After School POP UP Adventure Play at Laughlin Park, Friday June 5

IMG_3329We are very excited to be putting on an After School POP UP Adventure Playground to celebrate the final days of the school year! Join us at Laughlin Park (420 Atlas Ave) from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. on Friday June 5! Please pack a change of clothes and a sweater as there may be rain and there will definitely be mud play!

We are looking forward to seeing you all there! :)


PLAY, Risk and the Child Friendly City

TIM GILL_POSTER_PRINTING_FINAL copyBack when this website was created, we optimistically announced a Conference for 2015. Investing months into planning the POP UPs and many more months into raising funds for the PLAYbynature Project, the likelihood of our little organization mounting a conference seemed more and more remote. Then we heard that Tim Gill, U.K. Play Policy expert, was planning a cross-Canada tour and with the generous help of Adam Bienenstock of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, we booked Tim to speak in Toronto!

Other partners have gathered around this GreenHere PLAYbynature Bienenstock collaboration to make this mini-conference possible.  Support has flowed in from Councillor Ana Bailao, the City of Toronto Parks and Recreation, Planning and Community Development Departments as well as the non-profit sector: Earth Day Canada, Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, Canadian Wildlife Federation.

The “play problem” is multi-facetted, as will be the solutions.  There are many environmental, administrative, legal, economic and social barriers that have accumulated over the last 20 years to shut down children’s independent play, putting many of them at risk for obesity and anxiety.  What is needed is an over-arching goal to support the children’s needs and commitment to work together to engineer new solutions.

An Evening with Tim Gill and a multi-disciplinary panel of local experts will be one of what we hope will be many collaborative, inter-sectoral, cross-disciplinary discussions to make Toronto a truly Child Friendly City.  We would love to see you and hear from you on May 14, 2015 at Metro Hall, 55 John Street, Toronto, Rm 308-309, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

You can rsvp through our Facebook page or through Eventbrite.




Do you have vivid memories of your childhood play?  Remembering play days can often evoke a special kind of whole body and mind joy.  We would love to hear about them. Your play memories can help us form a data base for learning and re-membering play, bringing it back into our children’s lives, re-learning what makes children feel really alive and happy as well as supporting their physical and mental health and their social learning.

Here is a wonderful play memory written by our Practicum Student from Ryerson University, Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography:


” When I was a kid, I knew all of the best hiding spots on my block. I grew up on a street that had several households with children around my age and after school, when the weather was nice, we would often come together to play a big game of Man Hunt- a more mobile version of hide and seek.

My block provided the perfect boundaries because only one side of it was residential, while a church, funeral home and doctor’s office accounted for the rest. Their trees, gardens, parking lots and structures provided many places to hide that were rarely disturbed by the public. Several of my neighbours allowed us to play on their properties, so we had permission to hide on all but a few lots. However, since I was an ‘expert hider’ I was brave enough and willing to sneak into these ‘high risk’ areas.

When we played manhunt, I would jump from hiding spot to hiding spot –from tree to bush to doorway—and if found, I knew all of the short cuts back to home free. Sometimes I would even go out on my own when we weren’t playing to set up hiding spots: storing a sheet near some garbage cans as a disguise, or making clearings between bushes and walls. I saw this landscape as one of opportunities for revolutionary hiding spots, as part of my goal to be the first to discover new and creative places to hide.

Truthfully, I was probably not the only one who took the game this seriously, and I think that is why the other kids on my street and I took so long to tire of playing it. With the constant development of new hiding spots, the game never became easy for the hunters as they were never quite sure where to look, or boring for the hiders as they were always excited to test out new spots. We would play for hours, only returning to our homes in time for dinner.

These local games of manhunt, took place on my block, with about 10 other kids from my street. However as we grew older, we stopped spending time together as some families moved away, we attended several different schools, and we became pre-occupied with our own circles of friends.   When I walked down the street, passing my favourite hiding spots, I was often reminded of the fun I used to have playing manhunt with my neighbours.

One day, when I was about 18, I found myself walking home from school with one of my neighbours, and we began reflecting on how much fun we used to have. This conversation quickly turned into a plan to call on the others and round up all of our friends for the biggest game of manhunt that our childhood selves would never have imagined.

On the day of the hunt, there were about 40 participants.   With a bigger group in both size and numbers, it seemed appropriate to move on to bigger territories, so we crossed the street and took to the park to make new boundaries. With a library, tennis club, ice rink, parking lot and several sports field, these boundaries felt huge. While the hunt was fun, the running involved was exhausting and my patience to remain hidden was nothing like it used to be. The game quickly evolved into a hang-out in the park.

To this day, when I walk past my favourite spot (an un-kept hedge that runs along the side of the church), I imagine a nine-year-old version of myself concealed within it and hope that one day it will be discovered by the next generation of ‘man-hunters’.”

K. French

Because our student is a spatial analyst, we had to have a map!  Play Memory

Here is a fairly typical suburban setting, but there are a few special features on K’s block that are not typical and contributed, perhaps, to the pleasure of the game. The actual residential portion is only about 20% of the site, so only about a dozen houses. That would have been intimate.  The rest of the block was taken up with other commercial uses – offering different terrain and a sense of the larger world – adventure for a child but yet, not so busy that parents would restrict children from using these areas.

K’s memory brings out many delightful themes about play.  K and her pals were lucky to have parents who let them roam through the whole block, trusted them to respect the boundaries and they had neighbours who were tolerant of trespassers, even if they did not exactly invite the kids onto their properties.

