Postscript to The Science of Play in Today’s Parent

Today’s Parent, a Canadian magazine, ran a feature in their June issue on playground trends and designs – The Science of Play. Sarah Lazarovic’s article provides an excellent overview of some of the current thoughts and perspectives on the world of playgrounds. She draws on a number of knowledgeable people in Europe and North America to illustrate the story. As founder of the blog PlayGroundology, and a novitiate playgroundologist, I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a few comments.

When Sarah and I spoke, I prattled on and on and on. Her questions provided some airtime to share thoughts on a topic I’ve become passionate about. I now have a modest couple of years under my belt researching and conducting interviews that eventually wind up as posts in this blog. My kids and I have also racked up some practical experience putting close to 100 playgrounds in five provinces through their paces. Just today, my son Noah-David piped up to me en route to one of our current local favourites, “Papa, we’re playground explorers, aren’t we?” Our hometown adventures, captured since the summer of 2009 in Halifax Plays, are just about to get underway for this year.

Home on the Range – Halifax

The Science of Play hits all the high notes on its whirlwind tour. Sarah does a tremendous job of connecting the dots on a story where the subject matter defies stereotyping or pigeonholing. There is no one size fits all when it comes to public playspaces. Sarah’s interview for the Today’s Parent story was a chance to share some of the playground knowledge I’ve acquired in the recent past. More importantly, the story presents a significant opportunity to build on Canadian conversations about what goes on behind the scenes of playground planning and development – discussions around policy considerations, design and financing models for example.

It’s in that spirit that I offer this postscript to Sarah’s article in order to expand on a couple of the points and provide some context around one of my comments.

Comparatively speaking, from what I have seen in eastern Canada, there is a lack of creativity when it comes to playground design in this country. All we have to do is look overseas to Denmark, Germany, the UK, Sweden and Finland where design is flourishing. Their towns and cities have not been overtaken by the march of composite plastics and prefab metal posts and beams.

Although creative design is not a hallmark of the Canadian playground ethos, it is not totally absent from the landscape. There are bright spots well worth a look. Nestled on the Mountain in downtown Montreal is Salamander Playground – green grass, grand trees and a water orb. In the nation’s capital, Strathcona’s Folly is a time capsule playspace made from architectural bric à brac, a treasure of form and texture.

Water Orb – Montreal’s Salamander Playground. Click here for Original Designs slideshow.

The Magdalen Islands’ Boats are anchored safely ashore as they crash and crest through imaginary seas. And as home port to Canada’s East Coast Navy, maritime traditions run deep in Halifax and now kids can pretend they’re on a diving adventure à la Jules Verne on their own orange submarine. In Winnipeg, there’s Assiniboine Park Playground opened in the spring of 2011 that puts nature front and center. I’m hoping someday to get out to Richmond, B.C., just to test and tour that funked up Garden City Park Playground.

In Halifax, we are well served by the number of playgrounds – over 300 – and by high maintenance standards. But with the exception of our orange submarine, we’re kind of sparse on the discovering new design frontiers department. As parents, if we’re not satisfied with the current state of playground design then we have a responsibility to band together and engage our municipal governments and/or school boards to bring about change. This is not change just for the sake of it. It’s about creating enticing spaces with public funds that will help to break the pall of physical inactivity which is becoming endemic. It’s about valuing creativity in our children and local designers and fashioning space that calls out for imaginative play.

Canada could benefit from a voluntary sector organization that focuses exclusively on advocating for play on behalf of kids. These organizations exist in Europe and Australasia. I’m thinking here of Play England and its independent sister organizations such as Play Wales which hosted the 2011 International Play Association World Conference.

These groups conduct research, develop policy guidelines, compile and curate online resources, work with and challenge government, deliver programming and fulfill an important role in the public promotion of play. They are a non-commercial voice of sanity. In the US the social entrepreneur group KaBOOM! does similar work promoting play through Playful Cities USA in addition to spearheading playground builds with local communities.

