works as a volunteer at Halifax’s Wild Child Forest School where her interest is “working with parents to help them realize the importance of outdoor play for kids, families, and communities.” Tanya also spent three years working with a university professor researching links between outdoor play and child development.

This loose parts – school board story is an indirect outcome of a public meeting and subsequent practitioner’s workshop held in May 2015 with Tim Gill. Many of the Excel leaders were present at one of the two events which examined risk and play and a greater variety of play opportunities in public spaces. Hundreds of kids are saying thank you to the Halifax Regional School Board for stepping out and giving loose parts a try. Many thanks also to the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness whose Active Living Branch provided financial and logistical support that made Tim Gill’s visit possible.

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My name is Tanya Moxley and this past year I worked as a Group Leader with the Halifax Regional School Board’s before and after school program, called Excel. The regional recreation programmers were trying to find a way to include elements of ‘loose parts play’ into the Excel program. Some schools found it easy to integrate loose parts into their days or weeks, but others found it more difficult to get started.

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As I had joined Excel with some previous loose parts experience, we were able to introduce loose parts into the schedule at our school with considerable success in all the age groups from Primary through Grade 6. In a casual conversation with our regional programmer, I suggested in the late winter that I could visit some other schools to show them some of my own loose parts collection, and provide suggestions for both parts and storage. My suggestion was accepted, and I started my visits in late April.

For seven weeks, I visited a different school each Monday, Wednesday and Friday for their afternoon program, for a total of 18 schools around the Halifax region. I traveled about 1,000 kilometres, and met about 900 students. Kids everywhere love loose parts play, because the materials are open-ended and easy to manipulate, with many possible uses. They didn’t have to be convinced about how much fun it can be!

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One primary concern among staff was storage. Upon seeing the materials and how they were being transported, almost all the program leads agreed that they had at least that much space to spare. All of my materials fit into four milk crates and two small ‘Rubbermaid’ tubs (18”x18”x24”) in the back of my car. Well, not including the ‘pipes’. The ‘pipes’ are a dozen or so PVC plumbing pipes, each about 3 feet long and 2.5 or 3 inches in diameter. Some fit together and some don’t, which leads to much experimenting and collaboration. Those have to go in the backseat of the car, wrapped up in a tarp for easy carrying. The ones we use at my regular school are stored in the kind of garbage can you get for your house garbage, with wheels on the bottom so kids can pull it around.

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Another key concern was safety, as many staff seemed to connect loose parts with danger. Once they saw the materials in use, everyone agreed there isn’t much risk, if any, involved. A nice thing about loose parts play is that it opens up conversations with the students about what risk could be involved, for example, in playing with long ropes. Having had a conversation as a group, the kids usually find ways to remove the danger, while still being able to use the item.

This is a much better way to prepare kids for a world that we cannot and should not make try to make perfectly safe for them! The alternative, removing the item from use, teaches students nothing about assessing risk and developing the abilities to figure out how to mitigate risk through conversation and intentional experimentation – problem solving in a collaborative manner. The safety questions also tended to answer themselves over the course of the sessions. There were no accidents in any of the 18 schools during the 1,000 kilometre loose parts Excel marathon. Among the many interesting observations, was one made by two team leads who remarked as I was leaving that the day had been the quietest one they’d had all year in relation to behaviour issues and disruptions.

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In the larger programs (over 60 students), we held either one or two sessions of 30-40 minutes for younger students before the older students came out for their own session. In the smaller programs, the older students just joined right in with the younger ones. The largest group using the materials at one time was about 60, although this was only in one place where they had a particularly large, open outdoor space that accommodated the numbers. Usually the maximum was about 35. Setting up the space with similar items in groups, such as ropes, sheets, pipes, boards, digging tools, etc… allowed students to check everything out, get a group together, pick the items they wanted for a project, and then get to work.

