Category Archives: Natural Play

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Morning

Ed’s note – since the demise of Storehouse, I have been at a loss as to the best way to display images linked to PlayGroundology stories. I’ve gone back to tumblr to try and capture the look and flow of a series of larger images. This is my first tumblr post in a number of years. It’s the visual companion to this WordPress post.

We’re at chickadee corner waiting for birds. In sub-zero weather, the black capped chickadees drop from surrounding trees landing gingerly on upturned palms. With soft, rapid pecks they gather seeds before retreating to nearby cover. We are breathless as they alight oh so briefly on our hands. The timorous beating of their hearts is exhilarating and humbling. Today there are no chickadees and the girls are momentarily disappointed.

tumblr photo story here or click through on image above

Fortunately, there is plenty to do when stopping by the woods on a snowy morning. A freshly fallen tree beckons for solo and duet balancing. After several back and forths, the girls discover a small dip nearby.

A defining feature of this hollow is a large, partially exposed, snow dusted boulder. The steep incline of its scalable face makes for a tricky ascent. In the end, after numerous unsuccessful attempts, it is ingenuity that wins the day and conquers the summit.

Next are the vertical climbs – hanging on and scrambling up trees so tall. The big mama conifer shelters the girls under its boughs. Close to the trunk the almost symmetrical branches are spaced like steps inviting the climbers skyward. They are all smiles and giggles from their perches on high until one gets fretful thinking she won’t be able to get down.

Closer to solid ground there is space for some casual boulder hopping. Each activity is rooted in connections with the natural environment. We embrace a wonderful simplicity, a sense of unhurried ease and familiarity. The light and breezy unscripted play is punctuated with moments of intensity fuelled by physical exertion and the sometimes fright of self-induced boundary testing. And then it’s over, time to bid the snowy outdoor morning adieu.

Just play,
play with mud, sand, sea
blocks and balls
sticks and trees
just play…

When Good Things Happen

Kids and parents in Nova Scotia, Canada are giving two thumbs up to a couple of the province’s new public play spaces. Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space and The Dingle Natural Playground in Halifax make the natural world more accessible to kids.

The scale and scope of these two projects are a significant development for what is still a relatively new design aesthetic in these parts. The variety of installations and the age ranges they cater to set Middle Musquoidoboit and The Dingle apart from other natural playscapes in the province. Jubilee Park in Bridgetown, continues to delight the pre-school crowd and the Evergreen organization is working with a few individual schools to incorporate natural play areas as part of the recreation mix.

Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space will be our first stop. Playgroundology’s next blog post will share some of the fun and excitement of The Dingle playscape’s opening weekend.

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In Middle Musquoidoboit behind a thin stand of trees there’s a clearing that on opening day buzzes with feverish excitement. Kids are zigging and zagging like hummingbirds from one installation to the next – ponds, slides, a fire tower, sandpits, a nest, a bear den, a tunnel through a small hillock and a personal favourite, a vintage three-seater Flinstone-mobile (see photo gallery here).

Tucked away in one corner is a 15 foot long pit partially filled with water that’s already churned brown. The sloping sides get muddier the closer one gets to the waterline. This is the place that holds the greatest promise of transforming white t-shirts each kid was given on arrival into authentic 100% organic dirt fabric.

The mud kitchen is an eleventh hour addition to this rootsy wonderland. Middle Musquoidoboit grandmas are the driving force behind this get grimy zone. They gathered up all the equipment – pots, pans, containers, spoons, shovels, pails, cupboards and yes, the kitchen sink – to set up a deliciously fun way to create imaginary delicacies with the most versatile of ingredients, dirt, water and mud. This open air, community kitchen, where there are never too many cooks, adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the overall ambience.

Can you say Am-Phi-Bi-An? Frog and salamander prospecting is the main attraction at a kid-sized pond bursting with green along its banks. On a second trip to the Nature Play Space the Girl Power Posse, my two girls and a couple of their friends, fan out and put the multi acre playscape through its paces.

On that occasion the pond is the place to be. Getting up close and personal with frogs proves to be a heady elixir that pulls the girls back time and again to try their luck with the dipping nets.

At another popular installation, scaling tree trunk towers presents an opportunity for airborne derring-do. The ascent is tough, it’s difficult finding the right footholds and hand grips on the vertical climb. Standing at the precipice, I can only imagine the quickened pace of pounding hearts. Then the launch and a surge of adrenalin in that split second before impact.

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The playscape offers numerous opportunities for kids to test and push their limits, to assess risk and challenge their physical abilities. These activities help build confidence, develop judgment and, when all goes well, can contribute to creating a reservoir of courage, resourcefulness and resilience.

