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The Future of Play

Play is changing. How Evergreen is facilitating outdoor play, loose-parts play and connection with nature.

Cam Collyer speaks to an audience at the Walrus Talk event.
Top image caption: Cam Collyer speaks about play at the Walrus Talks in June 2018

Published on September 11, 2018

Finding a spot next to the Children’s Garden at Evergreen Brick Works, we sat down with Cam Collyer, Executive Director of Programs at Evergreen. As children ran by, we spoke about how play is changing and how Evergreen’s programming is responding.

The Children’s Garden is an example of this. Ten years ago, the Evergreen team created a children’s program that evolved from experimentation in design and programming. The team knew they wanted to create a day camp that wasn’t an island experience but something that allowed the kids to connect with the city beyond the camp and in a place that they could return to during the school year.

A view of the Children's Garden at Evergreen Brick Works.

At the time, Collyer felt they were on the verge of something exciting. He and the team saw an opportunity to create a special place in the city where kids could connect with nature in the context of indoor, city culture; and that was a departure from conventional playgrounds.

“The Children’s Garden is a lab for us. We were looking for insight into design, insight into programming, insights from our audience about what they were drawn to and how they responded to the elements that we were creating,” says Collyer.

The Children's Garden has become such a beloved space at Evergreen Brick Works that improvements are planned for the fall.

Using these lessons, Evergreen now works with communities like Kitchener and Vaughan to revitalize green spaces and create neighbourhood nature play programs.

Children take part in nature play in Kitchener.
A pillar of this programming includes loose-parts introduced to the kids by a Playworker, an adult who both encourages and supports self-directed play on site. Loose-parts are movable elements and in this case, primarily natural objects that children manipulate, build and create with driven by their imaginations.

“The idea of provocation is really important in our practice. Our staff might weave some willow together, not a finished piece, but just a start. When the children arrive they see something new that sparks their imagination and then they see a pile of willow that’s available for them to add their ideas and create a new form that often produces a new story as well.”

The natural play elements can be found year-round, whether they be snow, ice, fallen leaves or dried grasses. The provocation could be as simple as a pile of snow.  

“It creates a spirit of exploration and invites curiosity and collaboration,” he says, adding, “The ironic and important part in our approach to this is that what we’re after is self-directed play. That’s the goal of our vision of supervised play, which is a bit of a paradox.”

This multi-sensory outdoor play is good for young minds and helps with both gross and fine motor skills, but the outcome also produces an emotional response to nature.

“Particularly in middle childhood, roughly elementary school, there’s a really strong affinity towards nature that’s stronger at that period than it is in other periods in our lives. This is often why in children’s story books you see talking animals. It’s born out of an insight in child development. Children at that age don’t want to just talk about animals, they want to become the animal and experience it firsthand.”

Kids in Kitchener on loose parts.

Evergreen’s play programming embraces risk. It isn’t a courtship with danger, but a recognition that risk is inherent and important because it drives learning and builds a confidence in a child’s skills and abilities. Resilience is an important outcome of this approach as it embraces the ebb and flow of the small challenges and successes that are a normal in everyday play.

A year ago, the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA), of which Evergreen is a founding member, released The Risk in Play and Learning Declaration, a statement outlining how risk-taking opportunities are an integral component of a well-functioning school ground and essential for healthy child development.

A key observation from our playwork in public spaces to date is that Playworkers need to connect with parents. Parents are struggling to manage screen time as well as their own anxieties about giving their kids independence in their play.

“Parents need to be in the conversation, they need support,” says Collyer, adding, “You can even do that with design. Like, provide parents with a really nice seating area away from the anchors of play. Changing the mindset from ‘as safe as possible’ to ‘as safe as necessary’.”