Staff members at multiple sites confirmed one of our key observations at my regular school, that loose parts is an activity in which gr 4-6 girls get particularly engaged; they do not spend the session moping around and not wanting to participate, as often happens with sports-related activities. This ‘sold’ many staff on getting loose parts started as soon as possible!

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It was interesting to watch how the uses of the materials varied across the programs. At some schools the fabric was entirely for building forts. At others, a group of students turned some of them into clothes for role-playing activities and protected them fiercely from the ‘building’ group. Similarly, the pipes were used at some places for building complex systems for transporting items from one place to another; at others, they became just another building material for the forts. For a third group they became musical instruments in combination with containers and spoons that at other programs were used for digging.

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Much to my astonishment, I only got a rainy day for one site! It was foggy and damp when I arrived at Oyster Pond, but I set up outside anyway, and the kids had a great time for about 30 minutes before suddenly it was pouring rain. We quickly moved everything inside to an empty classroom beside their regular Excel room, and the kids continued their fun with forts and pipes for the rest of the session.

Their enthusiasm confirmed what I had been telling staff members at other sites – many of the materials work just as well inside as out. Tables on a side and some chairs work perfectly well for holding up forts! There were a few sites where I arrived the day or afternoon following a heavy rain, and the puddles in the play space provided an unexpected loose part that made for lots of extra fun.

All in all this was a great adventure, and I hope that many of the places I visited will take the time to integrate loose parts play into their schedule this fall – the kids certainly had lots of requests for their group leaders about which things they liked best!

For more on loose parts read In Praise of Loose Parts and How Not to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts.

Kids at Emmaus Catholic Primary School in Mt.Clear playing on unconventional play items, hay bales, poles, tyres etc. Year 3/4 get ready for action.

Kids at Emmaus Catholic Primary School in Mt.Clear playing on unconventional play items, hay bales, poles, tyres etc. Year 3/4 get ready for action.

Put on Your #PlayFaces Please and Hit Share

Join the PlayGroundology kids and get your family’s playfaces on! Share your photos on Twitter, FB, Instagram, Flickr using hashtag #PlayFaces. Together, we’ll create a virtual exhibition. Open to all ages – 9 months to 99 years.

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There is nothing quite as magnetic or compelling as photos of kids having fun. The emotive charge is palpable. Movement, energy and flow course through the frozen frames.

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The laughter is almost audible. And, who can resist facial expressions that range from wonder through mischievous to discovery and beyond?

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So how many photos have you got stored in the cloud, on your computer, your phone, or various portable drives? If you’re like me you have a few thousand. Ok let’s be honest – in my case it’s more like tens of thousands acquired over the last decade. With small ones in the household, north of 75% of my staggering number of gigabyte images star ‘the kids’. It’s no wonder we get lucky once in awhile with a good shot.

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I’ll be paying more attention and taking more #PlayFaces photos – our guys, other children and the rest of us unkids. The priceless moments of abandon are electric, their joy infectious. What’s not to share?

Please consider sharing your best shots to create a powerful, moving, international #PlayFaces virtual exhibition.

I’ll take this playfaces trio anytime – photo courtesy maman, ma belle femme – Mélanie…

As a bonus, here is a lovely gem in the study of facial expressions that I came across nearly 30 years ago when I worked at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax…

All photos in this post are licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Going, Going, Gone

I first came across Storehouse a couple of years ago and immediately fell in love with the platform’s luscious visual storytelling. The iOS app is easy to use and makes possible the creation of rich visual narratives using photo, video and text elements. Sadly Storehouse is closing down. Before it shutters for good on July 15, I invite readers to scroll through four PlayGroundology Storehouse stories that the app really helped whizz bang. Click through on images below to take you to the Storehouse stories…

Loose Parts Unplug and Play

My first Storehouse sortie captures the story of the first public play event I helped organize.

Unplug and PlayClick through to Storehouse story.

