Category Archives: Tim Gill

From Hideously Uninspiring To Inherently Playful And Adventurous

A recently published article in Quartz quotes American landscape designer and researcher Meghan Talarowski commenting on the generally unenviable state of playgrounds in the US. She doesn’t pull any punches. In comparison to some European jurisdictions, she characterizes the bulk of American playgrounds as uninspiring at best – well, perhaps ‘insidiously boring’ is a tad harsher.

Taking flight – Department of Natural Resources, Nature Learning and Play Space – Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia – Canada

The UK’s Tim Gill, also quoted in the provocatively headlined Why the Danes encourage their kids to swing axes, play with fire, and ride bikes in traffic, empathizes with Talarowski’s observations. Gill suggests that Canada and Australia may be ‘turning the corner’ en route to a better place, not to be confused of course with American comedy darling The Good Place.

Tim’s assessment that change is afoot in Canada rings true for me. There is a play awakening among educators, researchers, health and recreation professionals, designers, builders, planners. foundations and granting institutions and, the media.

Prior to the International Play Association Triennnial Conference in Calgary held just over a year ago, I published CanadaPlays Eh? It’s a sampler, a roll-up of some of the activity that’s been shaking north of the 49th parallel.

Original artwork by Halifax artist, Kyle Jackson

PlayGroundology‘s home in Nova Scotia is a case in point. For starters, we’re probably the only jurisdiction in the world with an official, decades old tagline that includes the word ‘playground’. That’s right, festooned on on our motor vehicle license plates is the true blue catch phrase, Canada’s Ocean Playground. Yup, that’s us up above there in Kyle’s painting just to the left of the whale and the fishing boat …..

While momentum may not be screaming out of the gates, we can safely say it’s picking up steam. There are alternatives to the world of underwhelming playspaces. From Nova Scotia’s Northumberland shores, to the meandering Musquodoboit River, to Halifax’s urban beat, greater variety and an openness to deviate from off the shelf solutions seem to be catching on.

 

Meteghan Family Fun Park

Overlooking the mouth of St. Mary’s Bay in Meteghan, Nova Scotia is a play smorgasbord in the vernacular tradition. It is of the place. At each turn there is a handcrafted invitation to jump, climb, explore – a windmill, a tipi, boats, sheds and cabins, trains, heavy equipment, fishing nets, bouncing buoys and airplane whirligigs.

Meteghan Family Fun Park, Meteghan, Nova Scotia – Canada

Lovingly conceived and maintained, the Meteghan Family Fun Park receives widespread community support.  A local dentist rallied the community and the space is now a destination for families along the 100+ kilometer stretch of the Acadian shore.

Airplane whirligig and windmill – Meteghan Family Fun Park

Individuals, businesses, service organizations and government have all helped in one way or another. Virtually every structure and each piece of equipment display a plaque bearing the name of the individual or business whose donation and/or volunteer labour made it possible. For Meteghan and the surrounding towns this space is a celebration of community that puts childhood play front and centre.

Recycled tire ponies and buoy zipline, Meteghan Family Fun Park

 

Nature Learning and Play Space – Natural Resources Education Centre

Three hundred kilometers to the northeast in a wooded glade is the province’s most expansive playground in a natural setting. This wonderland came together through the leadership and vision of a small group of individuals working for the Department of Natural Resources, members of the local community and a passionate design-build company – Cobequid Consulting – that couldn’t resist the opportunity to play.

The Sandpit, Nature Learning and Play Space

An aha moment for two team members of the Natural Resources Education Centre made all the difference. While attending a national conference, a presentation on natural playgrounds ignited their imaginations. The aha went something like this – “let’s just do it!” To the delight of kids, parents and educators they grabbed that ball of inspiration, brought the game home and slam dunked it.

The Nature Learning and Play Space could not have taken root without champions and enthusiastic community buy in. Local grandmas rounded up all the knickknacks and paraphernalia for the mud kitchen – on opening day, there was a seemingly limitless supply of MUD! Contractors provided heavy equipment at reduced rates. Many individuals contributed sweat equity.

Opening Day – Mud Kitchen, Nature Learning and Play Space

Perhaps most importantly, supervisors at the Natural Resource Education Centre see the space as an invaluable extension of their work. They are able to demonstrate how it aligns with the Centre’s mission and exists simultaneously as a destination playspace.

And how many play areas have a bullrush fringed frog pond with brightly coloured dipper nets ready to borrow for catch and release amphibian tales. Spotted salamanders burrowing in the cool mud are also a rewarding treat for young observant eyes. This natural enclave is a revelation and for some urban kids a first time excursion into a wilder, less predictable world.

Frog Pond, Nature Learning and Play Space

 

The Dingle’s New Tall Tower

Halifax’s Sir Sandford Fleming Park is home to the city’s first full on example of  let’s throw away the standard playground catalogues and entertain a completely different design and build.  Opening day was an outdoor festival with hundreds of visitors eager to play. The crisp autumn air kept the kids sauntering, running, climbing and balancing their way through an unfamiliar terrain.

