Category Archives: Independent Play

The Greatest Show

There is a whisper of warm in the air this fine Montreal day. It’s not hot though by any stretch. A grimy, grey urban snow is stubbornly hanging on over much of the grass and scrub land.

Next to a rail line, in the shadow of the Van Horne overpass, two kids play in a narrow strip of what was once underutilized, neglected space. It’s now part of a regreening that embraces this Mile End neighbourhood – marshalling land and engaging community participation to help preserve and expand nature’s footprint.

The kids, members of the Le Lion et La Souris family, are immersed in a pas de deux. It’s a timeless dance where mud and melt water are the sacraments. The two lads are so engrossed in this organic world of their own making that my arrival barely registers a passing notice.

As the boys stir up foul looking concoctions and pour potions into vessels and through the slats of a pallet, they open a window and let me in. The kids and I check each other out by goofing around with some spontaneous sound and word games.

Over the next 45 minutes, I marvel at their ingenuity and the consonance between do-it-yourself resourcefulness and budding resilience. It seems they are impervious to the wet and cold. They elevate scrabbling in puddles to a vocation, no, even more than that, to an art form.

“By giving children the space and time to play as they want — with each other, alone, in nature, with loose parts or found materials — Le Lion et La Souris is saying to children: you matter, what you like matters, how you play matters.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie

 

In this minimalist setting the lads are attuned to each other’s company. They need little to inspire their colourful tapestry of play. With the exception of the occasional glance our way, they are self-sufficient in the moment, oblivious to the nattering adults.

Eventually the boys break away from the pallets and puddles opting for more vigorous shenanigans. Sticks are found and brandished about. There’s not a poked out eye to be seen, anywhere.

Running ensues in speeding bursts to hide, to get away. The tagged shipping container offers a great rope swinging escape route from marauding zombies. Then it’s an almost seamless transition into some mild rough and tumble, the older boy taking care not to overwhelm his younger friend.

This is my first visit to Le Lion et La Souris and I am amazed at this tour de force, this panorama of play. Now I’ve known about the community-based non profit for a few years. Last summer we both hosted our mutual friends – Pop-Up Adventure Play on their cross-Canada tour – presenting workshops and loose parts play extravaganzas in Montreal and Halifax.

“Children who get to be at the heart of their play learn to know themselves, to negotiate, to create, to evaluate and take risks, to play different roles, to work through emotions and challenges. For me, L&M makes our city more resilient and inclusive.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie

 

It’s good to connect and learn how the small team at Le Lion et La Souris is evolving and making an impact. As I speak with playworker Gabby Doiron, she tells me how she had been invited to another Montreal neighbourhood, Pointe-Saint-Charles,  the previous evening. A group of mothers interested in establishing an adventure playground were looking for some information and inspiration. Forty years earlier a short-lived adventure playground had been a going concern in the community and these moms are hoping to bring a new one to life.

Those Pointe-Saint-Charles parents and others across the country are eager to see kids getting their play on, experiencing a wider range of play opportunities in public spaces. This is a conversation that is gaining steam at the grass roots level as well as within the mainstream media – witness recent articles in Maclean’s, Le Devoir and The Canadian Press.

Gabby is fully engaged in helping others others explore independent, child-led play. She’s moved from the academic realm, researching a Master’s degree focused on Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s Expo 67 playground to playworking at the aptly named Champs des possibles in Mile End on Montreal’s Plateau. She loves the kids and the community-based model but stitching a budget together is always challenging.

The kids started breaking the ice. It was like a tiny pond. We started calling it The Lake because it got quite big and it was very deep…

Gabby Doiron – Playworker, Le Lion et La Souris

 

Here on this small strip of land, the possibilities for play run very deep. To explore, to be dirty, to fall, to hide, to swing, to run, to risk a tumble, to have some fun these are boundless wonders. Surely this is the greatest show and Le Lion et La Souris are exporting it to other parts of the city, to schools, parks, community groups, even to the Canadian Centre of Architecture.

Le Lion et La Souris continues to reach out and make connections. This summer they will host a course with the Forest School of Canada. Other communities can perhaps benefit from their go local, embrace global model.