On the question of costs, customized designs local or otherwise, can be more expensive but this is certainly not always the case. If there are no requests for alternative playground designs being made of a municipality then the path of least resistance is a trip to the numerous manufacturers who provide tried and true professional service that does not deviate from code and embodies more of the same old, same old. With price tags running anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 they’re certainly not in the ‘cheap’ category. Playgrounds are big business.

Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO with Sinking Ship Productions has co-produced the first season of a show that’s all about do-it-yourself improvements and renos to local playgrounds by the kids who use them. Each project comes in at $10,000 cash with additional donations and volunteer labour. It’s an interesting model that might catch on. Read about it soon here in PlayGroundology.

Thanks to the editors at Today’s Parent for assigning this article. This is a conversation that should continue to grow. There is more to this universe of play and playgrounds than meets the eye. I don’t have any sophisticated media monitoring tools at my disposal but I sense there is an uptick in Canada’s mainstream media on coverage that focuses on play and playgrounds. I’ve seen stories on TVO, heard them on CBC Radio and read them in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun to name some that come immediately to mind.

Keep the play movin’.

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On The Rocks

On a recent excursion along Nova Scotia’s South Shore we stopped for a leisurely play at Crescent Beach. The kids were drawn to a large outcropping of rocks rising a couple of metres above sea level at its peak. The rock surface was uneven, fissured, pocked with holes and in some places slippery. Like billy goats, Noah and Nellie scrabbled about in search of footholds trying to maintain their balance as they explored the rock’s features and their own climbing abilities.

More On the Rocks photos from Crecent Beach here

Now if this immoveable force of natural beauty were to be transposed to a playground in Canada or the US there is no doubt in my mind that it would not pass a safety inspection. The transgressions against code would be legion. It would be deemed too risky. There was risk at play on the rocks and as parents we were aware of the potential dangers. In fact, the risk made the play all that much sweeter for the kids. Note – during the time they played, there was only one request for a rescue mission.

Meanwhile, in New York City, 11-year-old Ashima Shiraishi is a real climbing sensation. She got her start in Central Park on Rat Rock. I came across her story through Diana Kimball’s submission to The Last Great Thing (submission changes daily and there is no archive) via news.me.
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I watched the video posted on the NY Times site that accompanies the excellent article by Julie Bosman. It’s electric. Now Ashima is light years beyond the funning that our kids were doing at Crescent Beach. But I think the difference is one of degree. Ashima, Noah and Nellie are engaged in play, pushing boundaries and understanding risk. In the end these are some of the key attributes and skills we want our kids to hold dear and bring with them into adulthood.

In keeping with the spirit of The Last Great Thing folks who inspired this post, I’ll share this.

Last night after supper, my 4 1/2 year old daughter Nellie-Rose and I went out for a solo mission. Older brother and younger sister stayed at home with maman. It’s not often that just the two of us get to go on these little trips. En route to purchase a new lawn mower and pick up a few groceries, Nellie-Rose talked non-stop – questions, stories, more questions, statements and professions of love. It was great just to be able to focus on her. Then she said the last great thing I’ve heard:

if i was playing in some puddles i will be as happy as can be and if you were playing in some puddles with me you can be as happy as can be too

I think of this as a pretty foolproof outlook for the two of us. I feel fortunate that there is lots of playing left ahead of me and that I’ve got a good guide to help me along the way.

Have You Heard What They’re Saying About RISK? Listen Then Share

Generally speaking, parents want their kids to experience the fullness of the world – the quiet beauty, the dizzying adventure, the discovery of self and others. As much as possible we want to keep hurt and injury at bay but they too are part of the mix with cuts, scrapes and breaks both corporeal and psychological. So how do we go about assessing risk? How do we ensure that our kids aren’t enclosed in a cocoon of safety?

I saw this video a couple of nights ago and thought I would play a small role in helping to spread the word. Right now it’s at 373 views. After you’ve watched it, please share with your friends and your broader network.