The New Tower at The Dingle – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

The design by Earthscape, an exciting homegrown Canadian firm working across the country and the US, includes a tower slide, balancing beams, climbers and water station. None of these items had ever seen the light of day before in this part of the world. The  space is an important trailblazer demonstrating that a wider range of play opportunities for kids in public spaces is indeed possible and popular.

Climber/balance beam – The Dingle Park Playground

The climber/balance beams are a logs akimbo projecting on different planes type of affair. There are challenges here for kids of all ages. For the younger ones, shunting along in a sitting position seems a safe and sure approach. Those embracing a little more derring-do attempt walking up or down the varying inclines. Jumping off also seems to be de rigueur along with rolling about in a net suspended below the main part of the structure.

With so much newness in design and playability, it’s tough to pick a favourite. Like beauty, favs are really in the eyes of the beholder.

 

And there are lots of eyes on the water pump. Plenty of hands and feet dipping into the rivulets making channels in the sand.  It’s a beacon calling out to all kids – come get WET! Mittens are quickly sopped and footwear is in the just about soaked stage. With abundant water and sand, even the cold can’t hold the kids back.

Thanks to the City and Earthscape for stepping up to the plate and hitting one out of the park.

 

Fort Needham Memorial Park

On high ground not far from The Narrows made infamous by the Halifax Explosion 100 years ago, is another new play space that breaks the mould. Wood, wood everywhere – plastic and metal in very limited quantities.

Up the Steps – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Wooden cannons on the hilltop hearken back to the original 18th century Fort Needham that protected Halifax’s Royal Naval Dockyards. The Fort and surrounding neighbourhoods were decimated on December 6, 1917 by a harbour collision involving a munitions ship – 2,000 were killed and thousands were injured.

Down the Steps – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

Now this part of the park is a hive of activity – kids zipping back and forth, climbing, balancing, jumping, swinging, shouting, laughing…. It’s a high energy zone complete with wonderful little shaded cubbies where kids can take a breather and get away from it all.

There is parkour potential here too though I don’t know if it has been ‘discovered’. Many pieces of equipment offer kids an open invitation to leap into the blue.

Into the Blue – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

The space is designed by Moncton, New Brunswick’s Viridis Design Studio Ltd. and constructed by Nova Scotia’s Turf Masters. There is plenty to explore and  keep kids engaged in discovery and the testing of limits and abilities. Our girls didn’t want to leave – always a good sign.

In Halifax, both The Dingle and Fort Needham playgrounds are getting the two thumbs up from kids and parents and families are dropping in from other parts of the city to give these new play hotspots a whirl. With approximately 400 playgrounds in the city (we are very well served in terms quantity and safety), Halifax could use a few more like these two.

Quiet Moment – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

Note – The much missed Halcyon, a fixture on the Halifax waterfront for close to 25 years, was one of the original adventurous playspaces in the city. A life size wooden fishing boat designed for kids featuring actual recycled boat parts and getaway cubbies out of parental vision. We miss you Halcyon.

Exciting playspaces are taking root in Nova Scotia. Let’s encourage more municipal engagement with local neighbourhoods and communities and recognize the value of variety in playground design. We’ve still got a ways to go before we’re swinging axes, playing with fire and building makeshift structures but hey we can’t have it all. Or can we, as my nine-year-old is fond of saying with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. How far away is the return of adventure playgrounds in Canada? Just sayin’…

Kids and Freedom – Tim Gill’s HuffPost 9 Plus 3 from PlayGroundology

Great list from Tim Gill on giving kids more freedom in a recent edition of UK Huff Post. Each of the 9 items listed in the article will help kids blaze a trail to greater freedom. Together they are a powerful recipe for fun, discovery and stretching limits.

I’m supplementing Tim’s list with 3 additions of my own (10 through 12) to make it an even dozen. Send PlayGroundology a comment if you have items to add to the list.

10. Create opportunities for your kids to explore and play in the natural world. If you have green spaces close to where you live, set the children free to explore. If not, take them to a park, a ravine, to the woods, the seashore – many opportunities for play will present themselves and the benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Do caution about potential hazards.

Because They Want to Live in Nature

11. Make your home a play zone. I’m not talking anything grandiose here, no large infusions of cash for play installations or play houses and such. Get a few loose parts – milk crates, tires, inner tubes, tarps, ropes, cardboard boxes, a few planks of lumber and let the kids have at it in the backyard. There are hours of self-directed play and discovery with this kind of material and your yard will become a very popular destination. No backyard? Get a small group of parents together and explore what’s possible on lands managed by your local authority.

In Kids We Trust

12. Listen. Listen to your kids about what they would like to do. They have great play ideas. Make the space and time to embrace some of them and enable them to happen. Listen to yourself, remember the play adventures you had as a child – savour, share with your own kids…

Fort Summer

Support play, independence and resilience – get the kids outdoors to explore and have fun.

 

Announcing a new project to build the case for more child-friendly cities

This is great news for children and for adults in search of more evidence-based research that can inform policy and decision-making by influencers. Thrilled that inclusion of Vancouver and Calgary make Canada part of the mix. Tim Gill’s new project will look to measure impacts and outcomes linked to child-friendly urban planning. Love to be on the tour led by eight-year-old kids.

