We were all kids once

As you now likely know, my colleagues and I at The Lion and The Mouse have trained as Playworkers, finding inspiration from the Playwork Principles and general ethos of Playwork in our day to day to work and through larger events such as Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds.

Keeping a small journal of my own play experiences has made me much more mindful and present in my work (and play!) with children. And it has in fact, as well, made me much more present in my own life as something which is in large part a product of my own creativity.

Lately, because of the nature of my work with some of the children I am with regularly, I’ve been journaling a lot about the kind of play I used to engage in as a kid with my cousin – which was similar to the play of a lot of these children.

When I was a child my cousin Ian and I were great climbers. Ian was always more skilled than me but I tried to keep up. We began climbing everything from buildings to trees to sign posts when we were younger than ten years old, and then by the time we were ten and older we began not only climbing tall objects but also jumping off them. Ian used to climb on the roofs of cabins at a national park in Ontario we used to go to with our family, and jump off. I was always scared to follow him in this. Finally, he instructed me in terms of how to do a proper landing, keeping knees loose and arms prepared to soften the fall as falling into a crouching position.


Eventually, I felt (nervously) prepared to jump from some of these rooftops with him, and so I began doing so! I felt invigorated beforehand, in spite of my fear, and felt the need to take this risk because Ian and I both had entertained dreams of becoming ‘stuntmen’ when we were adults, and I knew this would be an important part of my training for the movies! The consequence of having successfully and relatively painlessly landed this first jump of mine was that I wanted to try doing this again and again, jumping from higher and higher places. After eventually spraining my ankle jumping from a rooftop in a local park, I realized that I just wasn’t as gifted as my cousin (or perhaps lucky) when it came to jumping. After this, the nature of our game and fantasy changed to have it that so that we were training to be an action film-making team wherein I would be the action director and Ian would be the lead actor and stuntman. The game in various ways continued until we were probably 13 or 14.


An important part of working with children in a playful capacity for me has always been to recognize an analogy between creativity and play. It is necessary to be in touch with the deeply imaginative and largely instinctual landscape of play that you have within yourself, and which you have in large part carried with you from childhood (even as to some extent its nature may have changed). As a child you were probably more permitted (at the best of times, at least) to play-out your deeper fantasies, desires, and preoccupations. In taking stock of my childhood play, I can see that lot of the play from my own childhood was a mix of Rough and Tumble Play, Deep Play, and Fantasy Play – amongst others.
How did you play as a child? What does this say about who you are, where you come from, and who you might want to be?

What are some of your most euphoric memories you have of yourself at play as a child? Who did you imagine yourself to be? What dreams and visions were yours? Think about your physicality, what you loved to hear and/or see, smell, taste, touch. Be sensual, imaginative, emotional and intellectual. Know yourself both as animal and as someone who seeks to be uniquely human.

It’s important to be able to conjure up the creative source of your own play, as an adult, which often involves reassessing and conjuring up childhood memories such as these. Among other things we can learn so much about ourselves, our desires, our strengths and weaknesses, through taking stock of some of the particulars of our childhood play.

Taking stock of the capacities, imaginings, desires, and preoccupations that are associated with your own play instinct may be what allows you to embody the ethos of Playworker – as they say, #playworkersgottaplay! The split between your rational adult self and your own deep playfulness needs to weaken substantially. Playwork is both play and work in the sense that you must sometimes engage in play as deeply as the children you are with, and sometimes you must be an adult who either intervenes appropriately or who stays of to the side and observes.


When I play rough with children – and indeed I’m almost always singled out, usually without even saying or doing anything to insight it, as being the adult in the situation who’s most into rough and tumble play – I think of the endless Kung Fu movies I watched as a kid, of martial arts lessons, of playing as offensive lineman on my high school football team, and indeed of all the stunts my cousin Ian and I attempted. I access all these fixed points of meaning in my play, when I’m roughhousing or doing stunts or fighting off evil doers with my youngest friends. There are both real and imaginary dangers my young friends and I face; there are legitimate risks we take which may or may not include an element of fantasy; and there are endless new or different selves we create in our play.

In journaling about my own play (work) I’m able to remind myself of my own play, whether when playing or composing music, having lively conversations with friends, being involved in sports, and with so much more, from the perspective of play. Creativity comes from the play instinct, after all.


In Praise of Snowball Fights

The other evening, I approached the afternoon Adventure Club in one of our favourite green spaces, the Marché Des Possibles, to say hi after my day of working in the Playschool had ended. I quickly found myself stuck in a snowball-throwing battle for supremacy over that acre of whiteness among the evergreens of the Marché. Snowball fighting season had returned! The children Megan works with in that group, of ages 5-9, include a few natural snowball fighters who saw in me a worthy opponent. I felt a surge of excitement come over me when the first child threw his snowball at me!

