Don’t kids just love noise? The louder, the better. They are on the audio autobahn…. What if this was your wake-up call? Where is the snooze button?
Freestyle Soundgarden Symphony.
Don’t kids just love noise? The louder, the better. They are on the audio autobahn…. What if this was your wake-up call? Where is the snooze button?
Freestyle Soundgarden Symphony.
In our contemporary society, there is much energy, thought and in some cases money being invested to explore ways that will make outdoor play more accessible and attractive to kids. Numerous studies document a general penury of active, outdoor play across many of the high income countries. Kids are more sedentary, spend greater amounts of time indoors and when they do get outside, their freedom of movement, the territory in which they have permission to range is greatly restricted in comparison to previous generations.
Today’s kids are inhabiting a space where special strategies are required to get them outdoors to well, play and have fun. As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, independent, outdoor play was the default – a by the kids, for the kids daily dosing of discovery, amusement and anticipation. Not to get lost in rose-tinted nostalgia, but back in those heady days it was a self-evident truth that there would be play and plenty of it – a kid’s purpose so to speak.
Now, not so much. Gains are being made though. Signposts point to a play renaissance. There are hosts of engaged professionals from the worlds of design, health, recreation, education, urban planning and other disciplines who are working hard to help reverse play’s eroded fortunes and create an environment where it can flourish. Through the development of policies, public education campaigns and programs, collective action is laying the groundwork to reclaim kids’ attention and interest while allaying parents’ fears and concerns.
Safeguarding outdoor play is in the public good as it helps equip kids with lifelong skills and attributes – creativity, resilience and empathy are front runners. This shared responsibility cuts across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions. Local governments for instance have a highly visible role in the provision of public play spaces and recreation programs. Institutions can’t go it alone though.
For all the good work currently underway to truly take root and resonate, it has to get down to individual action. What is a parent or caregiver to do to support play as a central feature in their kids’ lives?
We’ve found an approach that works for us that I’ve tagged the home base principle. It’s pretty straightforward and I’m sure many families are embarked on similar paths. Here are some of the defining characteristics that support the home base principle.
Mélanie, my wife, is a real champion in the ‘welcoming neighbourhood kids’ department. This is the foundation for everything else. The sticky social glue keeps pulling them back to a place where they know and sense they can be themselves.
The other day, one of our frequent visitors appeared out of nowhere in our front room. Turns out he had let himself in the back door and walked upstairs unannounced. He is not alone in having reached this comfort threshold. A few of the kids have embraced this familiarity as standard operating procedure.
I asked this grade one lad how he was feeling now that summer holidays were nearly upon us. It seems that the pending release from school is an unreserved cause for happiness. There are a few things on his dance card. In fact, he has a summer fun list. I had to know if coming over to our place was on the list. “No”, he said. “I don’t have to put it on the list because I come here all the time.”
He is one of the several neighbourhood kids who knock on our door, or walk right in as the case may be, multiple and I mean multiple times a day. The outdoors appear to offer no shortage of adventure and play options for the kids. Their discoveries (salamanders are the cause célèbre this week), dust-ups and derring-dos are frequently centered around our backyard.
Our permanent kid magnets consist of two climbable trees with dangling ropes, a small loose parts treasure trove and a couple of adults who let the kids do their own thing and play independently.
The loose parts are important material attributes that I may never have stumbled across had I not become interested in discovering more about play a few years back. It is amazing how a few milk crates, boxes, tarps, car and bicycle tires, odd pieces of lumber, cords of rope and other bric à brac become the stuff of dreams. Without fail they consistently enable imaginative and creative fun.
Thanks here to all the Nova Scotia folks who have helped to bring loose parts experiences to kids at public events. A special shout out to my good friends at Pop-Up Adventure Play who offered some great long distance hand holding during my early loose parts forays and then kicked off their cross-Canada tour here in Halifax a couple of years ago.
There is a lot of FT (Fun Transfer) happening in our backyard and it looks like we still have a few years of this heady world to enjoy. The kids do play elsewhere throughout the neighbourhood but always get pulled back here. They know we’re open for play and experimentation. When they come here they have permission – read an expectation – to do just that….