This is a running, leaping, flying kind of place with wows at every turn. There are hills and rocks to climb, dirt and sand galore, small animals in their native habitat to catch and release, trees, grassy expanses and a welcome absence of motorized vehicles. This is a place to move and a place to play in the heart of Nova Scotia, Canada’s Ocean Playground.

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The Nature Play Space is a project led by the Department Of Natural Resources’ Natural Resources Education Centre. Two of the Centre’s team members, Amelia Kennedy and Sara Hill, were inspired to create a natural play space after attending an environmental educators conference with participants and presenters from throughout North America.

They left the conference with an aspirational goal that took form with considerable community engagement and sweat equity from volunteers in addition to support from their provincial government department. Two community build days, donations of labour and materials and invaluable advice were key ingredients in the success of the project. Nature aficionado, designer, trail developer and heavy equipment operator Garnet McLaughlin of Cobequid Consulting gets a huge shout out for his contributions.

So what good things are happening?

  • variety is being added to public play stock in Nova Scotia
  • communities are being engaged in the development and build processes
  • community mobilization and participation resulted in a very moderately priced playscape
  • media are covering the story
  • parents are talking about risk amongst each other and with their kids
  • a home grown design for natural playscapes has been developed that can benefit other communities
  • people are having thoughtful conversations about physical activity levels and the value of independent play
  • every kid who visits is getting a huge dose of Vitamin N

Our two visits to date resonated with excitement, laughter and an appreciation of the natural world. We’ll be regulars enjoying the leisurely drive there and back through Nova Scotia’s heartland.

For those readers who are curious about the pronunciation of Musquoidoboit click play below and listen to the GirlPower Nature Play Chorale who at the end of their song nail it.

One Weekend, Two American Classics

It’s a glorious end-of-summer. On deck, steaming through the Bay of Fundy’s gulf of plenty, we keep the wind’s nip in check with sweaters and light jackets. Hands shade squinting eyes from rippling light as we scan for sea life. It’s our last hurrah adventure before the regimented schedule of school begins again.

Approaching Grand Manan, minke whales in groups of two and three briefly break the surface, their dorsal fins slipping below before rhythmically rising, then dipping, rising and dipping until they deep dive beyond our vision. It’s a wonderful welcome as we enter the island’s waters and skirt the shore’s sheer cliffs.

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We are nearing the tail end of hot sun drenched days. The air temp is still warm enough to plunge into the take-your-breath-away water. Its salty buoyancy almost makes amends for the chill factor. Moored about 100 feet from the beach, is a floating home-made slide that until now we had only seen in photos. It’s a doozy, towering 15 feet above the water’s surface. And, for the coup de grâce, a tarzan rope dangles off the structure’s high point.

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Among the bunch of kids swimming, sliding, splashing and swinging, we meet the nephew of the man who created this wonder-thrill, fun zone. The kids tell us they come here frequently and they’re visibly proud of this singular attraction. One of the moms guesses it’s been here for six or seven years. Our next trip to Grand Manan we’ll be making a beeline to the beach.

Back at hole-in-the-wall campground we hike a trail skirting the cliffs. No kids in the lead, they’re tucked in between adults. There are lots of roots on the ground, some brush and precipitous drops.

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Then right in front of us is the ‘hole’. Our adventure rambles on hugging the coastal cliffs then zigging inland. Sometimes we wonder if we’re on the right path. Crossing a plank bridge we come into a clearing and a hand drawn map tells us we’re close to our temporary home. We’re tuckered from the heat and exertion and looking forward to some cold beverages and a tasty meal.

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But first there is another new experience that just can’t be missed. Again, it’s one of those magnetic simple pleasures – a small pond, rafts and poles. The kids’ first instinct is to race from the dock to the far shore. This ain’t the mighty Mississippi and it turns out that following a dry summer the water is very shallow in places and the rafts get snagged on rocks.

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Without any parental prodding, repeated groundings transform a competitive dynamic into a cooperative venture. It’s not long before all three kids are barefooting and slipping off the rafts to push, pull and cajole them along their journeys. They work together as a team, problem solving, assessing changing circumstances and experimenting with possible solutions. They are consumed with the space and their actions and all the while they’re immersed in deep, playful moments.

Nearly an hour passes and the fun maintains its quiet intensity. Finally, I have to call the kids’ armada back to dock. There’s nearly a mutiny but civility triumphs and we all march up the road for supper.

In too short a time we’re back aboard the ferry on a calm Bay of Fundy morning. About two-thirds of the way to Blacks Harbour a pod of three finbacks is spotted tails high fiving the sky and misty spouts of breath billowing from their blowholes. I can almost hear a cry, “thar she blows”.

It’s a weekend to remember. We’ll be back.