A few days earlier, before fighting these Adventure Clubbers, I had a spontaneous snowball fight with some of the parents who came to pick up their children at the local playground, at the end of one of our Playschool days. As we were throwing snowballs at one another – I’m not sure who even started it – I was reminded of my poor aim and that my left eye has very poor vision, while my right eye (which has 20/20 vision) compensates for it. I’m not usually so aware of this fact in my daily life. I wear glasses at home but have mostly neglected contact lenses otherwise. When it comes time that I need to aim at something precisely, though, I have learned to sometimes close my left eye and let my right eye do the work. If I don’t do this, I might end up missing the target by quite a lot.

I hadn’t needed to employ this technique for quite a while, though, and had forgotten how important it is to me and to my survival in such battles. So, as I was throwing snowballs with these parents, I was consistently missing them by quite a lot – snowballs flying far from my moving targets. Leaving the situation I felt both giddy and frustrated as I remembered both how fun it is to have snowball fights, and what it was I wasn’t doing that could have helped me in my game.

So, by the time I met with the Adventure Club group, I knew what I needed to do to challenge them in the way they wanted to be challenged. I prepared my snowballs while they did the same, and I ran throughout the Marché, bobbing and weaving excitedly, imagining myself as a boxer, preparing for the fight. This time around, aware of my limitations, I closed my left eye when necessary and took aim in my highly asymmetrical way. I remembered what I hadn’t done in my last battle, and I knew how to get them this time!

When we play in a way that allows us to take stock of who we are, we can remember what our limitations and our strengths are. We can begin to approach what we need to do in order to strengthen our senses, capacities, and will. In Playwork we are aware of how ‘rough and tumble play’ often has everything to do with gauging personal strength, flexibility, and our own physical capacities. It allows us to exist more consciously in our bodies, and reengage more deeply with who we are as physical beings.

For me, being reminded of this physical adaptation I needed to make to be a good snowball fighter had everything to do with one of the most positive benefits of rough play – being more in tune with my physicality, in the name of self-reliance and confidence-building. I love being in a green space like the Marché and thinking of myself as making the kind of physical adaptations that are necessary to my survival, as an animal in my small space of wildness. And I loved being reminded that winter could feel as just as active, if not more, of a season as the summer. Most excitedly, I was reminded this winter, as I am every winter, of the importance of snowball fighting.



Loose Parts, Part Two: CCP’s First Pop-Up

Happy November, everybody! October was a hectic month on my end. At the beginning of the month, I travelled to Ithaca, New York to attend and present at the Ithaca Play Symposium, “a gathering for change-makers fostering a culture of play in their own communities… two days of sharing, discussion, and play, while learning from local initiatives and play leaders from across the US and abroad.”

SO MUCH TO SAY about this amazing conference. I came back inspired to continue my work and to expand the network, particularly across Canada. A post-conference blog post has been on my to-do list and is half drafted in my Google Drive, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to share those thoughts on The Lion and The Mouse’s blog soon!

A couple of days later, I headed to Calgary to join forces with Calgary Child’s Play for a day. I hosted a couple of workshops with staff, speaking on my knowledge and experience in playwork and the particular way The Lion and The Mouse meshes the field of Playwork and that of Forest Schools to create our outdoor-based, play-based programs. This was also a valuable time to discuss the differences and challenges in bringing Playwork and opportunities for risky play (more on that in November’s post!) and outdoor play to accredited care programs.

The same afternoon, I helped CCP host their first-ever Pop-Up Adventure Playground. We had previously discussed the kinds of loose parts that would make it interesting, and I was blown away by what they managed to gather. None of the staff at The Lion and The Mouse have a vehicle, so although we get larger items donated by our families, we have always been limited in the kinds of large boxes, pallets, and amount of tires or other large objects we can bring to our Pop-Up events, simply due to lack of transportation in gathering such supplies. When I saw the sheer amount of items CCPers had amassed, I was excited to see how kids would use the materials. We all got to work setting up and got ready to welcome kids from the Westgate community, as well as CCP’s program participants, for the end of the school day. Plenty of extra staff were on hand to step in if needed, but mainly to observe the event.

Although some neighbourhood kids had already joined the event at this point, witnessing the sixty-plus kids that are part of the Westgate CCP program ascend onto the Pop-Up space, on a sunny but cold day in a field just outside of the community centre, was quite the sight. I never know how kids will react to such events, since many (but not all, of course), don’t regularly engage with open-ended materials in such a space, especially when we tell them that apart from injuring each other, they can do whatever they want with the materials. The initial 15-20 minutes were CRAZY. No other word for it, really. The kids barrelled into the large space that we had set up and while some got to work building, or simply exploring, a critical mass of kids were simply interested in using some of the more stick-like loose parts to smash cardboard and run around and be loud. I think this was a bit of a shock for some staff members, but I assured them that after 15-20 minutes the group usually got into a groove, which was indeed what happened. For me as well, most Pop-Ups that we run take part as part of a community event such as a festival, and thus there aren’t usually a large group of kids that come at the same time, with the exception of the Spring Break Pop-up we did at the library, which was indoors and had much smaller loose parts (was still pretty energetic though!).

