Category Archives: Mariana Brussoni

The Pure Joy of Goofing Around

Can there possibly be a more endearing premise for a documentary than kids and a far-flung menagerie of animals starring in a true life scientific investigation? Invite a few academic luminaries along to drive the narrative and you get a story that must be told. “The pure joy of goofing around” as host David Suzuki intones during the opening sequence while a gorilla in a shallow pool spins around in absolute abandon.


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The Power of Play debuts on Canada’s most popular and beloved science series, CBC’s The Nature of Things later this week. The documentary examines one of the most compelling and richly layered activities of kids the world over – PLAY.

But wait, it’s more than just kids having fun, more than homo sapiens and their primate cousins even. The filmmakers take a walk on the wild side trekking far beyond the somewhat predictably playful domestic dog and cat to check in on other species from the worlds of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. Be ready to get acquainted with the lighter side of turtles, rats, hamsters, elephants, an octopus and even a komodo dragon.

A year and a half in the making, Nova Scotia’s Tell Tale Productions shot kids, animals and passionate advocates of kids’ play and animal behaviour in Norway, the US and Canada. What we see are kids being kids, animals being animals and the scholars speaking to why we should care about human and animal play, why this spontaneous and intrinsically motivated activity matters.

There is something in our deeply rooted nature that is able to communicate with a whole range of life on this planet.

Gordon Burghardt, Reptile Ethologist

The show is as entertaining as it is informative exploring little known aspects of animal behaviour. Who knew that fish play and I don’t mean some anthropomorphic Nemo-like gyrations. It took hours to capture a short segment showing a fish playing with a tin foil decorated ball at Dalhousie University’s Aquatron Laboratory. The investment of time is representative of the effort and patience required to understand how play displays in animals outside our relatively constrained domestic orbits.

Behavioural ecologist, Johnathan Pruitt’s research leads him to conclude that, “things like play occur all over the animal kingdom.” I now admiringly think of Pruitt as Spider Man. His startling discoveries about public displays in the not so secret lives of – you guessed it, spiders – are expanding our understanding of play. And it’s not just any old spiders, his painstaking study is drawing back the veil so to speak on social spiders, a small subset of arachnids made up of a mere 20 species worldwide.

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Spoiler alert – there are seriously cute cats and other social media sourced clips of inter-species play in the program. Tune in to see some surprising pairings and determine yourself if there is a clear winner in the cute sweepstakes. As Suzuki comments, “the impulse to have fun seems to cross all kinds of divides in the animal kingdom.”

Bonobos give play pride of place. It is a core component of their social interactions. Their adoption, or adaptation of play differentiates them from their close relatives the chimpanzees. A frequent chimp response on encountering other groups of their own species is to fight. Bonobos are more prone to make play, not war.

Play is pervasive in bonobo society…  It’s difficult to understand if empathy is at the basis of play, or if play is at the basis of empathy…

Primatologist, Elisabetta Palagi

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Empathy brings the journey squarely into the camp of human experience. The program’s timing is spot on as caregivers, researchers, educators, healthcare and recreation professionals and journalists are examining attitudes and benefits associated with play, risk, resilience and independence. In the process there is a reset underway of some more recent cultural norms.

Over the last two or three decades in North America and to a lesser extent Europe a pervasive adverseness to exposing kids to risk has supplanted independence, unsupervised play, and many aspects of outdoor kid culture that were thriving right through the 1970s.

The preoccupation has been so pronounced in some quarters that in the UK for example the fixation has been tagged cotton wool culture, known too in other jurisdictions as bubble wrap kids.

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Informed by observation and evidence-based findings across a number of disciplines, there is a meaningful shift taking place related to risk. International collaborators Mariana Brussoni and Ellen Sandseter from Canada and Norway respectively are changing the way we perceive risk as it relates to kids at play.

I came to the counter-intuitive conclusion that engaging in risk was actually a very important aspect of preventing injuries.

Mariana Brussoni – Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Individually, each of the university-based researchers have devoted years of investigation to various facets of play. Brussoni recently launched outsideplay.ca “to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.” Sandseter published seminal work for her doctoral degree – Scaryfunny: A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children.

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Together they are being inspired by the children around them and are currently collaborating on remodeling playgrounds in eight Norwegian child care centres with the goal of making them more thrilling. Sandseter has it on good authority what it is that triggers those thrill factors. Through her interviews with children, she has developed a risky play inventory.

They (the kids) usually say it tickles in my tummy. I get so happy and so excited that I just had to laugh out loud.