Mélanie and I often wonder how much the kids will remember of these days. We hope their memories include the great moments of FT, the friendships and the excitement and freedom of playing outdoors.
Caution – if a nice looking yard and manicured grass are important to you, our example may not be your cup of tea. Better Homes and Gardens would run away aghast from the horrors of our small parcel of paradise. In a bow to normalcy, I’ve had to designate a far corner of the backyard as the only zone where digging and worm prospecting can take place. Even so, I arrive home on occasion with a couple of shovels abandoned on the front lawn, accomplices in an illegal dig. Let’s put it this way, I think we’ve been successful transmitting the permission to play message….
Every now and again we need to take a breather and shut down the kid activities to rediscover peace and quiet for a couple of days. Invariably, it isn’t long before our own guys are lobbying and before you know it, the kids come tumblin’ down to start playing again.
Just in case you’re wondering we don’t live in some antediluvian, leave-it-to-beaveresque time warp. Like all parents we have taxing times trying to manage the double-edged sword of tech – mobile devices, PS4s and streaming entertainment. For the time being we seem to be keeping our head above water but we have to be constantly vigilant. Playing outdoors can be an excellent antidote….
outsideplay.ca has some great insights on, you guessed it, outside play. Have a playful start to summer.
For Nova Scotia PlayGroundology friends, get ready for the Summer of PLEY a series of activities led by Dalhousie University that kicks off on July 22 with a loose parts, pop-up adventure play extravaganza on the Halifax Common.
There are a lot of sayings related to time. One that has stuck with me over the years is, ‘we’re all traveling at the same speed – 60 seconds a minute’. The deceptive simplicity of the phrase is intriguing. I heard it first from my father. Actually, with the exception of myself, I’ve never heard anyone else utter it.
Having retired from the workforce a couple of months back I now have fewer prescribed activities awaiting, or ambushing me each day. Frequently there is much greater flexibility in how I tango with time. My dance card though is still quite full and more often than not, although ‘things’ are more leisurely it seems like I still have a shortage of units (an expression I heard our kids’ dentist use recently).
I am thankful to be able to focus my attention more on family and community. This resonates well with what I have been doing with the PlayGroundology brand and with community events. Perhaps most importantly I am able to revel in – and at times recoil from (we all have those days) – the finest gift, time with the kids.
I’m very happy to be working on a few projects at present. I’m part of a great team at Dalhousie University gearing up for a Summer of PLEY. PLEY stands for Physical Literacy in the Early Years. I’m lending a hand with their social media and with the programming of a loose parts pop-up play session on the Halifax Common – good people, good fun.
We are wrapping up our year at Cubs next week and are celebrating our last meeting with some loose parts play. I’ve got 100 or so boxes to pick up to supplement my personal loose parts treasure chest which gets played with regularly by the neighbourhood kids. Tonight I was able to snag three kitchen stove boxes….
I was also approached recently to see if I would be interested in participating as a presenter in a longstanding annual conference in Atlantic Canada. I’ve provided an abstract along with supporting documentation and will be very pleased if I am invited to present on play in natural environments.
I will be gearing up shortly to help spread the word about National Play Day in Canada. Led by the International Play Association’s Canadian branch, this celebratory, get out and do it event is in a rebuild stage. Nova Scotia led the charge last year (prior to my involvement). This year on August 7, we are hoping for more engagement from across the country as we re-establish awareness and participation.
My retirement was predicated on an agreement that I would take over all household chores and the primary care for the kids – lunches, meals, homework, appointments, activities, etc. I can do better in this area. Homework is the biggest kid-related challenge. On the domestic bliss (chores) side of the equation there is lots of room for improvement. My only excuse at this juncture is that I am still in transition. This however, will become pretty flimsy another couple of months down the road.
I also have to work on reversing years of habit to enable me to take on considerably more responsibility for what my wife and I refer to as mental charge. She saved my bacon today as one of the kids was walking out of the house without the project they were presenting later in the day. It will come as no surprise to women that they are the ones who take on the bulk of this mental charge, or as it was referenced in a recent New York Times article, ’emotional labour’.
There is really no shortage of things to turn my attention to including those embryonic photo projects (embedded photographer with neighbourhood kids on the move and playing), more writing and research, investigating the potential of a traveling exhibit and so it goes….