As mentioned, after the initial 15-20 minutes of running around and smashing boxes, kids got into the groove, and many began a series of projects, which they remained engaged in for the entire two-hour play session in some cases. Some kids built incredible fortresses/dens, some made dolls, some created games, some dressed up in costumes, some had battles out of cardboard tubes, and more. School-aged boys who – let’s face it, don’t do this THAT much at school – dressed up in “typically feminine” costumes, which to me showed that we had created a safe space. I’m not saying that boys don’t like playing dressup, but in my experience working in schools, they aren’t usually “allowed” socially to wear scarves and skirts and such things within play. Interestingly, there were a number of kids who incorporated what I saw as local culture into the games, such as pretending to be cowboys or ranchers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids pretend to be cowboys at a Pop-Up in Montreal. Culturally, the references are not the same.

Kids left the Pop-Ups having had fun playing, which is the most important, but also being proud of the things they had created. They didn’t want us to take down the dens, and indeed I would have loved to leave them up, should the City of Calgary have allowed it. They were so excited to share with their parents all the things they did and made.

Helping run this Pop-Up was a ton of fun for me, and made me prioritize getting our hands on fridge and furniture boxes for our next Montreal Pop-Up event. I hope it inspired staff and parents to find opportunities for loose parts play, either in a massive Pop-Up style event or simply by adding them to their daily play spaces. It inspired me, at least, to continue providing such opportunities.

Thanks to CCP for giving me the chance to spend some time with you, and for being allies in child-led play in Canada!


Loose Parts in all their glory

 “As soon as they arrived, children simply started playing, with whomever and whatever was around and interesting to them. Three girls were “talking” on their “cell phones”, using rocks they had found on the ground. Later on, they created an “office”, hauling over cinder blocks, which had been left beside the park after a festival. Several kids were playing foosball on an old foosball table that had been donated and fixed up by the kids. Two girls found several boxes from the supplies Megan had brought and were creating a house with ribbon, fabric, paint, and tape. One boy wanted to play ping-pong on the cement ping-pong table in the park (the same table later became a doctor’s office, house, secret hideout, Pokemon headquarters, and many other things throughout the week). Two boys were absorbed in drawing Pokemon characters (later in the day, a bunch of kids joined in the Pokemon games, without any actual cards or even necessarily a background knowledge of the “real” Pokemon game – including using bricks, cinder blocks, bottle caps, pinecones, and sticks to convert a wooden bench into a Pokemon “battle ground”). With a piece of cloth, one girl built her own swing. This led to the construction of a “house” made out of strips of cloth on the ground, ropes, and more swings. I was impressed with how engaged the children were in their activities, only asking for help with things like cutting tape or tying ropes onto trees. Loose parts play equals risk taking, having a variety of easily accessible materials and supplies, and giving children the freedom to make choices.” -Bonnie

“I went with a group of kids to the Champ des Possibles, a green space about the size of three city blocks and used by a variety of people, to look for snails.  Around the walking paths there were indigenous plants and grasses, almost as tall or taller than the kids, weaving through smaller and larger bluffs of trees and small hills or ridges. The children were totally engaged in exploring this space that they had come to know”. -Jim

This August, as you may have seen on CCP’s Facebook page, Bonnie and Jim from CCP (and also my loving parents!) came to visit Montreal and spent a few days observing and participating in The Lion and The Mouse’s Adventure Camp day camp program – an entirely outdoors summer camp based on free play in natural settings. Afterwards, we debriefed about their experience and I asked them to share some of the moments that really stuck out for them or just general observations. The biggest take-away for them, as noted above, was the use of loose parts and how children use loose parts (found in the existing environment/ play space or provided by adults) to create or shift their moments of play.

