Category Archives: nature play

Winter Trekking with the Pack

The pack wakes up well rested in the cabin’s common sleeping area. Some of the kids have never been away from home overnight, or went to bed without a tuck in from mom, or dad. Now after a good night’s sleep we’re gearing up for the first full day of our most excellent Camp Harris adventure.

After fueling up on a solid camp breakfast of bologna, scrambled eggs and toast, we’re ready to roll. Almost the entire pack is present for the weekend getaway. Altogether there are 16 Cubs – boys and girls aged 8 to 10 and a handful of adult scouters caring for them.  A mild February morning awaits and the kids need no encouragement to explore the outdoors.

We set out hiking a trail that leads down to the water. Looking around, we see that camp buildings are the only visible structures on our side of the lake. There are no roads, sidewalks, cars, no power lines. The path, partially concealed by snow, is slick in places. For some it’s easier to walk on either side of it.

Enthusiastic hoots and hollers ring into the sky as we cross an open field on a gently descending gradient.  Closer to the shoreline stands of trees border the path and ice is thicker on the ground. Skates might prove to be a better footwear choice on some of the terrain. Rabbits have passed this way before us, their prints clearly stamped in the snow.

We arrive at the top of a small hill sheer with ice. In the near distance, the path continues skirting the shoreline. There is a brief discussion on whether we should head back. After assessing the risk, we position one scouter at the base of the hill. Some of the cubs opt for the full throttle slide down while others choose to walk gingerly through the trees.

Down at the bottom, there is hill on one side of us and the lake on the other. We can’t push much further along the path as kids are losing their footing tumbling and scrambling on uneven ice. We see a nice clearing overlooking the water and climb over, under and through an entanglement of natural debris to reach it.

After traversing this organic obstacle course, we sit as a group, rest a little and briefly experiment with being still and quiet. There is a nanosecond of silence. Then we’re off on the reverse journey. Up and over the dead wood with a little tricky balancing. The ice hill looms. A direct assault is not feasible. It’s through the trees and into the open where the path levels out.

Just before we reach the closest camp cabin we stop to play. A few grizzled and grey trees with scarred trunks and broken branches beckon enticingly. They look like skeletal remains bereft of a once greener glory. Before you can say ‘Mowgli’, a half-dozen cubs seize the day launching an impromptu demo of climbing prowess.

There is a rare moment of gender balance. Three girls and three boys are enjoying each other’s company while scrabbling around a tree looking for the best perch. From their lofty heights they become lookouts with a bird’s eye view of rolling fields, hiking trails and the open, cloudless sky.

On the second day of our Camp Harris adventure, the cubs break out into their lairs for some shelter building. Provided with lengths of rope and a tarp, the cubs are left for the most part to their own devices.

The three lairs charge off in different directions to scout the perfect location. The most pressing requirement is to find suitable trees and bushes that can be used as a windbreak and double as anchors to tie off the tarps and give form to the shelters.

It’s a great way to wind up our Camp Harris outing. A light drizzle provides an opportunity to test the structures to see if they provide a refuge from the elements. There is plenty of discussion within the lairs on how to complete the task, on what might work best. It’s a real team effort with everyone pitching in.

Despite the sometimes inclement weather, the outdoors are the default of choice for the kids over the course of the weekend. There are campfires, songs and toasted marshmallows – thanks Pete for keeping the flame – and games of stealth and strategy pitting cubs against the adults.

As the kids pack up and get ready for their parents a happy exhaustion permeates the air. There is a glow on their faces, a spring in their step. They have tasted adventure, trekked the woods with friends and shared the camaraderie of discovery and wonder.

Editor’s note – Fifty years ago I spent a weekend on a similar adventure at Camp Samac in Oshawa, Ontario. We learned to make fires one fall afternoon, walked in the woods and threw twigs down the chutes of a huge hydro dam. My papa was the Akela for the pack and I have many happy memories from those days that still burn bright.

 

 

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Nature Rocks

We are in a land of wild and rugged splendour. Over millions of years, earth, sea, wind and ice have sculpted the coastlines of Western Newfoundland. In Gros Morne National Park, cliffs with layered columns of shale and granite overlook tidal pools peppered with huge boulders. Further north, shallow sweeps of sandy beach skirt grassy shores. Throughout our stay, we embrace this interstitial zone between dancing seas and mountains’ cloudy crowns.