It’s time to play.
There’s nothing comparable to the ricocheting crescendos of laughing kids engrossed in play. In urban environments and natural settings, kids just want to have fun. Is there anything more hopeful than a gaggle of kids playing together, leading their own adventures?
Our kids live to play. In the morning they are thinking of what they will be doing after school with their friends. It’s a simple and compelling rhythm. Each day the dance varies but it is always recognizable. It’s been about 50 years since play has been my ‘core’ activity. I think it’s high time that I start to nudge it back in that direction.
I’m going to look to my own kids for inspiration and see if I can plug into a little of their mischief and merriment. Moments spent in play with them are thoroughly enjoyable. I count myself as fortunate when I’m invited to participate, or get to see this play up close. It fills my heart. In fact, I’ve been dreaming of a job as an embedded photographer documenting the spontaneity of kids at play. Please recommend me if you hear of any openings.
And there’s always a vicarious bump of adrenalin and excitement when I witness kids immersed in the moment. The tumultuous racket of school recesses never fails to grab my attention. The next time you pass by a school during recess, stop, look and listen.
For the 15 minutes of glorious release, the school playground is like an orchestra in motion, kinetic soundscapes of bobbing colour. This is where the kids rule, where they run, talk, laugh, find common cause and resolve disputes. This is where their thirst for free form fun is getting quenched. When I do get the chance to hear it, that rolling wave of sound made possible by a critical mass of kids, I invariably smile. It takes me back to my own childhood, to british bulldog, red rover, tag, sports and the freedom to play.
Where are you transported to when you imagine yourself at play?
I’m on the lookout for the girls. It’s about -10°C and they’ve been out for close to two hours. Truth is I’m a little worried. I can’t find them in any of their usual haunts. Thinking rationally, I tell myself that there is nothing to be concerned about. We’re talking three smart girls together just out and about having fun on a weekend afternoon. Nevertheless the fear is gnawing away so I’m out in the car trying to locate them. I’m on a mission.
Rounding the corner of the school I see their heads popping up as they make their way to the top of a slope bringing them level to the road. They are happy to see me and I am ecstatic to see their ear-to-ear smiles. The fear daemon quickly recedes as I am invited to witness their game. Actually they would like to see me play too but I graciously decline.
Kids create the darndest games. What they have concocted is a glacial strip playing field about 10 meters long and just over 2 meters wide. The concept is simple enough – run up the 30° incline icy slope all the way to the top. The girls are keeping score. One point each time a player makes it to the summit. I hear some talk about rules but I can’t really pick up on what they are.
The game is by times competitive – first to the top and by times cooperative – trying to help another player from sliding to the bottom. One thing is certain the girls are having a great time. They are giddy with excitement. Each attempt on the slope holds the promise of unknown consequences. The only thing that they can safely predict is that they will wind up at the bottom more frequently than the top. The giggles give it away, this game is the highlight of the afternoon.
I am sure they will be back another day to continue with this game or invent something else new entirely.
Can there possibly be a more endearing premise for a documentary than kids and a far-flung menagerie of animals starring in a true life scientific investigation? Invite a few academic luminaries along to drive the narrative and you get a story that must be told. “The pure joy of goofing around” as host David Suzuki intones during the opening sequence while a gorilla in a shallow pool spins around in absolute abandon.
The Power of Play debuts on Canada’s most popular and beloved science series, CBC’s The Nature of Things later this week. The documentary examines one of the most compelling and richly layered activities of kids the world over – PLAY.
But wait, it’s more than just kids having fun, more than homo sapiens and their primate cousins even. The filmmakers take a walk on the wild side trekking far beyond the somewhat predictably playful domestic dog and cat to check in on other species from the worlds of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. Be ready to get acquainted with the lighter side of turtles, rats, hamsters, elephants, an octopus and even a komodo dragon.
A year and a half in the making, Nova Scotia’s Tell Tale Productions shot kids, animals and passionate advocates of kids’ play and animal behaviour in Norway, the US and Canada. What we see are kids being kids, animals being animals and the scholars speaking to why we should care about human and animal play, why this spontaneous and intrinsically motivated activity matters.