Skimming across the hay – no last straws here. In a flash the kids run over to explore. They are curious about the space, wondering…

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Vernacular Play – Magdalen Islands

In Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawerence, a maritme play aesthetic.

Up, up and away  Click through to Storehouse story.

No text this time, the photos and video stand on their own. More though about Magdalen Island play experiences here

Steady as she goes  Click through to Storehouse story.

96 degrees in the shade – Székely

This one is subtitled ‘Playgroundin’ in tropical Paris’ and tells the story of the search for a 1950s Székely designed playground in a Paris suburb.

Székely I Click through to Storehouse story.

These are the pataugeoires – shallow, kiddy pools. One is deeper than the other and both are exquisitely detailed with carreaux cassés – broken tile mosaics now virtually a lost art. Our new playground pal Yves created carreaux cassés like this when he was a younger man.

Székely - Paddle pool detail  Click through to Storehouse story.

Quebec City’s Big Chill

There’s no place to celebrate winter fun like Quebec City’s Carnaval. Look for the cameo appearance by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau…

Carnaval IClick through to Storehouse story.

It’s no time to be still when a breath of wind drops the mercury to -39 C at Quebec City’s annual Carnaval…..

Thrills, spills – snowy saucers on sliding hills.

Sliding Click through to Storehouse story.

I’m going to miss Storehouse. I had so many more stories left to share. Thanks to the Storehouse crew for making a fun place to play….

Party

Editor’s note – this is a guest post by Tom Bedard taken from his blog Sand and Water Tables. PlayGroundology has had a few guest bloggers over the years and with one exception, that would be this one, I had some connection with the writer. This time around Tom doesn’t even know I’m sharing this piece. I’m doing so because Juliet Robertson suggested to a group in her network to share this piece as a tribute and honour to an individual who has contributed much to children and the world of play. Read on to find out about the best retirement party ever, a brilliant take on bringing people together through play.

Serendipitously, I was at a similar party earlier today in Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia to celebrate the opening of a natural playground that was built with love through broad community engagement. I will be posting about the Natural Resources Education Centre’s Natural Learning and Play Space later this week.

I have been thinking about retiring for over a year. One of my big concerns was: What kind of party do I want because I knew the families in our program would want to throw a party. That was especially true because my colleague and mentor, Lani Shapiro, whom I have worked with for the past eight years, was retiring with me. Lani was the parent educator in the program and had worked very hard with the families to build a community, a community that looks inward at its values and outward to use those values to build a bigger, more inclusive community. To be true to our values, we wanted a celebration that included past and present families. We wanted a celebration that would bring them all together, not to talk about us, but to talk with us and with each other. We also had an obligation—yes, an obligation—to have the children be an integral part of the celebration.

In early winter, I had a meeting with an group of educators I meet with on a monthly basis to talk about large muscle play in the classroom. As we were leaving the meeting, one of the members off-evenhandedly asked another member about their adventure play event at his school. That question was all that was needed for the light to go on. I had read blogs over the past couple of years that talked about adventure play events. The one I have seen the most is Pop-up Adventure Play. It just so happens that the member asking the question is involved in Twin City Adventure Play. In January, I asked to meet with the group to talk about the possibility of doing our retirement party. I liked what I heard and asked them to give me a proposal I could send along to our advisory council. When the advisory council saw the proposal, they were on board immediately.

Fast forward to last Saturday. Parents had been gathering cardboard boxes of all sizes, cardboard tubes, fabric, sticks, rods, tape and you-name-it for two weeks. It was time to party. All the materials were laid out on the lawn.

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It might look like a recycling nightmare, but this was the invitation for the children to play.

The coordinator gathered the volunteers for a brief training, a training that encompassed their role in the event.

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Essentially they were to act as play workers to step back and monitor the play from the background and to only intervene when play looked dangerous. They were also encouraged to help other adults step back to let the children play.

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Of course, as the children arrived, they knew immediately what to do. No instructions were necessary; no dividing up into groups; no dividing into age groups. This was their play space to create their own narratives.