Sheaves Cove, Port au Port Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador

In August’s warm shine there is much to explore. The kids are as wowed as we are. It seems that every new turn unveils another breathtaking vista. Play comes alive in this place beyond any urban dreaming of it. Each striking landscape becomes an invitation to adventure. There is a palpable attraction for the kids to incorporate the natural world surrounding them as the central element in their activities.

On the Port au Port Peninsula to the south, a rockbed stream rushes over a precipice and into Sheaves Cove below. It is one of two ‘hidden’ waterfalls whose whereabouts are made known to drivers on The French Ancestors’ Route 460 by handmade, roadside signs. Sometimes it’s like this – as easy as one, two, three – climb, jump, and hop.

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There is a whisper of danger as they jump down onto the rock slabs that are nearly level with the stream’s last few metres. A stumbled, false landing could propel them right into the water. From the looks on their faces and the excited conversations, it’s clear that the kids are experiencing an adrenalin jolt each time they leap off the edge.

I find myself cautioning our youngest and directing her to not jump off one of the higher rocks. Looks like killjoy papa is not practising what he preaches. Lila though is not one to give up easily. She chips away with repeated requests and finally I relent. Turns out she is more than capable and in this instance has no difficulty keeping pace with her older siblings. Discovery and fun are the touchstones here as our trio stretches their abilities and their repertoires.

Back within the boundaries of Gros Morne, experimentation and pushing limits continues in a rush of low tide, sea spray parkour. Below Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse, the terrain is uneven with moist sand, pooling water and assorted natural debris underfoot. No one run follows the same route as its predecessor and the kids wind up each burst across the rocks with a ta-daa like flourish.

Low tide parkour games at Lobster Cove Head in Gros Morne Natinal Park

Spatial orientation, rapid risk assessment and sure-footedness are all being called on as the kids pick their way through the randomly strewn boulders. They test their abilities by navigating different paths through the maze and pursuing new personal best times. Fortunately, papa can rely on his precision, built in steamboat counter to clock each run.

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Conditions here are perfect – a light, salt breeze, the rhythmic roll of sputtering waves and some time to leisurely while away in simple pursuits. Our spontaneous, unplanned rock hopping adventure is the highlight of the day.

Further up the coast in Green Point, the cliff face reveals a geological storybook. This rock of the ages plays an important role in our understanding of how the earth developed way, way back in the day (apologies for the technical language here). For the kids though, the primary attractions are the climbing challenge and the tactile sensations of the tidal pools.

Green Point, Gros Morne National Park where the rock of ages collide

The kids are all about getting to the top. Each of them proceeds at their own pace meandering up the natural steps and stairs, pausing along the way to examine interesting outcrops. The relatively gentle slope and the unfamiliar rock formations present just the right amount of challenge. The ascent is invigorating and builds confidence in judgment and physical abilities.

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What goes up must come down and the skills developed on the upward journey are in even greater demand on the descent. The kids gingerly pick their way over the rock testing for stability. As they hit the flats, the pace and hazards change. The rocks around the tidal pools are wet and slippery and require a cautious approach. It’s worth the slow going to see and touch crabs, sea urchins and other creatures. From land to sea and back again our contented crew chalks up another playful outing.

Kids adapt to this place easily embracing the awesomeness of the natural world’s unmitigated wonder. Intuitively they understand the value of safeguarding this beauty, this diversity. The large expanses largely unfettered by human development emphasize that nature does indeed rock and provides unlimited potential for outdoors play, adventure and discovery.

Tablelands, Gros Morne National Park

Gros Morne has become one of our new favourite places to get away and we hope to return every couple of years. It’s not always easy to find the time or the resources to visit places like these. Look for what’s available closer to home and take advantage of green, natural spaces. Your kids will thank you for it and if you’re urban dwellers like us, you might just enjoy getting out of the city…

Earlier this year a new resource supported by the Lawson Foundation, OutsidePlay.ca, was developed for parents and caregivers to help them “manage their fears and develop a plan for change so their children can have more opportunities for risky play”. If you’re wondering about risk and play, this is a good source of information and a great place to start.

May the play be with you…..

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 Simple Just Rocks

Sir Sandford Flemming Park in Halifax, Canada now has two towers stretching skywards, carving out distinctive vertical planes. The new arrival is not as tall or venerable as the early 20th century Dingle Tower commemorating the establishment of responsible government in Nova Scotia. Although it may be the shorter of the two, it represents a cachet of a different order altogether.

