Category Archives: risk

Bouquets for play reporting in The Guardian

Hi Ashifa,

Hope you’re well today. I want you to know that The Guardian is one of my favourite publications. I’ll be renewing my annual subscription when it comes up in November. Also I am thrilled that the paper has deemed Canada of sufficient interest that we have a Canadian correspondent – you.

As you’ve discovered, we have news and stories galore to share with your readership around the world. Today I just read your piece on the west coast play brouhaha that was posted on the 12th – Canadian neighbourhood declares ‘war on fun’ with ban on outdoor play.

I understand why these stories are hard to resist. They make great copy. Indignant, or incredulous readers (myself included) can tsk, tsk, or titter, titter at decisions that have lost touch with common sense and situations that seem to emanate from some bizarro 5th dimension. As one twitter friend opined about this story – ‘stop the insanity’.

These narratives from the margins surface every now and then in countries around the world. It’s hard to be sympathetic to the protagonists of such ill conceived incursions into kids’ play.  Their actions seem to indicate a certain detachment from reality.

How about the Toronto principal a few years back that banned bringing balls to school… Or, what about those schools that had a no contact policy? Kids were not allowed to touch each other at recess or throughout the day. Put a crimp on a lot of outdoor games!

In Nova Scotia earlier this month, there was public outcry because many new primary students will not be able to play on schoolyard playgrounds when they enter school for the first time in September. Due to a change in government policy kids are entering a year earlier. The fixed playground equipment is rated for ages 5 through 12. During the school day, kids younger than that are persona non grate.

Invariably the arguments put forward purport a safety link of some sort and a desire to reduce risk and danger. More often than not they are a handy excuse to trot out and achieve stated objectives – no road play, no play on equipment that is not age appropriate, no play in undesignated play spaces, etc.

The Artisan Gardens story on Vancouver Island has gone the rounds – Global News, CBC, CTV, Times Colonist, BBC and The Guardian. Each of these stories would have been stronger had there been some mention of play’s changing dynamics in Canada. It would have raised the bar from good copy about a quirky subject to helping create greater awareness of the bigger picture.

Builders and designers, municipal leaders and recreation planners, educators and researchers are coming to similar evidence-based conclusions. Risk and resilience are closely linked and this understanding is helping to lead a renaissance of play.

Today we visited Kentville on Canada’s east coast. There was a festival where roads in the community’s downtown were cordoned off so kids and adults could chalk the streets. This is an example – and there are many more – of some of the great things that are happening in Canadian communities.

Source: Town of Wolfville Facebook Page

It’s encouraging when assignment editors dispatch reporters to get stories on play, or when reporters themselves pitch these stories to their editors. If these ‘gotcha, good copy’ stories could provide just a little more context on some of the exciting developments taking place across the country like Calgary’s itinerant loose parts, Coquitlam’s new adventure playground, the proliferation of natural playgrounds, or the important work being supported by The Lawson Foundation… Well us play people would be jumping for joy.

Oakdene Park, Kentville, Nova Scotia

Ashifa – if you ever make it down our way to Nova Scotia, Canada’s Ocean Playground, give us a shout and we’ll be happy to introduce you to some great play stories.

Speaking of which here are some more fine stories from The Guardian on play.

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Look – Don’t Play

Something has gone terribly awry in Canada’s Ocean Playground. This September, many of the kids entering school for the first time in Nova Scotia will apparently be persona non grata on school playgrounds.

This sorry state of affairs is an unintended result of s recent policy shift. A combined safety standards and insurance SNAFU was discovered last fall. That’s the first time that kids having their fourth birthday on or before December 31 were able to start school as part a new provincial pre-primary program.

The pre-primary cohort is weighted to three and four-year-olds. That’s the nub of the problem. Off the shelf playground equipment installed in numerous schoolyards is labeled and recommended for use by kids in the five to twelve-year-old age range.

The School Insurance Program (SIP) has not recommended the use of this equipment for kids under the age of five. The institutional response from the provincial department responsible for education and from individual school districts upholds the SIP recommendation while emphasizing that SIP covers all primary school students regardless of age.