Ellen Sandseter – Professor, Early Childhood Education, Queen Maud University College

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Independent, adult-free outdoor play is not dead but it’s greatly diminished and that’s a concern for the health of our kids now and into the future

The pre-school children in Trondheim, Norway embody the adventure, the boldness, the hope that we can take back play. There is a renaissance, a resurgence that will help counter some of the problems we are seeing linked to overuse of devices and screen time, to low self-esteem and more serious mental health issues in young people.

As adults, parents and caregivers we have a responsibility to be play enablers in our communities. So how do we go about advocating for play? Tuning in to The Power of Play is a great first step.

There is much more that I have not touched on here so choose a healthy snack, kick back, get comfy and play ‘watch a doc’ on Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST….

Let’s give the last word to Stuart Brown. A student of play for over 50 years he aptly sums it all up.

What you find is that it’s necessary for a sense of optimism, fulfillment, for a sense of competency, for a sense of an authentic self. These are all components that play produces and many more for the well-being of individuals.

Stuart Brown – Founder, The National Institute for Play

PostScript

  • Huge finding – girls play outside more when unsupervised. I can corroborate this here at home with our two girls, 11 and 9. PlayGroundology friends are you noting this too?
  • Those who participated in the making of the film overwhelmingly felt that it was an honour, a significant opportunity to help present research to a broad audience that documents the far-reaching benefits of play.
  • David Suzuki loves this show and and immediately saw the wisdom of the message about play. He was a real outdoorsy kid and encourages his kids and grandkids to do the same.  He biked to the playground where he did the standup for this show.
  • The film is being distributed internationally by SidewaysFilm. To date sales have been made to Sweden and Finland.
  • The Power of Play‘s director, Christine McLean remembers being shooed outdoors with her siblings on cold winter days so her Mom could wash the kitchen floor. Mom wrapped them up warmly and gave them shovels and spoons to keep them busy in the snow. Looking back McLean sees those days of play as one of the best gifts their mom ever gave them. Where do your play memories take you?

 

The Power of Play
Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST on CBC’s The Nature of Things
(check local listings)
Production company: Tell Tale Productions
Producer: Erin Oakes
Director: Christine McLean

 

Some Canadiana Play on Canada Day

Happy Canada Day

Hope you enjoy this slice of Play Canadiana as we celebrate our birthday from coast to coast to coast. Excerpted and abridged from CanadaPlays.

National Treasures

First up, let’s share a couple of national treasures with you. From her home in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam creates aerial textile play environments that are a riot of movement and pulsating colours.

Prior to dedicating her artistic vision to designing an unparalleled play experience for kids, Toshiko exhibited her textile art at prominent galleries and museums in Japan, the US and Europe. At one point, she questioned whether there was more to life than prepping for shows and hosting vernissages.

A few years ago, my then four-year-old daughter Nellie-Rose accompanied me on the first PlayGroundology road trip. We had lunch with Toshiko and her partner Charles in their home and learned how her wondrous woven webs of play are the creative fabric that warms her life.

Inside, Upside – Harmonic Motion, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam installation at Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, 2013. Credit – Roberto Boccaccino

As Toshiko transitioned away from the art exhibition world, she spent weekends over the course of three years walking around neighbourhoods in her native Japan. This research and exploration of the where, what and how of kids’ play convinced her that there was an opportunity to introduce some new concepts rooted in textile sculpture.

Toshiko’s play sculptures are found in prominent locations in Japan, including the Hakone Open-Air Museum, and a variety of Asian countries. The large scale sculptures have yet make any real headway in North America or Europe outside of exhibit spaces.

Toshiko works with Norihide Imagawa, one of Japan’s foremost structural designers and engineers to ensure maximum integrity and safety of each of her play sculptures. Photos of her play sculptures have created a couple of online surges of interest in her work from the design, architecture and play communities. Let’s hope that kids in more communities around the world will have the opportunity to revel in unbridled play in one of Toshiko’s lovingly crafted creations…

Outside, Flipside – Harmonic Motion, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam installation at Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, 2013. Credit – Roberto Boccaccino

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander has had children at heart all her life. She first designed public housing playgrounds in the US in the 1950s with architects Louis Kahn and Oskar Stonorov. This was shortly after being amongst the first women to graduate from Harvard as a landscape architect and prior to moving to her adopted home, in British Columbia, Canada.

In 1967, as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations, Cornelia was invited to design the playground at the Children’s Creative Centre as part of the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67. Mr. PlayGroundology was 10 at the time but sadly our family never made the trip from Toronto to Montreal for the party of parties marking our 100th birthday though I remember a lot of fun from that summer nonetheless. By all accounts the kids who were able to give the Expo 67 playscape a whirl liked it a lot.