The theory of loose parts was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s and have influenced thousands – millions? – of teachers, parents, early childhood educators, playworkers, landscape architects, museum directors, and more. Nicholson proposed that it is “the ‘loose parts’ in our environment that will empower our creativity. That is, “materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials”. (http://www.readingplay.co.uk/) As Nicholson (1970) laid out in one of his articles, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

I heard about loose parts a long time ago in my work with young children, and more so when I started learning about the Reggio Emilia approach. However, I didn’t really understand the theory of loose parts until I began my Playwork course last fall. In my experience with the Reggio Emilia approach in North America (to no fault of its own, but that is an entirely different discussion) loose parts are often presented as beautiful additions to adult-created play spaces, and to me seemed limited, controlled, and highly “curated”. In playwork, and of course through Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, I discovered a different understanding of loose parts – that pretty much any object could be used to make almost literally ANYTHING without an adult agenda, a specific curriculum, or “theme”. Having empty cardboard boxes, tubes, yogurt containers, TAPE, rocks, rope, paper, blocks, and other supplies readily available for children to use and manipulate as they see fit can create the most interesting objects or moments of play.

Particularly influential for me was an article I was sent in my course about loose parts in a children’s museum: “The best loose parts are objects children find and make their own. Traveling close to the ground, eyes wide open, and fingers outstretched, children notice, pick up, and become proud owners of dropped, discarded, and forgotten objects.” Adults-including myself- often dismiss these discoveries as irrelevant or as garbage, and indeed these “loose parts” are often actually destined for the garbage, such as bottle caps. However, it is pretty rare that kids get to make decisions on what they own, and truly “own” things not given to them and ultimately decided upon by an adult, so being able to gather pinecones, rocks, bottle caps, etc., is a wonderful feeling.


One of the fantastic elements of loose parts are that they are often free or very inexpensive – the biggest “supplies expense” in many of our programs is tape (and trust me, we use a LOT of tape)! It doesn’t take much to incorporate more loose parts into our play spaces or homes. More important than what materials are provided, because “loose parts” of one kind or another are all around us, is communicating to children that they are “allowed” to do as they wish, that there is no “final product” we are expecting them to make, and giving them the time and freedom away from a scheduled activity (and of course, being open to a bit of mess). Letting – or encouraging – a child to pick a few flowers or gather rocks on a walk is already a start. Have some tape, rope, old sheets, elastic bands, clothespins, bits of material, scissors, recycled objects, and perhaps some bottle caps available and you will be amazed by all that will come of it!



New school year, new ideas, new pals

September is a time for many kids for all that comes with back to school – new classes, teachers, and friends! For those of us long out of grade school, the changing temperatures and colours of the fall and a new burst of energy post-summer make it seem like the perfect time to launch projects and explore new ideas.

Inspired by our existing blog and Facebook page and our organizational philosophy, I was asked by Dee and Julia a few months ago if the organization I co-founded and work for, Le lion et la souris (The Lion and The Mouse), would write some guest posts for Calgary Child’s Play’s new blog. My colleagues and I were thrilled to get involved. We are huge advocates of play, making it the centre of all of our programming and community organizing. CCP is too, as is clear from conversations with Dee, Julia, and numerous other staff. One example that strikes me is that CCP is one of the few organizations in Canada that calls its “care workers” “Playworkers”, a small, but important distinction: seeing staff members as playworkers means encouraging staff to strive to “enable children to extend their own play and they protect and enhance the play space so that it is a rich play environment” (Play Wales).

Image by Alana Riley Play, to playworkers at least, is defined as play that is ‘freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated’ (PlayEd 1982). This is often called “free play” or “unstructured play”, but by definition, all play should be “free” and “unstructured”. The U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child recognized long ago not only the value of but also the right to play. Much academic research– and anecdotal evidence- shows that play increases cognitive functioning, independent thinking, self-regulation, social skills, physical activity levels, and overall well-being. Most importantly, however, play for the sake of play itself is fun and 100% necessary for all of us. As our friends over at Pop-Up Adventure Play said, “Play is play. Learning is incidental.”

_MG_5333Currently in Canada the value of and need for play is not fully heard. Kids in school are required to sit for long periods of time, standardized tests are abound, and in general, Canadian kids’ lives are increasingly adult-led, over-scheduled, and screen-filled. We got a D on the most recent Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth from Participaction. Thankfully, things are changing. Calgary is set to host the International Play Association’s 2017 world conference, and is one of the few Canadian cities to be developing a city-wide Play Policy. This summer, they hosted a number of Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds and are working hard to bring more natural additions and loose parts into their public spaces. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but through working together, with our friends and allies across Canada and around the world, I’m confident that how we see children – and their inherent right to play – will continue to shift. For now, we will celebrate the small things – exchanging ideas and communicating with parents and community members on our experiences in play, online or in person.

Thanks again to Calgary Child’s Play for inviting us to blog with them, and for joining us as allies in support of play. We look forward to our monthly blog posts (look for them on the 7th of every month!) and future collaborations. September’s post will be all about loose parts and CCP staffers’ reflections on their visit to The Lion and The Mouse in August. Have a playful end of summer!


All photos courtesy of Alana Riley, our awesome volunteer photographer! Check out her work here!