Most days are still in the single digit celsius zone. Cheeks are burnished a ruddy healthsome hue. Chill wind and cool water stiffen numbing fingers. On the ground, a muddy patina where grass is worn bare. Above, the dreamy blue sky bursts with promise.
A small play posse of about ten kids in the six to thirteen-year-old age range are bivouacking in the backyard. Free of cumbersome winter clothes, there is a spontaneous reclaiming of the outdoors.
They are out everyday now playing for hours on end. There are the breathless games like mantracker and 50 – 50, impromptu soccer and basketball matches and the building of forts, dens and clubs. These almost exotic spring awakening rites embrace the season’s new possibilities.
The familiar ring of the kids-at-play chorus modulates between a sometimes rambunctious soundscape and a whispery taking stock. Occasionally observed by us adult types but rarely disturbed, they are free to imagine, to create, to make the world in their own image.
On this day, chalk is a key element in their periodic table of play. At first it is put through its conventional paces. Printing and drawing on the fence in all available colours is de rigueur. Then a stick of chalk is reduced, mortar and pestle style, into a dusty powder. It’s only moments before the powder is in turn transformed into a pasty liquid wash and applied liberally to various surfaces with the excited participation of all present.
The yard is a convening space, a place where the kids can be themselves to explore, goof around and kick back unsupervised. It’s communal in a sense – friends hang there when our kids aren’t out, or we’re not at home. We like to think of it as an equal opportunity play outpost.
Old household furniture is cycled into the backyard until its play value is exhausted and it’s shifted curbside. A couple of old sofas that have gone through their second outdoor winter are foundation pieces for the build, modify, rebuild fortin’ around. Loose parts – lumber, old tires, milk crates, cable spools, tarps , cardboard and rope – are the stuff of daily dreaming helping to give physical form to imagined space.
Several days pass with the fort as focal point. There are design adjustments, new adornments and reconfigurations. The kids are getting restless though, looking for new activities. It’s off to the woods, the brook to other friends’ houses. We tear down the fort and store the parts in the shed. In the not too distant future another fort will rise and we’ll hear the sowing of dreams as the neighbourhood kids explore, discover, create.
I am thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about loose parts a few years back from the good folks at Pop-Up Adventure Play. They encouraged me to get out in the community and give the loose parts a whirl at public events. Thankful too that the kids have space to run free.
I am grateful to live in Nova Scotia where through a combination of collective action by Nova Scotians, a crackerjack public health team, responsible management by the government and undoubtedly some good luck we have been able to weather the COVID storm with much less devastation than other parts of the country and world. Despite our best efforts, Nova Scotia went into a new lockdown earlier this week in a bid to turn back recent community spread.
COVID continues to be an ongoing health crisis in communities around the world. Its after effects will rumble for some time. Among these are social isolation experienced by children and their inability to play due to prolonged periods of time in lockdowns and absences from school. Spring awakenings and the resumption of play will pick up steam as greater swathes of the population are vaccinated and the immediate crisis begins to recede. Let’s get ready and think what that might look like in our own communities.
On May 13, join Dalhousie University’s Dr. Sarah Moore for a virtual event presenting research that considers “evidence-based recommendations and strategies for return to movement, play, sport, and recreation and discusses the important role of community supports during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery period.” More info available here.
In the UK, Helen Dodd is a Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading and an advocate of putting children at the heart of the recovery. Along with colleagues at PlayFirst UK, she has been raising the alarm about the pandemic’s mental health impacts on children and the benefits of adventurous play. She will make a plenary presentation at the upcoming Play 2021 conference in Birmingham, England, July 7 and 8.