Category Archives: risk

Breaking New Ground – Loose Parts and the School Board

Ed’s note – It’s a pleasure to have a guest post on PlayGroundology from Tanya Moxley, a fellow co-founding member of Adventure Play YHZ, and as you will read below, a creative animator and leader for Halifax area pre and after school programs. With two young boys of her own, Tanya is a firm believer in the value of independent outdoor play. As she has shared with me on a number of occasions, their yard at home is a loose parts creativity and testing zone – a bit of a dream time for kids I would say. Tanya works as a volunteer at Halifax’s Wild Child Forest School where her interest is “working with parents to help them realize the importance of outdoor play for kids, families, and communities.” Tanya also spent three years working with a university professor researching links between outdoor play and child development.

This loose parts – school board story is an indirect outcome of a public meeting and subsequent practitioner’s workshop held in May 2015 with Tim Gill. Many of the Excel leaders were present at one of the two events which examined risk and play and a greater variety of play opportunities in public spaces. Hundreds of kids are saying thank you to the Halifax Regional School Board for stepping out and giving loose parts a try. Many thanks also to the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness whose Active Living Branch provided financial and logistical support that made Tim Gill’s visit possible.


My name is Tanya Moxley and this past year I worked as a Group Leader with the Halifax Regional School Board’s before and after school program, called Excel. The regional recreation programmers were trying to find a way to include elements of ‘loose parts play’ into the Excel program. Some schools found it easy to integrate loose parts into their days or weeks, but others found it more difficult to get started.

Tanya a

As I had joined Excel with some previous loose parts experience, we were able to introduce loose parts into the schedule at our school with considerable success in all the age groups from Primary through Grade 6. In a casual conversation with our regional programmer, I suggested in the late winter that I could visit some other schools to show them some of my own loose parts collection, and provide suggestions for both parts and storage. My suggestion was accepted, and I started my visits in late April.

For seven weeks, I visited a different school each Monday, Wednesday and Friday for their afternoon program, for a total of 18 schools around the Halifax region. I traveled about 1,000 kilometres, and met about 900 students. Kids everywhere love loose parts play, because the materials are open-ended and easy to manipulate, with many possible uses. They didn’t have to be convinced about how much fun it can be!

Tanya 2

One primary concern among staff was storage. Upon seeing the materials and how they were being transported, almost all the program leads agreed that they had at least that much space to spare. All of my materials fit into four milk crates and two small ‘Rubbermaid’ tubs (18”x18”x24”) in the back of my car. Well, not including the ‘pipes’. The ‘pipes’ are a dozen or so PVC plumbing pipes, each about 3 feet long and 2.5 or 3 inches in diameter. Some fit together and some don’t, which leads to much experimenting and collaboration. Those have to go in the backseat of the car, wrapped up in a tarp for easy carrying. The ones we use at my regular school are stored in the kind of garbage can you get for your house garbage, with wheels on the bottom so kids can pull it around.

Tanya b

Another key concern was safety, as many staff seemed to connect loose parts with danger. Once they saw the materials in use, everyone agreed there isn’t much risk, if any, involved. A nice thing about loose parts play is that it opens up conversations with the students about what risk could be involved, for example, in playing with long ropes. Having had a conversation as a group, the kids usually find ways to remove the danger, while still being able to use the item.

This is a much better way to prepare kids for a world that we cannot and should not make try to make perfectly safe for them! The alternative, removing the item from use, teaches students nothing about assessing risk and developing the abilities to figure out how to mitigate risk through conversation and intentional experimentation – problem solving in a collaborative manner. The safety questions also tended to answer themselves over the course of the sessions. There were no accidents in any of the 18 schools during the 1,000 kilometre loose parts Excel marathon. Among the many interesting observations, was one made by two team leads who remarked as I was leaving that the day had been the quietest one they’d had all year in relation to behaviour issues and disruptions.