Leave a comment if you know the two American Classics I am referring to in the title.

#PlayRocks

Even a brief period of time spent watching kids engrossed in exploring the world around them, in discovering what their bodies are capable of, and just generally reveling in the independent pursuit of fun is an affirmation that, yes indeed, #PlayRocks.

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#PlayRocks is ready for the prime time social media world, ready for a little rough and tumble in the hashtag universe. Help make #PlayRocks part of the lexicon where it can join the likes of #playoutdoors, #outdoorplay, #playeveryday, #justplay and others.

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#PlayRocks can help add another voice of affirmation to play related activities, ideas and images that are being shared online at the speed of adventure. The next time you’re sharing content about the wonderful world of kids and play on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or tumblr, please consider tagging it with #PlayRocks.

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Sometimes #PlayRocks can have a very literal meaning. Rocks are like magnets to kids, their very presence a compelling attraction to climb, jump, balance.

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Help give the #PlayRocks hashtag a little push – readers are welcome to download any of the photos in this post and share them on their social media accounts.

To paraphrase a great Canadian who has penned more than a few well received tunes over the years, “keep on rockin’ in the play world……”

​Amsterdam’s Wild West: Nature Play at Woeste Westen

Ed’s note – I’m a fan of Glasgow-based City of Play. I’m a sucker for cable spools and other playcycled materials. Though I’m born and bred in Canada, my roots are from Scotland’s west coast. Having had the good fortune to visit and stay with family on several occasions as a young boy, I have a soft spot for the places along the River Clyde where my parents both grew up.

When I heard that City of Play co-founder Grant Menzies was off on a bit of a play research jaunt, I asked him if he would like to guest post here at PlayGroundology. Here he is for your reading pleasure. Woeste Westen really seems like a crossover space to me where nature play meets adventure playground. More on Grant following the post.

Woeste Westen is an exceptional natural ‘playscape’ a short bike journey west of Amsterdam City Centre. Natural playgrounds are not uncommon in the country however this is one of the few that has the psychical presence of an organisation to support it.

Considering the country’s unique geography it is perhaps unsurprising that water features quite heavily in park. To be honest, it’s the main feature. The site was once harvested for peat leaving a series of manmade waterways which have been bridged, dammed, pumped and… eh… rafted? That is, there is a water pump and a raft.

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There are also any number or den building, climbing and balancing opportunities; bonfire sites; and animal habitats both natural and man made… /child made. This amazing (and it is amazing, look at the pictures) natural playscape is supported by the weekly run Adventure Club and onsite clubhouse/ parents cafe.

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Woeste Westen is a truly inclusive landscape offering challenges and opportunities for all ages and abilities. A series of crossing points present different challenges to span the water with varying degrees of difficulty. Rope bridges, felled trees, wobbly bridges, rafts, stepping stones and shallows ensure that the body and mind are continually tested without being forced to encounter unmanageable risks. This is a land and waterscape to invite and excite all.

The abundance of water and wildlife not only provides play value but is a soothing and calming influence. Although chaotic, Woeste Westen is peaceful and pleasant in a manner rarely achieved through other designed “Nature” playgrounds.

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Our arrival coincided with the rain. We witnessed the Adventure Club dress in waterproofs building fires and making popcorn showing that this is an all weather experience.

At Woeste Westen we met founder Martin Hup a former biology and environmental education teacher. Martin discovered this publicly owned piece of land around 8 years ago not much different from what it is now, as a playground with the raft and bridges, but it was rarely used. Although only a few minutes from the bustling city it was still in the middle of nowhere; children/families had no need to pass by and therefore it was not used.

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Martin – as a self confessed adventurer, former Boy Scout and expert in environmental education but with no vision of continuing to be a teacher – saw an opportunity to exploit an underused resource to promote environmental education and facilitate outdoor play. He sought funding from the local government to install a hub with a cafe, toilets and office, to create a perimeter fence and to form the Adventure Club. He says ‘This lets parents feel it is safe, they know there is usually someone here and it has a secure gate – of course it is not “safe” it is about risky play! – but the perception is different.’

Still he insists he is not a play worker, he/they programme events and are ‘facilitators’. The playground, although now fenced, is still public property but without their presence – running the Adventure Club and serving “fine coffee” – no one would use it.

Martin knows his stuff, and he knows that even with Amsterdam’s abundance of playgrounds that free play is on the decline and that parents are to blame. ‘They are scared of cars and the “dangerous man” that wants to harm their children. In fact, there is no more danger than in the 70’s.’

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Concerned, if not dismayed, by reports of schools in the Netherlands removing skipping ropes and balls from pupils due to parent complaints of injury, Martin and the Adventure Club warn that they actively seek risks in their sessions.