Thanks to the Alliance for Childhood and KaBOOM! for producing this piece.

Teeter my Totter says Cecily G to Curious George

We love checking out a good used clothing emporium. Love might be a bit strong for my connection to these events but it’s not far off base for Mélanie. Nova Scotia boasts a network of second hand clothing outlets under the banner Frenchys. There are incredible savings to be had on quality clothes for the kids. Used books and toys are also in the mix.

A few days ago we uncovered a gem at one of the locations – H. A. Rey’s Cecily G. and the 9 monkeys. As a lover of Curious George, I just couldn’t resist. I wasn’t familiar with the story but saw right away that it predated George as a solo act. This first book by Rey was also George’s debut into the world of kidlit. We all enjoyed the story once we got home. Being the playground bums we are, we thought the drawing below was a blast, an anatomical and anthropomorphic wonder illustrating imaginative play.

From Cicely G. and the 9 monkeys.  Copyright, 1942 by H. A. Rey

If you haven’t read the book, it’s good fun. Check your local library.

Sir Ken of TEDalot on Play and Learning

Earlier this spring, Sir Ken (Robinson) shared his views on education with an appreciative audience in Halifax, Nova Scotia – home of PlayGroundology. I was one of the 1,000 in attendance who enjoyed an accomplished and entertaining critic of conventional wisdom about education and creativity. No props, no notes, plenty of humourous asides and always an à propos anecdote.

Source: RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms

Now that I’ve seen and heard him in the flesh, I feel I can get away with just Sir Ken. I’m sure there are tens of millions who have seen his TEDTalks via YouTube who feel this at a remove intimacy the same way I do. The afternoon in question, I managed to get myself in the front row no more than 5 metres from Sir Ken. It was a piece of dumb luck happenstance that occurred because I arrived late and those who had the reserved front row arrived even later or not at all.

At the conclusion of the 90 minute story that held the crowd rapt, there was time for a couple of questions. I piped up and got first at bats for myself and the readers of PlayGroundology with this one I had been eager to ask:

How important is the role of play in learning?

For the next five minutes or so, Sir Ken spoke to a question that he had likely heard and certainly considered previously. What follows is the minimally edited response. Thanks Sir Ken, may millions more be inspired by your experience and informed by your passion.

Source: TEDTalks via YouTube.

It’s fundamental. I talk a lot as you know about creativity. I didn’t want to get into all that again today particularly because of the nature of this conference. There are three key terms when we come to think about play. The first is imagination, the second is creativity and the third is innovation.

Imagination, I believe, is what fundamentally sets us apart from the rest of life on earth – very little does truthfully. I think we overplay the differences between ourselves and everything else. Our life is short and organic like everything else. We come into groovy buildings like this and persuade ourselves we’re different but we’re not. But we are in this respect. Human beings have powerful imaginations. By imagination I mean the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

So with imagination you can revisit the past, you can enter into other peoples’ consciousness empathetically – you can imagine what it would be like to be them – and you can anticipate the future. It’s what it is for everything that counts as distinctively human. It’s not a single power, it’s a mix of all different powers that come together and we call it such. But the thing is you can be imaginative all day long and never do anything.

To be creative you have to do something. Creativity is very practical. I think of it as applied imagination, putting your imagination to work.

There are lots of misconceptions about that and we can talk about that. My point is that the power to imagine and the impulse to create, to make things is the birthright of humanity. It’s why we are as we are. It’s why we don’t just live in buildings we’ve made, we inhabit conceptual structures that we’ve evolved.

We’ve evolved differently, we see the world from different perspectives and points of view because our experience of the world isn’t just direct it’s mediated through the ideas and values we frame and share with other people as a culture. To me it’s the most fundamental part of our way of being in the world.

Play for young people is actually essential. It’s a way in which they literally flex their muscles.