The show is as entertaining as it is informative exploring little known aspects of animal behaviour. Who knew that fish play and I don’t mean some anthropomorphic Nemo-like gyrations. It took hours to capture a short segment showing a fish playing with a tin foil decorated ball at Dalhousie University’s Aquatron Laboratory. The investment of time is representative of the effort and patience required to understand how play displays in animals outside our relatively constrained domestic orbits.
Behavioural ecologist, Johnathan Pruitt’s research leads him to conclude that, “things like play occur all over the animal kingdom.” I now admiringly think of Pruitt as Spider Man. His startling discoveries about public displays in the not so secret lives of – you guessed it, spiders – are expanding our understanding of play. And it’s not just any old spiders, his painstaking study is drawing back the veil so to speak on social spiders, a small subset of arachnids made up of a mere 20 species worldwide.
Spoiler alert – there are seriously cute cats and other social media sourced clips of inter-species play in the program. Tune in to see some surprising pairings and determine yourself if there is a clear winner in the cute sweepstakes. As Suzuki comments, “the impulse to have fun seems to cross all kinds of divides in the animal kingdom.”
Bonobos give play pride of place. It is a core component of their social interactions. Their adoption, or adaptation of play differentiates them from their close relatives the chimpanzees. A frequent chimp response on encountering other groups of their own species is to fight. Bonobos are more prone to make play, not war.
Empathy brings the journey squarely into the camp of human experience. The program’s timing is spot on as caregivers, researchers, educators, healthcare and recreation professionals and journalists are examining attitudes and benefits associated with play, risk, resilience and independence. In the process there is a reset underway of some more recent cultural norms.
Over the last two or three decades in North America and to a lesser extent Europe a pervasive adverseness to exposing kids to risk has supplanted independence, unsupervised play, and many aspects of outdoor kid culture that were thriving right through the 1970s.
The preoccupation has been so pronounced in some quarters that in the UK for example the fixation has been tagged cotton wool culture, known too in other jurisdictions as bubble wrap kids.
Informed by observation and evidence-based findings across a number of disciplines, there is a meaningful shift taking place related to risk. International collaborators Mariana Brussoni and Ellen Sandseter from Canada and Norway respectively are changing the way we perceive risk as it relates to kids at play.
Individually, each of the university-based researchers have devoted years of investigation to various facets of play. Brussoni recently launched outsideplay.ca “to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.” Sandseter published seminal work for her doctoral degree – Scaryfunny: A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children.
Together they are being inspired by the children around them and are currently collaborating on remodeling playgrounds in eight Norwegian child care centres with the goal of making them more thrilling. Sandseter has it on good authority what it is that triggers those thrill factors. Through her interviews with children, she has developed a risky play inventory.
Independent, adult-free outdoor play is not dead but it’s greatly diminished and that’s a concern for the health of our kids now and into the future
The pre-school children in Trondheim, Norway embody the adventure, the boldness, the hope that we can take back play. There is a renaissance, a resurgence that will help counter some of the problems we are seeing linked to overuse of devices and screen time, to low self-esteem and more serious mental health issues in young people.
As adults, parents and caregivers we have a responsibility to be play enablers in our communities. So how do we go about advocating for play? Tuning in to The Power of Play is a great first step.
There is much more that I have not touched on here so choose a healthy snack, kick back, get comfy and play ‘watch a doc’ on Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST….
Let’s give the last word to Stuart Brown. A student of play for over 50 years he aptly sums it all up.
The Power of Play
Sunday, January 20 at 8 pm EST on CBC’s The Nature of Things
(check local listings)
Production company: Tell Tale Productions
Producer: Erin Oakes
Director: Christine McLean
A wonderful music find today that examines childhood’s bittersweet fading star through friendship, transitions, impositions and blue skies. At least that’s what I see and hear in Brit punk duo Slaves new video Photo Opportunity from their latest album, Acts of Fear and Love.
The activities of the two boys in the video and the spaces where their exuberance explodes speak to the freedoms of childhood, skylarking with friends away from adult eyes. But there’s also a sense of impending change signaling that childhood’s time is slipping away. It makes me think of my son and daughters as they approach the vanishing point – that place and time where play is no longer their daily self-directed magic.
Watch the video and see. I’d love to hear what PlayGroundology readers think.