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.

2 responses to “A Kid’s Purpose

  1. Another fine piece, Alex. Thanks. Reminds me of Rusty Keeler’s work. Can’t remember if I’ve mentioned him before, but if not suggest that you look him up. One great book out already and another on Adventure Playgrounds under way.

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    • Hi Donne – always good to hear from you and. Thanks for the compliment. It means a lot coming from you who so values your years of playwork in the UK. Rusty and I know of each other but have never actually spoken or met. I like the work being done in Syracuse – the kids seem to have fun. Is it as hot in the UK as it is in Franc? Hope you can find some cool. Cheers, Alex.

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