It amazes me how quickly and how often we forget that we are embodied, that we see the world the way do because we live in these bodies. If we were all 18′ tall with eyes at the sides of our head it would look very different to us. Dogs hear different frequencies and birds smell things we don’t smell. We see the world as it is because we’re built the way we are. We are embodied, we’re not just brains on a stick.

Our children go to school in their bodies. Play is one of the ways they flex them, explore them, understand them, connect to other people. We also live in virtual worlds that are the result of our imaginations. They need the ability to exercise that too. You see you can’t get to all the things we value – creativity in business, in work, in social systems, in the arts and the sciences if your imagination has atrophied.

It’s the same, the exact analogy for me with athletics. The Olympics are happening this year. If you want to take part in the Olympics then you better practice. There’s no point in saying I want to take part in the 100 metres and I won’t do anything in the meantime – I’ll just show up. I have high hopes. Well good luck with that. If you’re going to be an athlete, you have to exercise your body. If you want to be creative you have to exercise your mind, your consciousness, your spirit. It’s fundamental to me.

Play, there’s different ways of defining it but broadly speaking play is an end in itself. It’s not directed to a larger purpose.

I don’t want a system of playing schools where you get 15 minutes to do it then we test for a score. You just play because it’s interesting, enjoyable and pleasurable. You do it for that reason and no other reason. And it’s no coincidence that we go on to talk about playing sports, playing instruments because at the heart of it there’s this possibility of creative fulfillment that lies at the centre. I see it is a fundamental. It strikes me as a disaster that we’re excluding it from kindergartens, from elementary school and from high schools and colleges too.

For some reason we’ve forgotten our own humanity and we’ve come to assume that play is some kind of disposable, part time leisure activity that we can do without so we can be more serious.

I quote in the book a guy called Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize, a physicist. He’s a brilliant man and also a great jazz bongo player. He got the Nobel Prize for work he did in particle physics.

Photo credit – Tom Harvey.

He started he said when he was sitting in Cornell University in the dining hall and a student fell over with a plateful of food. The thing just went up in the air. And Richard Feynman his eye was attracted by the plate, it was spinning and wobbling. The Cornell logo was on it and he said he watched it going round. He said he got fascinated by it.

Interesting of course, he didn’t rush to help the student. He thought, no, this is an interesting piece of physics right here now. He started to think about the laws of motion that were affecting the wobble in the plate. He jotted down some equations on his napkin and then went on about his business.

A few days later he found this napkin and it reminded him and he started playing with it. He said it reminded him that it connected to things he was working on in particle physics. He said that over the next few weeks all these equations started to rush out of him like champagne out of a bottle. He said, ‘but all I was doing was playing with it for the fun of it’. But he said it led to the equation that went on to be the basis of him winning the Nobel Prize.

Very often our greatest achievements come from our most playful activities.

There is more here – Sir Ken’s page, TED search results, Animation – Changing Education Paradigms.

Make Play not War – The Bonobo Connection

I love the Great Apes. For me, it’s more than just the shared genetic make up. It’s that ‘we are family’ feeling, a recognition of sameness. Over the years, the only place I’ve seen them is in zoos – London, San Diego, Toronto, Edinburgh, Saarbrücken – or on film. I’d like to have a greater understanding of their lives, their cultures because I’m sure there is plenty that we could be learning from them. Primatologists think so too.

Isabel Behncke’s Ted Talk is full of passion, humour and hope. The richness of the bonobo world that she is able to pack into this seven minute presentation is striking. When Behncke says, “play is the glue that holds us together,” I really sit up and take notice. More about Behncke here.

It’s a cruel fate that bonobo society, defined in large measure by play and playfulness, is struggling to survive in one of the world’s most war ravaged countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The map below shows the bonobo’s current range. More on the bonobos here.

This Ted Talk should have a much broader audience. Please pass it on to those who care about play, about endangered species, about family.