This grass roots playwork is supplemented by a growing body of research in Canada on a variety of topics: risk and play – Mariana Brussoni; outdoor play – Beverlie Dietze and Diane Kashin; loose parts play – Caileigh Flannigan; and. unhealthy food – Sara FL Kirk. Supported by their institutions, governments and charitable organizations such as The Lawson Foundation this research is helping to define policy goals and influence a renewed understanding of play opportunities for kids in public spaces.

Walking away from the Champs des possibles I am rejuvenated. I’ve caught a buzz being up close to all that unfettered, unrehearsed play. I’m energized as I head north to Le Diola on Jean-Talon for a fine Senegalese meal with one of my oldest friends. Play on…

Now, last word to the kids.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s so bad about a father trying to make the world a more play-friendly place?

This reblogged post by Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood provides some valuable analysis and backstory on Mike Lanza and his perspectives on play. The New York Times Magazine published a feature story on Mike at home in his ‘playborhood’. It’s a great read and I encourage you to take a peek.

Some readers took exception to Mike’s approach to play, kids, independence and risk in his Silicon Valley neighbourhood. I read some pointed criticism online that bordered on name-calling. It was disappointing to read this from others who are equally as passionate in their advocacy of independent play for kids. I’m a believer in bringing people together under big tents so that hand in hand with others we can move the yardsticks.

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From my perspective, Mike and I are definitely working under the same tent. I first became aware of Mike nearly six years ago and posted information about Playborhood on this blog. We corresponded a little and shared snippets of our lives. I always found him very personable and respectful. What’s more, he’s trying out new stuff that is focusing additional attention on the need and value of independent play.

Although not as elaborate as Mike’s backyard, our home is a gathering place for neighbourhood kids and they are all welcome to play here. We like it that way and it seems the kids do too.

Here’s a link to an article in the Mail Online published subsequent to The New York Times Magazine piece.

I had planned to write my own post about The Anti-Helicoper Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play but I have nothing more substantive to say than Tim. Truth be told I don’t think I can match the thoroughness or the eloquence of the Rethinking Childhood piece. Now that you’ve come to the end of the preamble, settle in for Tim’s main course.

Rethinking Childhood

This weekend’s New York Times has a major feature and profile on Mike Lanza and his Playborhood campaign to make neighbourhoods more play-friendly. And it’s whipping up a storm. In this piece, I give my take on the campaign and my response to the key criticisms.

First, some background. Lanza’s rallying cry is “turn your neighborhood into a place for play” – a goal he has been pursuing for at least nine years. His book and blog are first and foremost a set of practical advice, ideas and case studies for achieving that goal.

Lanza first got into the issue because of his concerns as a dad bringing up three children. What drives him is, in large part, the contrast between his own typically free-range 70s childhood and the highly constrained lives of most children today. I share his view that this change marks a profound loss.

Lanza’s campaign is…

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No grown-ups required

I love playing with our kids. It provides a window into their active imaginations and a glimpse into how they perceive the world around them. Almost always, play involves a sparkle of laughter and the occasional unsought aha revelation.

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With the exception of ‘watch me , watch me’ moments, or playing together as a family, the general progression these days, at least with our 9- and 11-year-old, is to a ‘no grown-ups required’ modus operandi of play. And this is how it should be.

As kids get older, they want to assert their independence and actively explore their environment without the at times overly protective demeanour of parental units poking and prying about in their affairs.

So when I can be a silent, non-intrusive witness not influencing the play, or when I am invited into the play zone via the ‘watch me, watch me’ command performance call, it’s a compelling treat that I enjoy savouring.

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Recently, I watched two kid driven play happenings from the sidelines. One, at our green place in Kejimkujik National Park, was a spontaneous riff on the popular recess game four square. Because the cement surface was so small, the game was rejigged to become two square.

There were about 10 kids playing who prior to the game didn’t know each other. Players ranged in age from 5 to 12 with both girls and boys represented. During the game, the kids assumed many different roles – players, coaches, referees and fans. The kids called all the shots, resolved disputes, jazzed up the rules and looked out for each other.

