What’s in a Name or The Spinny-Thing-of-Death

No, not trying to click bait you. The spinny-thing-of-death was in fact a thing back in the heyday of the Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey, California. There were no mortal injuries but this ‘helicopter’ would certainly be deemed a hazard in many jurisdictions today.

It looks innocuous enough in still photos but watch the video clip below starting at the 30 second mark. You’ll get an idea of the derring-do adrenaline jolt kids could get on this ride’s bucking and spinning axis and why the kids named it the spinny-thing-of-death – so much more gravitas and excitement than the helicopter…

Readers, do you have any playground structure in your community that has been tagged with its own name? A new structure in PlayGroundology‘s hometown at the Dartmouth North Community Centre has sparked some talk in the local community about its name-worthiness.

Any ideas for a name for this play structure?

Having heard this from one of the project organizers, PlayGroundology took to Twitter yesterday in search of possible names.

Most participants are local but we did catch the eye of a landscape architect in Lisbon. No names yet as catchy as the ‘spinny-thing-of-death’. I have a theory that the funnest, stickiest, most popular names will come from kids who play on the piece and they will make all of us adults look like rank amateurs in the naming sweepstakes.

So this is what we’ve got so far:

Leviathan, The Basket (from Lisbon), Imagic Dragon, Freedom, The Snake Range, The Northern Green Slither, The Eliminator, The Dragon’s Tongue, Slidey McSwing Face, Slidy McClimb Face and The Green Monster.

Join the #namethegreenthing sweepstakes and send us your suggestion or join us on Twitter.


Playing it Forward by Honouring the Past in Accra

If she were alive today, Efua Sutherland would be chalking up her 94th birthday. For the good folks at the Mmofra Foundation it is a day, an anniversary, a life to celebrate. Sutherland was a truly remarkable woman. In 1950s Accra, Ghana she was a beacon of light extolling the benefits of play and helping to create public spaces where play could flourish.

With photographer Willis E. Bell, she published Playtime in Africa. This was the first real documentation of children’s play in the newly independent African nation.

Efua Sutherland’s pioneering work with play and children in Ghana lives today through the work of the Mmofra Foundation and its partners.

Sutherland’s advocacy for play was first shared with me six years ago by her daughter Amowi Phillips. In concert with the Mmofra Foundation Phillips is honouring and drawing on her mother’s good work in the spirit of sankofa – keeping what is of value from the past.

Mmofra continues to develop a natural play space in the heart of Accra. This week, Phillips sent PlayGroundology a selection of photos and an update asking us to share some of their successes.

“Mmofra Place has grown to encompass the following (not in any particular order):

– a site for experimenting with outdoor play prototypes.  We often use materials like salvaged wood, calabashes, repurposed inexpensive market goods.
– a green space open to children of all backgrounds and abilities – still one of very few in Accra.
– a site where children participate in designing, making, building, growing things
– a site for researching play”

“We’ve had hands-on climate education exhibitions, community builds using local materials, blood drives, reading events, cultural festivals, R&R for families with a disabled child and more.

Our experience is proving useful – recently, we’ve revived a derelict park in another part of the city of Accra, and we’re currently exploring how to make markets more child-friendly, especially for pre-school children of market vendors.”

Mmofra Place is still going strong and remains a beacon for kids’ play. All the best to those in Accra and throughout the diaspora who remember, honour and are inspired by a woman whose accomplishments continue to resonate today.

Sutherland was an untiring ambassador for play, an advocate emphasizing its importance in developing young minds and bodies. Her life of service established her as a cultural icon within Ghana and brought her work to the attention of a broader international audience.

PlayGroundology’s original story, Imagining a Better Future – Playtime in Africa can be found here. More recent reports are available in UrbanAfrica.net, in Architizer, and in a detailed report published in issuu

Thanks to the Mmofra Foundation and all the fine work they do building on Efua Sutherland’s traditions.

Hanoi’s Play Evolution

A reverence for learning and respect for teachers are deep-rooted Vietnamese traditions. Education is a defining force for many kids and their families. Achieving strong academic results from an early age in preparation for advancement within a rigorous educational system is a cultural touchstone. Play can be seen as an outlier, an activity that distracts kids, leading them astray from the main event – schooling.

Enter Think Playgrounds, a Hanoi-based social enterprise, that is shifting public perceptions around play and design. In neighbourhoods across Hanoi they are working at the community level using local materials, recycled bric à brac and volunteer labour to create a wider range of play opportunities for kids in public spaces.

Source – DIY Urbanism in Hanoi

Think Playgrounds is shining a light across the entire play spectrum accenting the symbiotic nature of play and learning. The cognitive, physical, imaginative and social dimensions of play are a virtuous cycle that enhances a resilient learning ethos.

The social enterprise’s co-founders, architect Chu Kim Đức and journalist Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt, started their playground odyssey in 2014. Since then five teams have put in almost 4,000 hours to build nearly 60 playgrounds. Their good work is being noticed. The Think Playgrounds citizen activism and community engagement are featured in a video produced by the grass roots Towards the Human City project.