Imagining a Better Future – Playtime in Africa

Two acres of green space in the Dzorwulu neighbourhood of Accra, Ghana are being primed for transformation. It’s all about the kids, or Mmofra as they are called in Ghana’s Akan language.

This story, about a small plot of land, spans decades, continents and generations. It’s the story of a woman’s vision, of her love for children. The seeds were sown 50 years ago when the late Efua Sutherland wrote her groundbreaking book on Ghana’s play culture, Playtime in Africa. The narrative and accompanying photographs by Willis E. Bell were the first real documentation of children’s play in the newly independent African nation.

Sutherland was part of a post colonial cultural renaissance, a storyteller, an educator, a playwright and a community builder. Bell, an ex-patriated American, was in the process of establishing himself as a leading documentary photographer in the country. His work is considered to be an important part of Ghana’s visual arts culture.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Sutherland was also 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: there is an Efua Sutherlandstraat in Amsterdam. On her retirement in the 1990’s she set the groundwork establishing Mmofra Foundation to continue her advocacy for children.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Now fast forward – time and space shift. Amowi Phillips is an adjunct professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. She is seven time zones and half a lifetime removed from this same plot of land where she played as a child. She is one of Efua Sutherland’s three children, a volunteer board member of the Mmofra Foundation, president of a newly formed partner organization, Friends of Mmofra, in Washington State, USA and one of the kids captured forever young in Playtime in Africa.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Fifty years ago Playtime in Africa introduced this very rich, nuanced play culture of Ghana to the world. That really bears some sharing. It’s a reminder of the sankofa principle – keeping what is of value from the past.

Amowi Phillips – Member, Board of Directors Mmofra Foundation

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Phillips, her two siblings Esi and Ralph, and the Foundation, are helping to lead the charge to create a public natural play space for children on this two acre plot that fuelled so many happy memories from their own childhood. They are uniquely qualified to do so. Ralph will be the principal architect, and Esi, an international consultant on education and a professor of African Studies, is the executive director of Mmofra Foundation.

They hope the project will serve as a prototype to encourage child-centered spaces in Ghana’s cities. In the 1980s, the forward-thinking Efua Sutherland conceptualized park-library complexes throughout the country. Pilots were built at the village and city levels, but were allowed over time to fall into disrepair and ruin.

If we are able to galvanize public advocacy for a thoughtfully designed child-friendly green core in central Accra, it will be a fresh start.

Amowi Phillips

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

At the end of May, the Foundation is organizing a design charrette on site in Accra’s Dzorwulu neighbourhood. This is the next big step in re-imagining the use of the land, in creating a space for play. Community stakeholders, designers, architects, indigenous knowledge specialists and elders, landscape architects, planners and politicians are being invited to participate. Architecture for Humanity has encouraged the project.

“Our concept is very much about inscribing the culture of Ghana into the landscape, enhanced by elements adapted from other parts of the world. We’ll have to see what happens on the ground,” says Phillips. The three siblings will participate in the charrette injecting their passion for play and for children into a place that was once their own land of daily adventure.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Another important consideration for the Foundation is to design a space in such a way that people can take elements of it and reproduce them in their own neighbourhoods. “We want to be intentional about creating room where children can develop their imagination and creativity,” continues Phillips.

Through their work, the Foundation is finding out about similar projects in other parts of Africa such as South Sudan and Sénégal. For Phillips, it’s time for Africa to be part of the global conversation about spaces for imaginative play and discovery and she sees herself as a connector, having brought together an international coalition of people who are passionate about play around this project.

An online search for a children’s parks or museums yields very little between Cairo and Cape Town. Without environments where children can imagine a better future, dependency can really become entrenched.

Amowi Phillips

Source: Mmofra Foundation. Click image to enlarge

Playtime in Africa from the land of Anansi stories, adinkra patterns and kente cloth. As with so many things in life – nsa baako nkura adesoa – one hand cannot lift a heavy load. To participate in the development of this playspace, contact Mmofra Foundation.