The game went on for close to an hour. Players would drift in and out. There was plenty of cheering, laughter and respect all around. Participation was the winning element for each of the kids. From that perspective, each one of them was a champion.

A few days later our 9-year-old set up an obstacle course in the backyard with materials she could find at hand. I was invited to see the girls go through their

manoeuvres. Running the course was certainly the highlight of this kid-fueled play event. However, setting it up ran a close second. It’s the kind of activity that attracts kids to our house – a gathering place for neighbourhood play without a lot of intrusive supervision.

The following day I collected all the material strewn about and cleaned up the course while the kids were out of the house. I was working hard to regain that Home and Garden kind of look. I wasn’t quite able to pull it off.

The girls were disappointed that their handiwork had been undone. A little later, I had to leave the house and when I returned that evening all my good tidying work had been reversed. The obstacle course had mysteriously reappeared and it’s still there in one of its permutations….

I count myself as fortunate when I get to see this play up close. It fills my heart. I’ve been dreaming of a job as an embedded photographer documenting the spontaneity of kids at play. Let me know if you hear of any openings.

 

A Short Meditation on Play

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The 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Enivrez-Vous and early 20th century Québecois poet Saint-Denys Garneau’s Le Jeu served as dual inspirations for my little ditty, Just Play.

Discovery, dirt, adventure and adrenaline. Is there anything more elemental for kids? At its best, play is pulsing movement, pushing boundaries, independent exploration. It’s a visceral stickiness that just doesn’t rub off.

Deep in play, kids are immersed in a total experience. They share a language where the only truly fluent tribal denizens are other kids. For the most part, we busy adults are rarely able to break the code. Playing presents the grown-up crowd with similar challenges to ‘being in the moment’. We understand what is meant by play but find it hard to let go, to abandon the trappings of daily life.

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Each momentary release from the dull pull of gravity quickens the heart

The grown-up play DNA is diluted, not really in the same league as the kids. It’s not that grown-ups can’t play but we’re clattering about with so much baggage that we’re seldom able to sustain a good play vibe over an extended period of time. Yet we can reminisce. We are able to remember the delicious freedom of following whims, banding with other kids, stretching the frontiers of our known worlds.

As adults, this remembering can be a door to renewed playfulness. Recently I was fortunate to have four brothers relive some of their play memories from the 1930s and 40s in Scotland. Before my eyes, I saw these 80-year-olds transformed talking about games they played, about childhood friends and their starring roles in the occasional misadventure… At the end of an hour they each looked and sounded 10 years younger. Can it be that play is also a youthful elixir?

If you can’t get your play groove on, spend some time around kids-at-play. It’s almost guaranteed to be a more rewarding and fruitful pursuit than hanging around men-at-work.

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You’ll know you’ve hit pay dirt when you hear supersonic noise — squeals, peals, shouts, high-pitched laughter a constant bourdonnement of kids’ voices. When I see kids fully engrossed in play I experience a contact high. On those occasions when I am somehow involved in the play at hand, there is joyfulness, a real satisfaction in knowing that you’ve helped kids to play, to discover themselves….

On week days when I speak with our primary school-aged kids after supper, the first thing I usually ask them is: “Who did you play with today?”

It’s not that I’m disinterested in what happens inside the classrooms, it’s just that play times can be a good barometer of how things are going overall. I want to know they’re playing, they’re physically active, and they’re hanging with friends. I want to know they are getting some relief from being cooped up at a desk all day long. They will have plenty of time for that….

So, from a young age we play, then as we grow older play dwindles becoming a more negligible part of our daily activities. But as one of life’s simple pleasures we owe it to ourselves and the children around us to make play more prominent and embrace the kaleidoscoping fun.

Just play….

“Who did you play with today?”

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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Where Have All the Children Gone Long Time Passing?

New Yorker, Lenore Skenazy is advocating a change in mindset around play, trust and responsibilty as it affects kids. There’s no mistaking her passion for what has become a favourite subject matter. You may have read about Lenore in the national press, or heard her getting interviewed on major television networks. She was responsible for the ‘Take Our Children to the Park… & Leave Them There Day’ campaign in May of this year.