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As the afternoon progressed, more and more people came and everyone kept busy. The adults got to visit and the children played. Old acquaintances were renewed and new friends were made.

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There were short bursts of rain throughout the afternoon, but that did not dampen play. In fact, when it would rain, the adults retreated under the eaves of the school and the children kept right on creating, usually fabricating little shelters from the rain.

At the end, there was a little talking to the group about us and we got to thank the families for all they had given us over the years.

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As I drove home from the event, I could not stop smiling. I was ecstatic; I was floating on air. Ostensibly the families had come to celebrate our retirement. In actuality they came to celebrate a community; a community of families they had helped build over the years that respects children and their rights, that respects others and are not so quick to judge; a community that knows how to build community and will carry on.

We had well over 400 people who came and went throughout the afternoon. Sadly, I did not even get to talk to everyone who came. So let me now say to all of you: thank you for a splendid party. It was a superb sendoff.

P. S. I need to send a special thank you to Seniz and Damian from Twin City Adventure Play for creating the framework for our community to pull off this event. I hope others come to see the value in your work and guidance.

I also need to give a special thank you to the planning committee who spent many hours planning the event not really knowing what would happen but having the faith and conviction to make it happen. Thank you Nora, Vanessa, Anne, Brianna, Becca, Ella, and Dawn. You throw a great party!

The Box Syndrome

There’s a new playground in our neighbourhood and the kids are flockin’ to it. It’s shiny-off-the-shelf with multicoloured artifical turf. There are climby things, swings, yellow wind socks on poles and a moulded plastic percussion station. It’s a prefab wonder replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the continent.

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It’s after supper and our guys are clamouring for a visit. When we arrive with scooters, a bike and unbounded energy there are probably about 10 other kids already there. We are in Erindale an as yet unbuilt subdivision. Streets are paved, curbs installed and one lone show house looks out over empty lots of earth and rocks. The playground is an island surrounded by newly installed sods of grass and bordered by empty streets.

I notice the boy and girl as soon as we arrive. They’re whaling away with great intent in a muddy puddle. Each of them is wielding a wooden picket. I lean on the fence that separates the playground from the land under development. They see me watching them and continue with their play.

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At this particular moment in time, these two kids only have eyes for the landscape around them. They are immersed in activity of their own design showing no interest in the playground that is only 100 metres distant. Their play continues in a leisurely fashion for nearly 20 minutes.

When the two playdirt kids come into the playground they tell me they are having fun over in the empty lots. They still have their stakes which are doubling as swords that they are brandishing in the air. The girl’s hands are caked in mud and both of them are coated liberally with dirt. The dirt does not seem to be a worry for either of them. Quite the opposite, there appears to be a quiet satisfaction in their state of blissful unkempt. The girl says her mom will just pop the clothes in the wash.

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They chat with some friends in the playground, give the swings a desultory try and then it’s back to dirt paradise. The expanse of uneven terrain is a game changer for these two kids representing some variety in public space play opportunities.

I’m reminded of three things. First is the empty box at Christmas time. You know the one, it becomes the most fascinating play thing under the tree eclipsing even the toy that was packaged in it. On this occasion, our intrepid players choose hills of dirt, boulders and puddles over a brand new playground and in the process create their own play experience from what they have at hand.

The second thing I thought of was a conversation I had a few years back with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of landscape architecture now in her 90s. She shared with me a conviction she has held for many years that I paraphrase here – all children really need for play is some sand, or earth, water and a place to climb…

Lastly, I remember my own fond encounters scrabbling about in the dirt, reveling in it in a Pig Pen kind of way.pigpen

So, here is a shot of the forsaken shiny new object. On this particular evening it did not have sufficient play magnetism to win over the two adventurers. It’s good to have alternatives and a muddy earth scenario can certainly be a winner.

