Category Archives: Dalhousie University

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 Standard conventions are no longer applicable.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….

 

Balls and balls of fun at the Outdoors Loose Parts Emporium

“Play outside” is a regular refrain at home from us adult types. It’s not that the three kids are unfamiliar with the concept. Sometimes they just need a little impetus, an encouraging word. On most days, they are outside playing for hours on end. Our son is in the habit of calculating how long he’s been outdoors on a given day and then enumerates his activities – pick up basketball, road hockey, man tracker, catch the flag, fishing, biking, or just playing around in the backyard with our assortment of loose parts. The girls do likewise just not as sports fixated….

 i

Frequently, I imagine being an embedded photographer traveling with a gaggle of kids, documenting their adventures over the course of a few days. As much as I’d like to join our local neighbourhood play crew, I’m not as limber as I used to be and my stamina is far from top notch when compared with the pre-teen set’s seemingly limitless reserves of energy. But maybe I could tag along if I could create something inventive like the multi-colour catapult, or a manual massage rocker, hand crafted pretty much from scratch.

In any event, even if this dream job could be realized, I’m not sure they’d have me for more than short bursts of time. Let’s face it, one of the attractions of independent play is getting away from the inquisitive gaze of grown ups and their sometimes penchant for ‘interfering’, or putting a stick in the spokes. Though I’m not sure I’d have much gumption to get out of that rocker and poke a stick in any spokes!

So, I’ve done the next best thing. I’ve become a member of play crews organizing pop-up, loose parts events for kids in public spaces. For the last few months, I’ve been hanging out with the Play Outside NS play crew. The first event of the  Summer of PLEY series (Physical Literacy in the Early Years), was a loose parts shindig on the Halifax South Common, that wrapped earlier this afternoon. I’ll echo a comment a lot the kids were using – “this is awesome!”

Check out this DIY swing created by the Dupuis family who were at a CanadaPlays crew organized event in the same location two years ago. I was happy to be part of the instigators on that crew who created some loose parts fun and buzz with American and Brit friends from Pop-Up Adventure Play. There were other returnees from the initial Halifax South Common loose parts pop up too. It was great to see their undiminished enthusiasm.

Global TV and The Chronicle Herald took the time to steep themselves a little in a series of eureka moments seasoned with chaos light. The videographer and writer had plenty of material to work with. Many thanks to the parents who agreed to have either themselves or their children interviewed. Thanks to the journalists as the media coverage will help spread the word about how much creative fun kids have with loose parts.

One family on vacation from Newfoundland explained to Global TV viewers that they spontaneously joined in the festivities. When they saw cardboard forts being constructed as they whizzed by the event, they started searching for the first available parking space and made their way over. The father thought that loose parts are how play should be…

Before I bow out and go play in nature at Kejimkujik, I’ll give shout outs to another couple of crews I’ve had the pleasure to play with. Drum roll please – let’s hear it for the Youth Running Series loose parts crew, the originals from five years ago. The Adventure Play YHZ crew did an October loose parts pop-up where pre-schoolers in costumes ruled the roost. Last but not least is the Cubs loose parts crew – we will be reconvening in September.

Thanks also to all the businesses that have helped put on these events and other bodies who have helped to make them happen.

may the Loose Parts be with you

Until next time, goodbye forts, pirate ships, DIY teeter-totters and swings, restaurants, club houses, teepees and of course let’s not forget whichamajoogers….

PS – I met the most wonderful gentleman who was visiting his grandchildren in Halifax. Being of a certain age, we were both reveling in the shade and got to talking. Turns out both of us were in Dakar, Sénégal at the same time more than 40 years ago. We swapped a few stories from back in the day and then got back onto the play track. Pleasure to meet you Ralph Kendall…

For Nova Scotia readers, find out more information on the great events still to come in the Summer of PLEY series at Play Outside NS.

 

Goin’ Mobile – Keep ‘Em Movin’

As recently as 50 years ago, a study on children’s independent mobility (CIM) would have reported that many kids ranged far and wide with little explicit parental supervision. I was a product of those times growing up in suburban Toronto.