This clip is excerpted from the National Film Board of Canada documentary, The Canadian Pavilion, Expo 67. Following Expo, Cornelia participated in the creation of national playground guidelines and designed more than 70 across the country. A few years back, she was kind enough to speak with me on the phone thanks to an introduction from the folks at space2place.

Expo 67 Creative Children’s Centre. Source: Canadian Centre for Architecture

Aside from sharing a wonderful bibliography with me, I remember how she emphasized simplicity remarking, and I’m paraphrasing here, that to have fun all kids really need is sand, water and something to climb… Thank you Cornelia for all your contributions not only to play in Canada but to the greening of our urban landscapes.

Players

There are an increasing number of organizations across the country who contribute to promoting, programming and researching about play. In no particular order here is a partial list that provides a sampling of some of the activity underway in Canada: Le lion et la souris (Montréal, QC); Active Kids Club (Toronto, ON); Integrate Play Solutions (BC); outsideplay.ca (British Columbia); Active for Life (QC); Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) and Dufferin Grove Park (Toronto, ON); Calgary Playground Review (Calgary, AB); Manitoba Nature Summit (Winnipeg, MB); The Lawson Foundation (Toronto, ON); Mariana Brussoni – UBC (Vancouver, BC); ParticipACTION (Toronto, ON); Playground Builders (Whistler, BC); CanadaPlays (Eastern Passage, NS)  And let’s not forget a shout to all those whose work supports play in their roles with municipal, provincial and federal governments and service organizations.

Playmakers – Designers and Builders

This a small selection of Canadian companies creating custom playscapes.

Earthscape

Carcross Commons – Tagish First Nation, Carcross, Yukon

Earthscape has developed a substantial catalogue of custom design and build playscapes that have been installed throughout the country. Each Earthscape project is unique. I’m thrilled that Halifax gave an Earthscape project the green light in 2016. The company is now exporting and has installed a super slide on New York City’s Governors Island.

Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat – Daily tous les jours

A sensation in Montreal since the original 21 balançoires were introduced in the Quartier des spectacles in 2011. Every day each swing swung an average of 8,500 times. An adaptation of the original installation has been touring North American cities. A musical swings impact study is available here.

space2place

Completed in 2008, space2place’s Garden City Play Environment in Richmond, British Columbia was ahead of the curve in the context of Canadian fixed structure playgrounds. There is a great write up of this space published in The Vancouver Sun shortly after its opening.

Bienenstock

McCleary Playground downtown Toronto – 2008

Adam Bienenstock was at the front end of the natural playground surge and continues to bring his personal brand and vision to schools, communities and settings in the natural environment in Canada and beyond.

Cobequid Consulting

Nature aficionado, designer, trail developer and heavy equipment operator Garnet McLaughlin of Cobequid Consulting had a big role to play in the design and build of Nova Scotia’s Natural Resources Education Centre – Nature Play Space in Middle Musquodoboit. If you’re visiting Canada’s Ocean Playground, this is a must stop if you’re traveling with kids…

Children’s Rights

In Montreal’s Salamander Playground atop Mount Royal Park, Québecois artist Gérard Dansereau has created a series of original tiles embedded throughout the play area to commemorate and draw attention to the Conventions on the Rights of the Child as elaborated and promoted by UNICEF. I have added the English to my favourite tile from the series below. Other tiles available to view here.

From tiles designed by Québecois artist Gérard Dansereau

The Poutine of Play

Poutine has gone from a well-loved, known locally only Québec delicacy to an international phenomenon. Could it be that ballon-poire will travel a similar trajectory exporting a culturally branded Québecois game around the globe? I’ve seen the game played just once and even though I have no understanding of the rules, it attracted me immediately. It is easy to see that eye – hand coordination is certainly de rigueur. The girls in the clip below are spelling out a word but I didn’t stay long enough to capture it all. There are a number of variations to the game accompanied to different call and answers as the players whump the punch bag back and forth as quickly as they can. I’m looking forward to gaining a better understanding of how the game is played some day and hopefully giving it a whirl myself.

What is your favourite Canadiana play?

Do you have a favourite play place, a memory a photo, your own piece of Canadiana, a fvourited builder, designer, player, national treasure? Leave a comment here or drop us a line on PlayGroundology Facebook, or Twitter.

Original artwork by Kyle Jackson now hanging at Alderney Landing Library in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

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.