Many new parents and even children visiting the park show the same nerves we commonly see in our risk averse time; many concerned by how often their child might climb a tree – God forbid they should get a scratch or a bruise! In Woeste Westen you may well break a leg… But *shrugs* “so what?”. Although it might surprise you to learn that with 57,000 visits per year they still haven’t had any serious injuries.

Martin describes that when children visit, despite initial reservations, they are somewhat set free. They can run and explore and experience the joy of discovering nature for themselves but also they experience a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi ‘ – in a rare moment of broken English described as like “touching their inner Neanderthal” they are wild again.

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Grant gained his Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from the University of Strathclyde in Nov 2012. Inspired by the birth of his first daughter, Grant’s thesis focused around the needs and rights of children in urban design. Subsequently, Grant developed an understanding of, and passion for, play and ensuring its proper and right provision.

Grant also spent a semester studying Landscape design under Henry WA Hanson at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Having funded his time while at University working in the building services Grant has an interest and skill at making, fixing and up-cycling as can be seen in works such as The Twits Chairs.

If you have a play story you’d like to share with PlayGroundology readers, give us a shout. Cheers

New Brunswick, Canada’s Call to Action – Get the Kids Outside

I heard the radio version of this promotion piece earlier today driving Nova Scotia’s highways. Just the soundtrack made me smile.

The visuals add to the fun. I hope this turns out to be a successful campaign for New Brunswick. The simplicity and beauty make for a powerful message. Be nice to see a series developed on the same theme.

Unplug the kids and go solar!!!

As this comes from Canada’s only officially bilingual province, there is also a French version.

Débranchez!!!

Whose woods are these?

Each summer we trek a couple of hundred kilometres to camp at Kejimkujik one of Canada’s east coast national parks. For the kids it’s an unparalleled play ecosystem – woods, water, wildlife, wonder. They always have something close at hand in the natural environment that is readily transformed into adventure.

This trip, we are tucked away in the far corner of a walk in area. The cozy comfort of familiarity is all around us. We’ve tented here several times over the years on solo family excursions and with friends. A small inlet is just down the path where rocks, a mighty old tree and gently rippling water beckon.

DSCF9583Gathering moss and lichen from old man tree

Since our last stay, old man tree is no longer reaching skyward. Cracked at the trunk and toppled, its growing days are over. But like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s story (original animation video) it continues to give. Now, it’s a in situ natural playscape – jungle gym, balance beam, bouncy ride.

In past visits when the tree was still stretching its branches and popping leaves to catch the sun it was ‘the’ climbing place. The two older kids risked their first unaided climbs here getting purchase on the rough bark as they inched up the trunk’s steep incline and made the tricky transition onto the primary branch that pushed out almost parallel to the ground.

GOnV8NDIFf_1386290135937From ‘The Book of Play’

There is a sadness seeing this green friend prone and broken down. It’s a tree that will stand tall in my memories as the kids’ starter climber, the bridge for their first magical trip from earth to sky.

As I walk to the playground to get the kids for a meal, they are shouting excitedly about their latest discovery. They’re juiced, bouncing around their find, poking about inside, adding branches to a rootsy, vernacular space.

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For a few minutes this is the jackpot. All energies are devoted here as plans are hastily conceived to create a similar treasure. The rapid progression of seeing, touching and doing makes the possibility of actually being den makers all the more real to them. The den is perfection. It is cozy and built to their scale with branches and sticks gathered from the forest floor.

Back on the inlet’s rocky shore, Nellie-Rose starts floating leaf boats. Before long, the three kids are marine architects constructing moss boats with twig masts. An impromptu regatta gets underway with seven or eight of these ‘mossies’ getting launched into a lazy current and meandering out into open water. Two or three are crewed by tiny toads – Nellie’s touch – who sit transfixed on their small islands.

DSCF9850Mossie crewed by a toad

These moments of fun and inventiveness, of laughter and togetherness are timeless, a kids in nature blockbuster story in the making.

At night above the canopy we can see specks of shimmery light as stars flit about and satellites skip across the sky. There is something about natural open spaces that buffers the daily chaos, soothes the city’s madness and sparks delight like magic embers arcing in the night.

Whose woods are these I think I know
Their laughter’s sweet enough to sow
Lost in play they do not see
The lengthening shadows as they grow

These woods are airy, light and sweet
But I have miles to go before we meet
Miles and miles before we meet
The ones whose love makes us complete

(Apologies to Robert Frost)

A day played out to a natural rhythm and tucked in with the best night sky viewing Nova Scotia can offer.

Keji Night SkySource: Frommer’s

Thanks kids, thanks Keji – we’ll be back.