Back in the day, most of us adventured independently on foot, bicycle and public transit. By the age of 10 or 11, we could find ourselves miles away from home exploring the wildness of the Don River Valley, catching a movie at the Willow Theatre, playing shinny at the outdoor rink, or just skylarking in random pursuit of fun. Those were the golden days of free-range kids…

article-2300657-18C0F5B0000005DC-258_966x412Glasgow boys from the Gorbals district play in the Corporation Burial Grounds shortly after the Second World War. Photographer – Bert Hardy, © Getty Images.

In just two generations there has been a seismic shift in the range, frequency and independence of kids’ mobility. A recently published study based on research carried out in Toronto, Canada illustrates that for many kids, discovery of the physical world around them, a world unfettered by hovering adults, or caregivers just ain’t what it used to be.

“Adult supervision has become a central characteristic of the modern childhood experience.”

The ‘S’ word is antithetical to pushing boundaries, independently assessing risk, or just playing for the pure and simple sake of it.

Playground?Children in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo Credit – Jeff Attaway. License – (CC BY 2.0).

Do parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment influence children’s independent mobility? Evidence from Toronto, Canada
examines three CIM related questions.

(1) Is independent mobility associated with children’s physical activity levels?
(2) Do parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment influence CIM?
(3) What role do parents’ mobility-related attitudes have in influencing CIM?

Where do these three questions lead? The short answer is that there are correlations linked to independent mobility associated with some of the considerations/questions above. For instance, highly mobile and independent kids were likely to accumulate up to 19.5% more physical activity per day.

Other findings include:

  • kids from low income neighbourhoods are likely to have higher livels of CIM
  • 65% of grade 5 and 6 kids in Toronto had some measure of independent time outdoors without adults;
  • parents who opted for walking, biking or public transit were more likely to have kids with higher levels of CIM;
  • boys enjoy more CIM than girls – parental decisions in this regard are gendered.

The study is available in Urban Studies 2014, Vol. 51 (16). The authors – Raktim Mitra (Ryerson), Guy EJ Faulkner (University of Toronto), Ron N Buliung (University of Toronto) and Michelle R Stone (Dalhousie University) – are hopeful that this research will help to support policy development aiming to increase CIM.

Given the drop off in outdoor play, the prevalence of electronic gaming and scheduled, busy lives it’s not a moment too soon. There is cause to champion a larger scope for free-range play and a return to common sense. For any kids living in the free-range zone, there is a high probability that they know fear, take risks and inhale adventure all the while increasing their CIM. For a great source of information on the free-range movement check Lenore Skenazy’s writings or her recent reality show, World’s Worst Mom on Discovery Life Channel.

6348404432_ba24b8ec68_oChildren playing in the Canadian Arctic. Photo Credit – Rosemary Gilliat. License – (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

When it comes down to the crunch and you’re thinking about your own kids it can be hard. I had to fight against an urge to restrict our son’s independence and mobility when he turned 8-years-old. Fortunately my wife was there to bring me back to earth, to remind me that we were both the beneficiaries of free-ranging as kids and that we have no reason not to entrust our own children with this gift. As irrational as it is, I still sometimes get knots in my stomach when our lad is off with his friends far from our care.

That’s when I sing this little ditty to the tune of Home, Home on the Range.

Home, home on the range
Where the children all go outside to play
And never is seen a portable screen
And the kids can breathe fresh air all day

Home, home on the range
Where kids just travel about
And never is heard a disparaging word
And the kids have no time to pout

Oh give me a town where the kids they abound
Where the wild is not too far away
Where always is heard an encouraging word
To get the kids outside to play

Start ’em moving young and get them outdoors. PlayGroundology friend Gill Connell has plenty of great ideas to get the kids moving at Moving Smart. Move on over and check them out….

Finally, listen up to the story of Maryland parents charged for letting their kids play and walk alone broadcast earlier this evening on CBC Radio’s – As it Happens. You may be incredulous to learn how the courts ruled.