Manhunt is the essence of social play but along with the sense of belonging and making something exciting together,  K remembers the personal and private element that went into the game – the imaginative re-making of spaces into hiding spots – the scheming, the physical bravery and the thrill of being hunted as well as hunting.  And notice how she found “loose parts” and hid them in the environment to make even better hiding spots.

Through hide ‘n seek in its various forms, children re-enact the essence of childhood – experiencing, in a playful and thrilling way, the inevitable separations and re-unions are part of growing up and are often painful – whether that is leaving home for all day school or finding yourself still dependant and connected when you are 16 years old.

K’s desire to re-experience the child’s euphoria with her teenage friends is a touching epilogue.  Teens want to become children again, but they can’t and they found this out when the game faded – but there are compensations – in the hanging out that becomes their new way of playing.

I love this description of manhunt because it highlights how very important hide ‘n seek games are for children right up to their teenage years.  This kind of play is often difficult for children in downtown Toronto or even some suburban settings.  They don’t have roaming rights.  Backyards are fenced. Parks are too open and flat – there are not enough good hiding spots.  And the village of children is hard to find and keep.

What can we do about these obstacles?  It is a complex knot to unravel but one place to start might be making our parks more interesting with a few more trees and bushes, a patch of forest,  a shed structure with some “loose parts” available on occasion with the quiet presence of a rec worker and more community support for the roaming village of children.

Feeling inspired? Would you like to contribute to the research on play? Our work benefits from your stories and recollections. We invite you to describe a significant memory of how you played as a child and how you think it has affected you, professionally or personally?

The Science of Childhood – a philosopher’s perspective

There is lots in the news these days about children, helicopter parenting, living with teens. Listen to this neurologist and research scientist from Philly, whose children affectionately referred to her as Captain Obvious. (Sorry, if that’s a spoiler)

Here is another spoiler for concerned Moms:  continue to inform, repeat (a.k.a. nag), manage (a.k.a. be ridiculously controlling, from their perspective), and require (a.k.a. set unreasonable limits, again from their perspective).

The teenage brain is uniquely positioned to learn a lot and very fast. We can take advantage of this biological window to load them up with good things.  Let’s make sure they are rich, challenging and worthwhile things.

But what the research doesn’t say and can’t say is that many of our teens arrive at these years already burnt out and de-motivated by too much control and teaching in the early and middle years. They have not had their wild time, their developmental time. They have already been overburdened. This is the fallacy of too much education and not enough play from ages 3 – 12.  See Dr. Peter Gray in his excellent Ted Talk.

The science doesn’t say this definitively yet, but some poets and philosophers do. Nietzche wrote about the developmental cycle as a transformation of the lion to a camel to a child that says yes. Joseph Campbell interpreted the parable thus: children are lions, wild, hungry and lazy too. Teens are the camels that can be loaded down with the burdens of the culture. (Captain Obvious would agree, I think.) Somewhere in the desert – as the story goes – the camel is transformed into a child that is a human being, youthful by nature, playful by nature. (The science of neoteny would support this view.) The burdens have become consciousness – a child who can choose, say yes to some things, go forth. To me,  this sounds like what the neurologists call “the necessary pruning” of the adult brain.

But in the first dozen years of our prolonged human childhood, our kids must be allowed to be the little lions that they are, dependent but wildly playful, hungry, ruthless, exploring the savannah in their packs, practicing their hunting, nipping at their mother’s bodies until she gathers them to sleep and dream of future conquests.  If not all day for the human child, then at least for a few long hours, every day.  

And let’s remember that studies and the questions they ask have their origins in those hours of deep reverie shared by poets, philosopher’s and scientists alike.

Project WILD Thing

On November 26, Earth Day Canada will be presenting a film screening of Project WILD Thing, followed by a panel discussion.  The film is a light-hearted but serious investigation into how children’s experience of the outdoors and the outside world in general has changed.  PLAYbynature will be participating in the panel discussion after the film.  If you are a young parent, a naturalist, an educator or a wild thing yourself, I think you will find this film interesting.

Watch the preview here.  Hope to see you at the screening!


Wildness and Culture in Hope Bay, Ontario

Recently on a work retreat in the Georgian Bay area, I met a young journalist and filmmaker, name, Nelson Phillips, who spoke eloquently about his summers up in Hope Bay, his gang of friends, their wanderings in the forest and along the shoreline that joined the cottages.  When Nelson began describing the freedoms of his childhood, I asked him if he would like to contribute to our “play memory” archive, little knowing that the article was already written and here it is!

Now I am taking my whole family up to the 1st Annual Wild Lands Film Festival in Owen Sound on the Thanksgiving Weekend!  Nelson is one of the organizers and will be showing a film of his own.  I am curious to see how the theme of “wild lands” is interpreted in the Festival.

Wildness and playfulness are often the same thing in a happy childhood. I have heard numerous elderly people recollect with pleasure the feeling of being able to “run wild” as children, to do what ever they wanted – with other children and without reference to the adult world.  They contrast this state with the grooming and good manners they were expected to show on Sundays. Here is another boundary that has changed in the last 30 years.

Nelson tells me that kids in Owen Sound don’t wander as much as they used to and this doesn’t surprise me.  Kids in the country are just as subject to the social fears and enclosures that are shutting down free play for children in the city.

At the Wild Lands Film Festival, I’ll be looking for some insight.  Meanwhile, we are all looking forward to a glorious autumn weekend in Northern Ontario!  Long hikes, good (craft) beer, (as promised!) and the delicious smell of the fall forest.