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Bold

Bold is a word I remember GH (Granma Helen aka my Mom) using frequently to describe my kids over the years. Most often she’d approvingly remark on one of the kids being bold related to an action she had just witnessed, or had been part of with one of the small crew.

As I remember it, the essence of boldness has to do with assertive behaviours and a certain je ne sais quoi attitude, an almost complete insouciance about consequences that might arise from actions not necessarily condoned, or embraced by the adult set.

Nellie was adorned with the bold mantle by GH on a regular basis. Her early forays into the bold zone were warmly and joyously received. This in part is due to them both sharing this empowering trait. GH as young woman of 19 left family and friends behind in Scotland to sail across the Atlantic on her own to be reunited with her love. It was a bold beginning to a new life in an unfamiliar country.

Les ChevauxNellie with tante Danièle’s beloved King and Prince in Sorel, Québec

“Freedom lies in being bold.”

Robert Frost

Granddaughter Nellie has been imbued with the bold streak from an early age. There is a mix of curiosity and fearlessness that helps to brew a good batch of bold. In the photo above, at just over two-years-old, she is getting up close and personal with Belgian draft horse gentle giants King and Prince.

Nellie’s maman Mélanie is also well versed in bold. She left Québec for Nova Scotia as a young woman to make a new home in another culture and language. Nellie has come by her boldness organically. Now I’ve had a bold moment or two over the years but not of the permeated variety that these two women and one girl exhibit. This is a matrilineal beat.

Bold & BrightA 6-foot jump on Rogers Brook Trail, Kejimkujik National Park, Canada

This bright beat of bold influences and informs play. There is a higher degree of risk taking, greater physicality and testing of limits. With Nellie it’s very apparent with climbing, jumping, swinging. She is a trailblazer for her younger sister and older brother. Where she leads, they will mostly follow.

Early on at the playground, monkey bars became the thing, Nellie’s signature piece, her calling card of bold. Just before her fifth birthday our wiry, wisp of a girl came down with monkey bar fever. She was determined and fierce in her pursuit of mastery and was able to draw on a deep reservoir of bravery.

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Mastering this kind of equipment at an early age gives kids a chance to assess their own abilities, get comfortable with risk and celebrate their achievements. Now I do admit that when she took her first tentative monkey bar sorties at the tail end of 3, I was in helicopter mode. I’ve left that far behind and now trust Nellie’s confidence and ability to carry the day.

For Nellie bold is all about movement, height and a challenge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a natural environment. Trees and erratic boulders on old glacial plains are meant first and foremost for climbing. Nellie is a Baroness in the trees. I am interested to see how the boldness will assert itslef as she gets older. We may be in for some hold on to our hats moments.

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Celebrate the bold in our children. It serves them well in terms of confidence, risk assessment and dreams – #playbold.

DSC02619Nellie leads climb up old tree overlooking cove – Kejimkujik National Park

“Boldness be my friend.”

Shakespeare

#PlayRocks

Even a brief period of time spent watching kids engrossed in exploring the world around them, in discovering what their bodies are capable of, and just generally reveling in the independent pursuit of fun is an affirmation that, yes indeed, #PlayRocks.

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#PlayRocks is ready for the prime time social media world, ready for a little rough and tumble in the hashtag universe. Help make #PlayRocks part of the lexicon where it can join the likes of #playoutdoors, #outdoorplay, #playeveryday, #justplay and others.

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#PlayRocks can help add another voice of affirmation to play related activities, ideas and images that are being shared online at the speed of adventure. The next time you’re sharing content about the wonderful world of kids and play on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or tumblr, please consider tagging it with #PlayRocks.

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Sometimes #PlayRocks can have a very literal meaning. Rocks are like magnets to kids, their very presence a compelling attraction to climb, jump, balance.

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Help give the #PlayRocks hashtag a little push – readers are welcome to download any of the photos in this post and share them on their social media accounts.

To paraphrase a great Canadian who has penned more than a few well received tunes over the years, “keep on rockin’ in the play world……”