A Playsmith’s Unwitting Apprenticeship

Editor’s note

Play Outdoors Magazine is relatively new on the Canadian play and publishing scenes. Well known educator Dr. Beverlie Dietze is at the helm rounding up content from educators, practitioners and researchers. As editor, Dietze has a keen eye for stories that inform and inspire. You can get a preview of the Winter Issue here.

Play Outdoors Magazine – New Kid on the Block

Beverlie generously invited me to contribute a piece to this fourth issue that has just come off the press. Originally entitled The Accidental Making of a Play Enthusiast, the article appears below.

Leave of a lifetime

It all starts with 180 days of magic. For six months we savour everyday wonder. With our two small children in tow we embrace familiar spaces and explore faraway places. All the while, we are grateful for this seemingly endless parental leave horizon.

Open-ended adventures are daily occurrences. Frequently they are set in motion by our 2 1/2-year-old son Noah and his ever-expanding collection of good ideas. In our experience, good ideas lead to play. Play leads to laughter. Laughter leads to more good ideas and so it goes, a virtuous circle of discovery and joyfulness.

Anything is possible

Indoor road hockey is high on the good ideas greatest hits list complete with a rendition of the national anthem. Balls of all sizes, colours and bounciness factors that are ready to be rolled, kicked and thrown about are not far behind. Then there’s noise making par excellence, impromptu rehearsals with pots and pans clang-a-banging experimental compositions that only a father can love.

At six-months-old, Nellie-Rose’s merry gregariousness, fascination with touch and vocal orchestrations are play writ large. She is Miss Social Butterfly giggling, cooing and making eyes with everyone around her. With great intensity she moves her head this way and that following older brother’s escapades. She desperately wants to be part of the independently mobile club. Before long she’s moving under her own steam, uncontainable.

Nellie – raring to go

Play is a daily staple for the four of us and almost as sustaining as the air we breathe. For our infant and toddler duo, it is the main event interrupted only by basic needs like sleep and hunger. There is learning, there is bonding and just plain fun. It is all an incomparable gift.

Our hands are full, but we still have wiggle room to learn a few new tricks and not just of the parenting variety. I’ve had my sights set on getting up to speed with social media. Headfirst I plunge publishing a blog that recounts our family adventures throughout this 180-day trajectory.

One day on a visit to see grand-papa and grand-maman, we swoop down on several playgrounds in rapid succession in their hometown of Sorel, Quebec. My father-in-law is in his element. A physical education teacher, he knows all the best spots. He’s an attentive tour guide and his enthusiasm takes us by storm.

Playground Beat

Sorel is an early adopter of promoting playgrounds on its municipal website. This simple method of raising public awareness along with grand-papa’s discerning concierge persona inspires a new venture for the kids and I. On our return to Nova Scotia, we get ready for some extended play escapades as we kick off our own urban playground tour. We launch Playground Chronicles, one of the first blogs of its kind in Canada, to share details on outdoor city spaces dedicated to our youngest citizens. The first post features our neighbourhood park.

Hold on tight

In short order we’re criss-crossing Halifax putting playgrounds through their paces. Each post contains photos of the equipment at the featured playground(s), a narrative describing what is on offer at the location and a link to a pin drop on a dedicated Google map.

It’s a marvelous past time. Over the course of the blog’s four-year lifespan, Noah, Nellie and youngest sister Lila, who is born into the mayhem, are steadfast companions on the playground circuit. Noah bestows the ‘good idea’ brand on our project and keeps a mental running inventory of the places and equipment that meet his good housekeeping seal of approval.

On arrival at each new venue, there is a clamoring to get out of the car and then a burst of energy propels them into the new play area. The chorus starts almost immediately.

“Papa, papa, watch me, watch me.”

“Can you push me papa, can you push?”

“Look at me, look at me papa, I can do it myself.”

It’s a chance for the kids to strut their stuff, to demonstrate accomplishments and a dash of derring-do. For my part I utter an occasional cautionary ‘be careful’. In rare circumstances there are heart-stopping moments.

A going concern

One day the kids rush off in separate directions. I’m speechless when I locate two-year-old Lila. She is two-thirds of the way up a 12-step set of stairs leading to the top of a double-twist slide. Almost instantaneously, I’m right behind her. I didn’t know I was capable of moving so rapidly. She finishes the climb and whooshes down the corkscrew. Disaster averted, I can breathe again. In all our playgrounding years that was our closest call to an injury.

now and then

Early in the tour I notice some recurring themes. Off-the-shelf playground equipment from major manufacturers seems to be the prevailing flavour, resulting in a sameness in playspace after playspace. Old faithfuls, like roundabouts, are extinct. The up again, down again teeter-totters are on the endangered list. Playgrounds are underpopulated. Most children are accompanied by parents.

Can’t catch me

The continuing adventures of our merry band of playgrounders starts me thinking. Initially, I’m drawn back to my own childhood as a point of reference. In those mid-1960s grade school years, it seemed we had a little bit of everything at our fingertips. Outside our 4-storey, 80 unit apartment building was the sweetest little patch of green, a four-acre park that was a gathering place, a central play zone. This shangri-la valley was given over, for all practical purposes, to us kids for our exclusive use.