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Tower of Play

The tower of play, framed by durable and dense black locust pillars and encased in steel core poylester wrapped rope, is a hive of activity during opening weekend. The structure is a beacon, a homing signal for kids on the lookout for a whoosh of excitement. As people arrive, reactions are squarely in the eye popping, can’t believe this, wonder zone. Kids sprint toward the installations at this playscape located not far from the city’s urban core. I can hear sharp intakes of breath and high frequency, surround sound squeals of delight are registering very audibly.

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The tower’s hollow core is a scramble of movement. It’s like the kids are aloft in the rigging of masted sailing vessels, or scaling the walls of a medieval town. Ever upwards hand over hand on a perpendicular climb to the top followed by a rapid descent on the slide. Repeat once, repeat twice, the merriment is endless.

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“This is the best, it’s awesome,” shouts Lila as she looks about for her next adventure. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump away. She spies a plot of sand with a pump firmly planted close to one of its borders. It’s a popular spot and she has to wait a few minutes before she gets a turn making the water flow.

Water and Muck

The Kaiser & Kühne water pump is well primed. Lila’s enthusiastic exertions let loose a modest cascade of the clear, wet stuff. Water sprouts out the spigot and carves narrow channels as it flows downhill in the sand – magic in the making.

I think back to a phone conversation I had with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of landscape architecture, a few years ago. She shared with me what she had adopted as a self-evident truth borne from her decades of involvement with children in play spaces. I paraphrase her here – all children really need for play is some sand, or earth, water and a place to climb. That’s a check, check and check at The Dingle.

Despite the coolish temperatures, kids are immersed in the water experience. There are soggy mittens, dark patches on the knees of pants and the squelchy sound of soakered wet footwear. The water casts a powerful spell transforming sand to muck of varying consistencies and creating ever changing topographies.  There is an irresistible quality to mucky dirt and having the license to get all messied up.

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Climb and Balance

There is also something for the climbers, balancers and jumpers. Take a dozen or so bark-stripped logs, create a frame with upright anchors and then connect the rest on different planes, angles and inclinations. Think levitating 3-D pick up sticks with netting underneath. This logs akimbo installation offers challenge, fun and a little risk depending on how adventurous the child chooses to be.

climber-1Click here or on photo above for log climber slide scroll show

There are a number of different techniques on display at the climber – the straddle hop, the creep and crawl, the slither, the sure-footed mountain goat, the bear hug and the koala. Kids find their own comfort zone and move accordingly. Inching along with arms and legs wrapped tightly around a log à la bear hug seems to offer the greatest security particularly for the younger children.

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The netting at the climber’s base is a great spot to goof around, crawling under, wobbly balancing with feet on rope, lying back and taking in the big, blue sky. And let’s not forget jumping, the airborne launch from the climber’s highest heights and getting pulled oh so quickly back to earth with a small, soft thud.

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Maintain Play Momentum

There’s more – a balancing log with bark intact, the ‘easy as 1, 2, 3’ climbing bars,  a small embankment slide, a stump stairmaster cluster, a tyke sized climber next to the water pump and the don’t try this in enclosed spaces #playrocks percussion station. Lots to do, try and experience that encourages physical activity and the development of gross and fine motor skills for a wide range of ages.

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This natural play area, by Canadian design and build firm Earthscape, is a welcome departure for urban Halifax where there has been a bit of a blight on the variety of play opportunities available to kids in public spaces. A notable exception to off the shelf solutions over the years are playscapes on the waterfront which have benefitted from the leadership of the Waterfront Development Corporation and co-funding models.

Earthscape’s Dingle playground may offer a compelling enough example for the City of Halifax to contemplate continued variety and the creation of additional signature playscapes in other parts of the city. Perhaps this is already under consideration.

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Wouldn’t it be as easy as 1, 2, 3 to engage with a representative sample of parents and caregivers to develop an overarching plan for play in public spaces for the city’s kids? Halifax could explore and embrace the growing interest in adventure playgrounds. Are these the city’s first steps in connecting the 3 Rs – risk, resilience and the renaissance of play?

Anyone with kids should take a dangle down by The Dingle. We had a great time and will certainly be returning even though it’s a 40 km return drive from home. Towering oaks, the Northwest Arm, wooded trails and the new natural playscape make this urban oasis a great place for play.

Thanks Earthscape and kudos to the City of Halifax for exploring new dynamics in public play spaces….

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……”