Lenore’s disbelief and outrage is getting a venting through her writing. A journalist by profession, she wrote a column, much after the fact, about letting her son do a solo subway journey from downtown Manhattan to their home. She was pilloried in the media as an irresponsible parent. This experience gave birth to Free-Range Kids, initially a blog and now a book in its second edition.

I first came across her when I read a piece she penned for Salon – The war on children’s playgrounds. Did I hear litigation, that perennial antithesis to fun?

I caught up with Lenore a couple of weeks back as she was getting ready to head out of the city over the Memorial Day weekend.

I just don’t believe that children are as endangered as pop culture is trying to make us believe for a variety of reasons that I think actually are nefarious. I might sound like a crazy, paranoid parent but I’m crazy, paranoid about the messages we’re getting from the media as opposed to people looking outside at all moments everywhere looking for people to rape and kill our children. – Lenore Skenazy

Along with Lenore, let’s imagine a place where kids roam, a place where the outdoors are a magnet for fun, healthy activity, liberal doses of mischief and perhaps just a small serving of mayhem. Imagine parents who trust their children and communities enough that the kids don’t have to be chaperoned around the clock.

This is how I grew up as a kid in the 60s and 70s in Toronto, Canada. It was no Shangri-La but there were decent doses of sanity going the rounds. Maybe it was something in the air or maybe it had something to do with the fact that our parents grew up in the midst of a global war. Those of them that came from Europe and Asia knew what real danger was all about. As for their North American contemporaries, even though the war was never fought on their soil those kids grieved for dads and big brothers who never came home again.

In the naughties and now into 2010 and beyond, the life that I took for granted as a young boy, the one where most of us created everyday adventure away from supervision and prying adult eyes is now the exception to the rule. In urban centres at least, the default position for ‘play’ has nothing to do with ‘ground’ and everything to do with simulation and screens – the flash of binary code, the tao of wii and manufactured panic.

There’s a moral panic afoot. The same as in the 50s how did everyone become afraid that comic books were going to rot our children’s minds? Then there was the whole panic that day care centres were filled with satanic cults… – Lenore Skenazy

I’ve noticed that playgrounds in my hometown of Halifax, Canada are frequently sparsely populated. This isn’t any kind of scientific measurement but when you visit 20 to 30 different playgrounds in the run of a summer you pick up on these things. Most of the kids who do go are under the age of 10 and accompanied by parents.

Lenore is taking back the free-range, staking it our through humor, analysis and research. She is striking a note and many are flocking to her blog, engaging her as a guest speaker – an alternate voice in a wilderness where independent play is getting short shrift and kids find themselves on an endless, organized activity-go-round.

I say bravo. Let’s all consider a riff on an old folk tune –

home, home on the free-range where the kids and all their friends play
where never is heard a paranoid word and the parents are loving all day

Playgrounds have an exceptional role, though not the only one, to play in this. They are kid space, fun space, testing limits space. If there is an issue about playground security, perhaps we should be thinking about something like a Playground Watch modelled on Neighbourhood Watch to make them more secure environments if required.

As for me, I have two older, independent kids and three little ones under five. The babies aren’t ready for free-ranging as yet. I’m hoping that when it’s their time the voice of reason will prevail again and that a solo subway ride with parental approval by a kid of 10 in London, New York, Toronto, Tokyo, Berlin, or Boston will not result in a news story that sparks a backlash of intolerance and sanctimony.

Fill the playgrounds with free-rangers – let them have the joy of discovering their own abilities.

Last word to Lenore –

You can still have fun on playgrounds even if the stuff, the equipment is less than fun. I do remember the really fun playground we’d go to when I was a kid on Memorial Day weekend. The attractive thing was they had a tall slide and a swinging gate. You’d go really, really fast on the swinging gate and it seemed pretty much to the clouds on the slide. I never see either of those anymore. That was in Kenosha, Wisconsin in a place called Petrifying Springs. – Lenore Skenazy

Look for Lenore on Parent Dish.