And so it goes…. none of the kids starting out in the pre-primary program will be able to play on school sanctioned playground equipment until they are in primary unless the equipment is deemed to be age appropriate.

Parents are not impressed with what is perceived as a rigid example of risk aversion as shared by PlayGroundology FB friend, Nicole Wulff:

…this just happened at our elementary school. The special ed 3-5 yo are no longer allowed on the kindergarten playground…the kids who need the most exposure to opps to improve fine and gross motor…..

 

Let’s remember that these school playgrounds are open to the public after hours and kids can play on the equipment as they choose regardless of age. This post limits itself to commenting on the play structures. It does not touch on the debate linked to early school enrollment.

There is a general recognition in all of this that playgrounds only represent one facet of engaging kids in play. Parents, educators as well as school and government officials all agree about the value and importance of play. In an ironic twist, the pre-primary program is heavily weighted to play-based learning.

 

This presents a great opportunity to introduce other forms of play into the equation. A favourite of mine that continues to gain steam around the world is ‘loose parts play’. It’s a great fit for pre-primary. I have led loose parts play events with kids ranging in age from three to twelve-years-old. It’s always been a great success. Many of the after school Excel programs throughout Halifax adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK’s Tim Gill three years ago.

Resources on loose parts here and its impacts in an Australian public school setting here.

Loose Parts Play – Halifax Commons, 2017 – Read more here

This ‘look – don’t play’ SNAFU has been covered by local media including CBC, Global, CTV, The Star – Halifax and Halifax Today. It’s great seeing resources allocated to these kind of stories.

Across the country, developments led by designers, builders, parents, municipal governments, academics and recreation leaders are seeing a shift away from the old risk averse models of play to a context where risk and resilience are perceived as key elements in the renaissance of independent, outdoor play.

As the pre-primary program undergoes a major expansion in Nova Scotia this fall, let’s just make sure our smalls get plenty of play opportunities in the school environment. Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity…

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…..

These Trees Are Meant for Climbing

Do you remember those first clamberings, the tentative propulsion upwards, the scrambled search for a purchase with feet or hands, a roughness of bark rubbing legs and arms as they grappled with the ascent?

The liberation of leaving the ground behind and entering the leafy expanse above was an exhilirating paradigm shift. The world opened up from that peculiar vantage point perched between earth and sky.

I remember the precariousness and shimmerings of fear, well okay sometimes it was a healthy dose. A sense of release fueled by the accomplishment of a successful climb was tempered by a general cautiousness underscoring a strong desire not to slip, misstep, or worst case scenario, fall from the tree.

Our kids have a couple of climbable trees in the backyard. They’ve become old friends. Each spring they are reacquainted – branches a little stronger, kids a bit bolder. The trees are a testing ground for dexterity, daring, judgment and strength.

We have had to talk them down on a couple of occasions after hearing the nervous yell for help when one of them ventured a little too high, a little too soon, or a little too quickly. These minor hurdles don’t put them off at all. The smallish specimens in our yard are a training ground for the wide world of trees. The kids always return to the climb undaunted calling out, “maman, papa – look, look how high we are”.

In the lofty heights, trees are also a resting place to get far from the madding crowds, a green sanctuary nurturing contemplation and dreams. After buds pop into full leaf, our favourite backyard tree is part of a fort complex and a great hiding place too as long as the kids can muffle their giggles.

And can we hear derring-do? Yes we can, it’s that contact thud as feet or other parts of the body hit the ground after the big jump. Once you launch, there is no going back. Gravity’s unforgiving pull returns you rapidly to earth. That airborne second or two packs one big wollop of excitement, a breath sucking aha of adrenalin.

The new tree climbing season is underway up in the northern hemisphere. This year, like previous ones, there are sure to be new exploits, higher heights and undoubtedly a scare or two. Keep on climbing!

Hug a tree today, or better still climb one.

If you’re looking for a great Earth Day story, look no further than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Sure to be a classic for many years to come.

“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy.”

Do yourself a favour and get out into the trees….

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.