The Vietnamese dynamos for community based play have also been singled out by the Bernard van Leer Foundation based in The Netherlands. They were one of 26 winners from 18 countries in the global Urban95 Challenge for their submission of a project to create an under-5s playground in Hanoi.

The playground opened in November 2017. As the Foundation reported, “initial scepticism from locals about the choice of materials for the playground – such as timber, rope and used tyres – seems now to have been fully overcome.”

And so grows the footprint – another neighbourhood, more recruits to the concept of public spaces for play. Prior to Think Playgrounds arrival on the scene, public playgrounds were few and far between in Hanoi.

We’re young, we’re born in Hanoi. We see some of the problems for the city. We had to do something. Đức’s daughter is in grade three and she is a great motivation for both of us. Getting involved in helping to make public spaces for play has changed me a lot.

                                 Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt

Now the focus is leaning to inclusive playgrounds for all abilities. Think Playgrounds will continue to work with communities, private benefactors, like-minded organizations such as Playground Ideas and the media to get the word out.

Đức and Đạt inspecting some work…

Their most recent project involves loose parts play with support from the Goethe Institute and the Institut Français (Hanoi). Over the course of several months there will be a variety of educational activities in addition to a loose parts play event. Among the goals for these initiatives: involving up to 1,000 parents in events; and, creating a community of architects and urban planners involved in designing playgrounds.

There is something good brewing in Vietnam. The Think Playgrounds bottom up, citizen focused engagement in Hanoi is a powerful change agent introducing new perspectives on play by working directly with residents in neighbourhoods across the city. There are valuable learnings for those of us in higher income countries who may have the benefit of greater resources but less grass roots citizen engagement.

One last note on these collaborators par excellence. I’m happy to learn that they have a Canadian connection too. A research project – DIY Urbanism in Hanoi – led out of the University of Montreal takes a close look at why we should all perhaps Think Playgrounds…..

Think Playgrounds workshop, Hanoi. Source – DIY Urbanism in Hanoi






Remembering Goodness

The American administration’s zero tolerance on their southern border is a full frontal assault on human decency. We have seen the haunting, harrowing images – children being forcibly removed from their parents and incarcerated in deplorable conditions with total contempt for their physical and mental well-being. Along that border of inequity, the rights of Mexican and Central American children are on life support and compassion from the powers that be is MIA.

The United States is one of only two countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This current border policy abomination is contravening multiple Convention articles.

Article 3 (Best interests of the child): The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and law makers.

Domestic and international condemnation have weakened President Trump’s resolve. American citizens and the rest of the world will have to remain vigilant to ensure there is no backsliding and to help reunite the children snatched from their families.

Last night by accident I happened across some archival photos of migrant labour camps in the US from the 1940s. I don’t profess to know much about these camps. They were managed by the Farm Security Administration and seem to have provided relief for displaced and destitute domestic laborers as well as temporary living arrangements for workers from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Kids in these camps could play

Farm Security Administration migratory farm labor camp. Saturday morning baseball game, Robstown, Texas – January, 1942. Photo credit –  Arthur Rothstein. Library of Congress

While continuing to advocate on behalf of children and families who have taken the brunt of Trump’s irrational and mean spirited actions, let’s remember goodness. It is all around us.

Children playing on slide at Farm Security Administration labor camp, Caldwell, Idaho – June, 1941. Photo credit – Russell Lee. Library of Congress.

Let’s remember that human rights are the foundation of our democratic traditions. These inalienable rights enshrine dignity, liberty and equality for all. By and large, we take our democratic responsibilities seriously and don’t allow partisan considerations to cloud our judgement.

Let’s agree that kids should stay with their families and have a chance to play.

Children playing at Shafter migrant camp. Shafter, California – March 1940. Photo credit – Arthur Rothstein.

Rabbit, Hare, or Rodent? Giant Animals in Argentina’s Public Spaces

This weekend’s inbox surprise comes all the way from Buenos Aires, Argentina –  that hemisphere right next door, a mere 9,000 kilometers to the south of our Halifax home.

At first I thought the photo was a ‘burro’ or maybe a rabbit. Pablo de Speluzzi, co-founder of MOLE and creator of this play sculpture, let me know I was wrong on both counts. Looks like a rabbit but not really. It’s a mara, a kind of Patagonian hare, actually less hare and more rodent than anything else. What do you think of the likeness?

The similarities are quite striking, all the better given that this sculpture is part of the Ecoparque Interactivo – the City Zoo . As you can see in the time lapse below, kids get to climb up the rear legs, slide down the fore legs, crawl, jump, and slide down the fire pole up front.

This is a variation in Argentina’s standard play fare. MOLE Sculptural Playgrounds is planning for more of their creations to hit the street – macaws, t-rexes, dragons, whales, armadillos, tigers, submarines and castles…

MOLE makes large-scale pieces with an organic design aspect bringing back thematic installations that seek to recover free play’s storytelling element. The pieces are inclusive of parents joining in the children’s play. This aspect is central to the whole concept as it is incorporated in the design as a key feature.