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In the larger programs (over 60 students), we held either one or two sessions of 30-40 minutes for younger students before the older students came out for their own session. In the smaller programs, the older students just joined right in with the younger ones. The largest group using the materials at one time was about 60, although this was only in one place where they had a particularly large, open outdoor space that accommodated the numbers. Usually the maximum was about 35. Setting up the space with similar items in groups, such as ropes, sheets, pipes, boards, digging tools, etc… allowed students to check everything out, get a group together, pick the items they wanted for a project, and then get to work.

Staff members at multiple sites confirmed one of our key observations at my regular school, that loose parts is an activity in which gr 4-6 girls get particularly engaged; they do not spend the session moping around and not wanting to participate, as often happens with sports-related activities. This ‘sold’ many staff on getting loose parts started as soon as possible!


It was interesting to watch how the uses of the materials varied across the programs. At some schools the fabric was entirely for building forts. At others, a group of students turned some of them into clothes for role-playing activities and protected them fiercely from the ‘building’ group. Similarly, the pipes were used at some places for building complex systems for transporting items from one place to another; at others, they became just another building material for the forts. For a third group they became musical instruments in combination with containers and spoons that at other programs were used for digging.


Much to my astonishment, I only got a rainy day for one site! It was foggy and damp when I arrived at Oyster Pond, but I set up outside anyway, and the kids had a great time for about 30 minutes before suddenly it was pouring rain. We quickly moved everything inside to an empty classroom beside their regular Excel room, and the kids continued their fun with forts and pipes for the rest of the session.

Their enthusiasm confirmed what I had been telling staff members at other sites – many of the materials work just as well inside as out. Tables on a side and some chairs work perfectly well for holding up forts! There were a few sites where I arrived the day or afternoon following a heavy rain, and the puddles in the play space provided an unexpected loose part that made for lots of extra fun.

All in all this was a great adventure, and I hope that many of the places I visited will take the time to integrate loose parts play into their schedule this fall – the kids certainly had lots of requests for their group leaders about which things they liked best!

For more on loose parts read In Praise of Loose Parts and How Not to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts.

Kids at Emmaus Catholic Primary School in Mt.Clear playing on unconventional play items, hay bales, poles, tyres etc. Year 3/4 get ready for action.

Kids at Emmaus Catholic Primary School in Mt.Clear playing on unconventional play items, hay bales, poles, tyres etc. Year 3/4 get ready for action.


Bold is a word I remember GH (Granma Helen aka my Mom) using frequently to describe my kids over the years. Most often she’d approvingly remark on one of the kids being bold related to an action she had just witnessed, or had been part of with one of the small crew.

As I remember it, the essence of boldness has to do with assertive behaviours and a certain je ne sais quoi attitude, an almost complete insouciance about consequences that might arise from actions not necessarily condoned, or embraced by the adult set.

Nellie was adorned with the bold mantle by GH on a regular basis. Her early forays into the bold zone were warmly and joyously received. This in part is due to them both sharing this empowering trait. GH as young woman of 19 left family and friends behind in Scotland to sail across the Atlantic on her own to be reunited with her love. It was a bold beginning to a new life in an unfamiliar country.

Les ChevauxNellie with tante Danièle’s beloved King and Prince in Sorel, Québec

“Freedom lies in being bold.”

Robert Frost

Granddaughter Nellie has been imbued with the bold streak from an early age. There is a mix of curiosity and fearlessness that helps to brew a good batch of bold. In the photo above, at just over two-years-old, she is getting up close and personal with Belgian draft horse gentle giants King and Prince.

Nellie’s maman Mélanie is also well versed in bold. She left Québec for Nova Scotia as a young woman to make a new home in another culture and language. Nellie has come by her boldness organically. Now I’ve had a bold moment or two over the years but not of the permeated variety that these two women and one girl exhibit. This is a matrilineal beat.

Bold & BrightA 6-foot jump on Rogers Brook Trail, Kejimkujik National Park, Canada

This bright beat of bold influences and informs play. There is a higher degree of risk taking, greater physicality and testing of limits. With Nellie it’s very apparent with climbing, jumping, swinging. She is a trailblazer for her younger sister and older brother. Where she leads, they will mostly follow.