Dense bush outposts were firmly rooted on the high ground with solitary trees sprinkled here and there along the slopes. The flatlands were wide and deep, perfect for baseball, kite flying, British bulldog, imagined battlefields and just about any other tomfoolery that came to us.

Also on the flats, a smattering of playground equipment strung out in a straight line – swings, slide, monkey bars, rocket climber. They weren’t so much a destination as peripheral fixtures there to be used should the fancy take us. The landscape itself was the set with the playground pieces frequently relegated to prop status.

In that rosy rear-view mirror, wall-to-wall play seemed to be the norm. We roamed by foot, by bike, by public transit. Except for Saturday morning cartoons, or other television spectaculars, outdoors with friends for hours on end was the place to be.

To be sure, we all had rules to observe and break (at our own peril). By giving us unsupervised time and space to play, our parents were investing us with trust. The trust promoted agency. We were able to call the shots, to make decisions within reason on what, when, where, who and how we played. Every day was a blank slate. Our default was to go in search of fun.

rediscovering just play

The more I googled about contemporary play, the more I understood that since my days there had been a wild swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction. I learned that mobility and range were continually being reduced, that children were growing up in play environments that were decidedly risk averse and that their rights, including the right to play, were being curtailed, or worse trampled upon.

In the web

Fortunately, there has existed for some time a broad international coalition of individuals and organizations whose objective is to see play flourish. This group includes sculptors, playworkers, landscape designers, urban planners, community activists, academics from a variety of disciplines, health and recreation professionals, environmental advocates, authors and many more.

To take a bit of a deep dive into the current play world, I turn to a by now tried and true medium. Six months after the Playground Chronicles launch, a new blog, PlayGroundology hits the streets. The first of what will be more than 450 posts features a Manhattan play installation, ‘Playground’ by American sculptor Tom Otterness. From the outset I receive lots of encouragement from laypeople and others more heavily invested. People I contact are generous with their time and knowledge. It’s a welcome, recurring trait.

Playground by Tom Otterness

PlayGroundology publishes international content with stories from Sweden, Singapore, Ghana, Denmark, Australia, France, Chile, Vietnam, the UK, the US, Canada and other points around the world. In my virtual walkabouts, I get introduced to adventure playgrounds, loose parts, museum exhibits, documentaries, works of art and NGOs dedicated solely to play. Off blog, in the real world I create a backyard loose parts emporium, help organize workshops, public information sessions and play events. Who knows what’s next?

Let the journey continue

Nearly 15 years have passed since the experiences of that parental leave nudged me along the path of play. There is still ample meandering left. In the years to come, I predict that safeguarding the right to play and helping to make it flourish will become more of a political act. Knowledge and experience of play in a time of crisis will continue to be an important asset to help children who through no fault of their own find themselves in impossible situations.

It’s been a great journey so far and along the way I’ve been doing my best to embrace a ‘just play’ ethos.

i

End note

Thank you to my love Mélanie and to our three kids. None of this poking around the play world would be possible without Mélanie’s unreservedly good humour and patience. As for the kids it has just been wonderful to share parts of their play journeys over the years. Now that they are almost all in their teens and play is no longer in quite as high rotation in their daily lives, it’s wonderful to see how it continues to stand them in good stead.

As kids my brother and I had a lot of freedom, plenty of opportunity to discover and make mistakes. Our parents were always there for us in the good times and bad. We got a great start in life as this clip of mom and dad as young parents celebrating my birthday – about three-years-old I’d guess – captures.

 

They never missed a chance to ask how our respective projects were developing. On the play side of things, my dad thoroughly enjoyed the public spaces loose parts extravaganzas I helped organize. He couldn’t get enough of watching the kids doing their own thing.  It always brought a smile to his face. Thanks for reading….

 

5 responses to “A Playsmith’s Unwitting Apprenticeship

  1. Janet Berezowecki

    You took me on a journey through outdoor play through the eyes of a child and the heart of a parent. Thank you.

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    • Hi Janet – thanks a bunch. I see you have been (are) involved with the Manitoba Nature Summit – what a great crew! Hope it’s not too cold out your neck of the woods. A frosty -20C with wind chill for us in Halifax today. I know that’s nothing for you hardy folks out west!! Cheers

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  2. Hi Alex. Always good to have word from you. Not much play for us these days. At our ages (80 & 87) we are trying to make the best of the cold weather indoors except on the sunny days now and then when we are catching up on outdoor jobs such as pruning our fruit trees in the hope of better crops this season. Do carry on with your playground news and comment. I shall never tire of them. Donne

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    • Hi Donne – always great to see your comments. Hope the fruit trees will all be blooming abundantly this spring. What kind do you have? On Noah’s lead, I’ve started ice fishing this year. I’ll be posting some photos soon. We’re so lucky that the kids enjoy including us in their adventures. Keep warm and healthy. I never tire hearing from you. Cheers

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  3. Hi Alex, We are not expert at pruning our fruit trees, but know enough to watch whether the fruit comes along the branches (prune fairly short) or on the end of the branches (prune short), We have several varieties of apples & a Victoria plum, plus raspberries, loganberries and black currants. Between Covid 19 , bad weather & extreme old age we are struggling to keep the garden in order, but keep on trying as we love to eat produce we have grown ourselves. Delighted to read of your children’s adventures on the ice. Donne

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