Co-founder Pablo’s son turned five-years-old on May 12. Mole will have a great test pilot for years to come. Let’s hear it for Argentina’s new play sculptures.

Thanks for reaching out Pablo – muchas gracias.

Pablo de Speluzzi and Horacio Dubcovsky, co-founders – Mole.

The Greatest Show

There is a whisper of warm in the air this fine Montreal day. It’s not hot though by any stretch. A grimy, grey urban snow is stubbornly hanging on over much of the grass and scrub land.

Next to a rail line, in the shadow of the Van Horne overpass, two kids play in a narrow strip of what was once underutilized, neglected space. It’s now part of a regreening that embraces this Mile End neighbourhood – marshalling land and engaging community participation to help preserve and expand nature’s footprint.

The kids, members of the Le Lion et La Souris family, are immersed in a pas de deux. It’s a timeless dance where mud and melt water are the sacraments. The two lads are so engrossed in this organic world of their own making that my arrival barely registers a passing notice.

As the boys stir up foul looking concoctions and pour potions into vessels and through the slats of a pallet, they open a window and let me in. The kids and I check each other out by goofing around with some spontaneous sound and word games.

Over the next 45 minutes, I marvel at their ingenuity and the consonance between do-it-yourself resourcefulness and budding resilience. It seems they are impervious to the wet and cold. They elevate scrabbling in puddles to a vocation, no, even more than that, to an art form.

“By giving children the space and time to play as they want — with each other, alone, in nature, with loose parts or found materials — Le Lion et La Souris is saying to children: you matter, what you like matters, how you play matters.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie


In this minimalist setting the lads are attuned to each other’s company. They need little to inspire their colourful tapestry of play. With the exception of the occasional glance our way, they are self-sufficient in the moment, oblivious to the nattering adults.

Eventually the boys break away from the pallets and puddles opting for more vigorous shenanigans. Sticks are found and brandished about. There’s not a poked out eye to be seen, anywhere.

Running ensues in speeding bursts to hide, to get away. The tagged shipping container offers a great rope swinging escape route from marauding zombies. Then it’s an almost seamless transition into some mild rough and tumble, the older boy taking care not to overwhelm his younger friend.

This is my first visit to Le Lion et La Souris and I am amazed at this tour de force, this panorama of play. Now I’ve known about the community-based non profit for a few years. Last summer we both hosted our mutual friends – Pop-Up Adventure Play on their cross-Canada tour – presenting workshops and loose parts play extravaganzas in Montreal and Halifax.

“Children who get to be at the heart of their play learn to know themselves, to negotiate, to create, to evaluate and take risks, to play different roles, to work through emotions and challenges. For me, L&M makes our city more resilient and inclusive.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie


It’s good to connect and learn how the small team at Le Lion et La Souris is evolving and making an impact. As I speak with playworker Gabby Doiron, she tells me how she had been invited to another Montreal neighbourhood, Pointe-Saint-Charles,  the previous evening. A group of mothers interested in establishing an adventure playground were looking for some information and inspiration. Forty years earlier a short-lived adventure playground had been a going concern in the community and these moms are hoping to bring a new one to life.

Those Pointe-Saint-Charles parents and others across the country are eager to see kids getting their play on, experiencing a wider range of play opportunities in public spaces. This is a conversation that is gaining steam at the grass roots level as well as within the mainstream media – witness recent articles in Maclean’s, Le Devoir and The Canadian Press.

Gabby is fully engaged in helping others others explore independent, child-led play. She’s moved from the academic realm, researching a Master’s degree focused on Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s Expo 67 playground to playworking at the aptly named Champs des possibles in Mile End on Montreal’s Plateau. She loves the kids and the community-based model but stitching a budget together is always challenging.

The kids started breaking the ice. It was like a tiny pond. We started calling it The Lake because it got quite big and it was very deep…

Gabby Doiron – Playworker, Le Lion et La Souris


Here on this small strip of land, the possibilities for play run very deep. To explore, to be dirty, to fall, to hide, to swing, to run, to risk a tumble, to have some fun these are boundless wonders. Surely this is the greatest show and Le Lion et La Souris are exporting it to other parts of the city, to schools, parks, community groups, even to the Canadian Centre of Architecture.

Le Lion et La Souris continues to reach out and make connections. This summer they will host a course with the Forest School of Canada. Other communities can perhaps benefit from their go local, embrace global model.

This grass roots playwork is supplemented by a growing body of research in Canada on a variety of topics: risk and play – Mariana Brussoni; outdoor play – Beverlie Dietze and Diane Kashin; loose parts play – Caileigh Flannigan; and. unhealthy food – Sara FL Kirk. Supported by their institutions, governments and charitable organizations such as The Lawson Foundation this research is helping to define policy goals and influence a renewed understanding of play opportunities for kids in public spaces.

Walking away from the Champs des possibles I am rejuvenated. I’ve caught a buzz being up close to all that unfettered, unrehearsed play. I’m energized as I head north to Le Diola on Jean-Talon for a fine Senegalese meal with one of my oldest friends. Play on…

Now, last word to the kids.