Early on at the playground, monkey bars became the thing, Nellie’s signature piece, her calling card of bold. Just before her fifth birthday our wiry, wisp of a girl came down with monkey bar fever. She was determined and fierce in her pursuit of mastery and was able to draw on a deep reservoir of bravery.


Mastering this kind of equipment at an early age gives kids a chance to assess their own abilities, get comfortable with risk and celebrate their achievements. Now I do admit that when she took her first tentative monkey bar sorties at the tail end of 3, I was in helicopter mode. I’ve left that far behind and now trust Nellie’s confidence and ability to carry the day.

For Nellie bold is all about movement, height and a challenge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a natural environment. Trees and erratic boulders on old glacial plains are meant first and foremost for climbing. Nellie is a Baroness in the trees. I am interested to see how the boldness will assert itslef as she gets older. We may be in for some hold on to our hats moments.


Celebrate the bold in our children. It serves them well in terms of confidence, risk assessment and dreams – #playbold.

DSC02619Nellie leads climb up old tree overlooking cove – Kejimkujik National Park

“Boldness be my friend.”


Look Mom No Safety Codes

Here are the wilds of the urban forest. Stands of birch and pine overlook a partially restored 19th century canal. Woods, rocks, water in ever-changing sequences shape the contours of possibility. And much is possible for young children alert to the rustle of leaves, or the allure of pathless terrain.


At the convergence of two paths there is a feeding spot. Here chickadees take an airy dash from overhanging branches and alight for a heartbeat or two on small outstretched hands awash in seeds. Lila experiences her first solo close encounter of the chickadee kind and cherishes the fleeting lightness as it lifts from her fingers. The memory of their sparking touch lingers and surely will echo still, days, perhaps even years from now.


Somewhere below the canopy there is an insistent tap-tapping. Nellie’s keen eyes pick out a woodpecker hammering away for some grub. She is at the ready with her camera, nature girl strikes again. One small step for woodpeckers, one huge leap for aspiring ornithologists.

Off the paths the ground is uneven requiring concentration and surefootedness. An old dwelling reduced to rubble makes for a teetering traverse as the girls negotiate their wobbly, winding way to flatter ground.


And of course there is wood – tree trunks, cut logs, natural falls, roots, twigs, sticks, leaves, bark. There is climbing, balancing, posing, running, chasing and watching. The girls are a skylarking spectacular, curiosity and wonder never far below the surface. For the moments we pass through we are the guardians.


The place is fraught with danger and risk, accidents waiting to happen at practically every turn. As if the land-based hazards are not enough, there is water in great abundance – a canal and a lakeful with beach to boot. All of these hazards elicit an exploration for the next fun thing, the one that will get the adrenalin pumping, get the hilarity surging and draw on skills real and imagined.

There are a couple of falls and no wonder – there are abundant above ground root systems, rock outcroppings and steep banks leading to the canal. The last is my only real concern because of the water temperature and and the heavy clothes we’re wearing. The girls tire of my harping to stay far back from the canal bank. I can’t help it, I don’t want to have to fish one of them out of water that still has a sheen of ice on it.


The girls’ boisterous play generates a bit of a din but still this oasis is peaceful. Although I ask them to be quieter, I love to hear them calling each other’s names, having their young voices sweep through the space and claiming themselves as part of these natural surroundings.

We spend two hours in this nirvana for squirrels and dare I say for little girls too. It is a space where play is earthy and organic, where hands get dirty and faces smudged, where curiosity is piqued and the natural world held in quiet awe.

In the Woods

In this small urban forest, there are no safety codes for walking in the woods and the kids play free.


The sky is wavy blue as our 3G walkers (grand-papa, papa and les filles) make their way to the beaver lands. As we start down the path, the girls discover another adventure, an attraction even more potent than a beaver lodge and a small stand of pointy stumps with tell tale gnawings. A long line of giant boulders unfolds before us.

DSC02507Up and over

It’s up and over, climb and slide, balance and big air. The girls are fully engrossed – measuring, gauging, examining each boulder for the right approach, the perfect purchase, the highest summit.