Nearly two years ago, Halifax was happy to host Tim as he wound up his Canadian tour. We had a great public event pulling in about 200 people on the Victoria Day holiday weekend to hear Tim’s perspective on the relationship between risk and play. His workshop with practitioners helped inspire the introduction of new forms of play in public spaces which continue to take root. I look forward to reading the results of this research.

Rethinking Childhood

What does it mean for a city to take child-friendliness seriously? What makes decision makers put real momentum and energy behind the vision of making the urban environment work better for children and young people? What does it take to move beyond fine words, small pilot projects and one-off participation events?

I am very pleased and honoured to announce that, thanks to a travelling fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I will be visiting a half-a-dozen cities in Northern Europe and Canada to get under the skin of this topic. One key goal is to explore the relevance of child-friendly urban planning to urban policy in the UK.

The fellowship will take in four cities – Freiburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Vancouver – that have led the way in putting into practice the maxim of Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, that the child is an indicator species for cities. With these cities…

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ScreenShot Mondays Redux – Le Lion et La Souris

In the early days of the PlayGroundology blog, I ran a regular series over the course of a year (2011-12) called ScreenShot Mondays that appeared twice a month.  I’m dusting it off and taking it out to play again. Fellow Canadians at Montreal’s Le Lion et La Souris are the inaugural subjects of ScreenShot Mondays Redux.

A few weeks back, I was reminded of the series when I reblogged Tim Gill’s piece looking at Mike Lanza’s travails following a feature article published about him in the The New York Times Magazine. Mike and his Playborhood were the subject of the first ScreenShot Mondays post in 2011.

Below is the original three paragraph preamble to the first ScreenShot Mondays.

Cyberspace is humming with inspiration and information on every topic under the sun and then some. This clickable, digital universe is ever expanding with new ideas and new perspectives coming on the scene at a dizzying pace. What a great place to play and discover what’s happening in the wide, wide world. It’s a virtual venue for passionate individuals and mindful organizations to share experiences and create content in every imaginable format.

A couple of Mondays per month, PlayGroundology will screenshot a cyberspot that focuses on playgrounds, or play. I hope that readers will dive in and explore. Even if you’ve seen the selection before, take a moment and check to see what content has been added recently.

le-lion-et-la-sourisLe Lion et La Souris

Facebook

Think of this as a very slow stumble upon, an invitation to relish something new or to revisit an old friend. Some of the people and places may be household names in the world of play and playgrounds, others not so much. I hope all will pique your interest in what they have to offer and further your own possibilities for playfulness.

Le Lion et la Souris are “inspired by playwork and forest school principles”. Pop into their site to see what they offer in terms of programs, training, community events and workshops. And yes, as their name suggests, they speak French and English.

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I’ll be in Quebec in about a month and who knows, maybe we’ll have a chance to meet. They’re located on the Plateau not far from a spot where a good friend of mine lived for years.

What’s so bad about a father trying to make the world a more play-friendly place?

This reblogged post by Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood provides some valuable analysis and backstory on Mike Lanza and his perspectives on play. The New York Times Magazine published a feature story on Mike at home in his ‘playborhood’. It’s a great read and I encourage you to take a peek.

Some readers took exception to Mike’s approach to play, kids, independence and risk in his Silicon Valley neighbourhood. I read some pointed criticism online that bordered on name-calling. It was disappointing to read this from others who are equally as passionate in their advocacy of independent play for kids. I’m a believer in bringing people together under big tents so that hand in hand with others we can move the yardsticks.

kids

From my perspective, Mike and I are definitely working under the same tent. I first became aware of Mike nearly six years ago and posted information about Playborhood on this blog. We corresponded a little and shared snippets of our lives. I always found him very personable and respectful. What’s more, he’s trying out new stuff that is focusing additional attention on the need and value of independent play.

Although not as elaborate as Mike’s backyard, our home is a gathering place for neighbourhood kids and they are all welcome to play here. We like it that way and it seems the kids do too.

Here’s a link to an article in the Mail Online published subsequent to The New York Times Magazine piece.

I had planned to write my own post about The Anti-Helicoper Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play but I have nothing more substantive to say than Tim. Truth be told I don’t think I can match the thoroughness or the eloquence of the Rethinking Childhood piece. Now that you’ve come to the end of the preamble, settle in for Tim’s main course.

Rethinking Childhood

This weekend’s New York Times has a major feature and profile on Mike Lanza and his Playborhood campaign to make neighbourhoods more play-friendly. And it’s whipping up a storm. In this piece, I give my take on the campaign and my response to the key criticisms.

First, some background. Lanza’s rallying cry is “turn your neighborhood into a place for play” – a goal he has been pursuing for at least nine years. His book and blog are first and foremost a set of practical advice, ideas and case studies for achieving that goal.

Lanza first got into the issue because of his concerns as a dad bringing up three children. What drives him is, in large part, the contrast between his own typically free-range 70s childhood and the highly constrained lives of most children today. I share his view that this change marks a profound loss.

Lanza’s campaign is…

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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.

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.

Tanya d

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.