DSC02522Eyeing the summit

There are more than 50 of the oversize rocks that are placed just over a meter apart to prevent vehicles from driving onto an otherwise open field. Though not designed as a play area, it pretty much screams out to kids. The rocks – and I’ve never seen such a glorious abundance – are like magnets for the girls.

The rocks offer differing levels of difficulty, risk and excitement. Some are great jump off points for the next rock on the trail. Others might seem at first blush like little mountains of impregnability. Each one has its own contours, jutting ends and striated surfaces.

DSC02517Hanging on

The girls are happy to strut their stuff for grand-papa. I am proud to see them eager to test their physical abilities and stretch a little outside their comfort zones. We are here for nearly 20 minutes hop, skip and jumping along the line and back again.

There’s a natural staircase…..

DSC02532Stairway to heaven

…a table top…..

DSC02525Almost flat

…and plenty of jump off spots too.

DSC02509Coming down

Today this is the highlight of our visit. These supersized stones are affordances inviting kids to imagine them for something other than their presumed purpose. PlayGroundology friend Tim Gill wrote a lovely post on affordances in Rethinking Childhood – a blog you really can’t afford to miss.

After our field of stones, we head to a playground less than five minutes away by foot. The girls don’t appear to be nearly as inventive or daring here. If all the big rocks were marshalled onto the playground I wonder if there would be problems linked to liability, if they would be deemed too dangerous, too risky?

Seems like people can cause more damage at this off the shelf playground than they could in the field of rocks….


We’ll be back to climb, jump, slide and all the while we’ll keep on rockin’.

Hello CTV Morning Live Viewers

Thanks to Heidi and the Morning Live crew for profiling play on the show. If you tuned into the segment today and are interested in more background or resources, here are a couple of places to start. Click on the image, or all CAPS title to take you to Storify content.

Adventure and Loose Parts – Storify

Adventure and Loose Parts


Talking about risk and play, here are a few resources.

A Greater Risk

A greater risk

More PlayGroundology content on Storify here.

Check Adventure PlayGround YHZ for adventure play info and upcoming events. Stay tuned for details on loose parts play on the October 24 weekend in Halifax.


Looking for Your Stories

My PlayGroundology alter ego is looking for your stories to share with attendees of Halifax’s 4th annual unconference – Emergent Learning. I have submitted a successful proposal to be an unpaid speaker at the event which is attended by educators, policy makers, parents, members of the medical community and others from across our part of the world here in Atlantic Canada who care about education.

Emergent Learning  graphicEmergent Learning Unconference – Halifax, Nova Scotia, October 2015

I’ve entitled the presentation, Risk, Resilience and the Renaissance of Play. If you have an anecdote, a photo, an infographic or video footage that illustrates the subject matter I will be speaking to, I’d love to hear from you. I will credit everything I am able to use.

Emergent Learning my sessionPresentation outline – Emergent Learning Unconference.

I’ve already had the opportunity to connect with some ‘play people’ in Australia, the UK, the USA and Canada and would be pleased to gather additional stories form these venues as well as other parts of the world.

Help PlayGroundology tell the story of Risk, Resilience and the Renaissance of Play. The final presentation will be available for sharing in November.

Thanks in advance to all those who are able to share stories. You can leave a comment here or write to playgroundology ‘at’

Emergent Learning PostBackyard fun – simple pleasures with a twist of risk

More freedom to roam and outdoor play with risk good for kids says ParticipACTION

More freedom to roam and outdoor play with risks make Johnny and Jane more physically active says ParticipACTION in the The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity in Children and Youth (formerly the Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card).

The Wave riskyplayRisky play was the subject of a recent public presentation in Halifax with Tim Gill made possible by Stepping Up Halifax and the NS Department of Health and Wellness

Highlights of ParticipACTION’s 2015 report are available here and the full report, here.

ParticipACTION has also put together a handy social media kit and an infographic.

2015-Report-Card-Infographic-EN-FINALclick image to enlarge

Keep the kids movin’and give them some space to play unsupervised it can do wonders. In Dartmouth this Sunday, June 14, check out some outdoors loose parts play at the Findlay Community Centre.