Narrative Play as a way to learn empathy

I’ve noticed with my own kids that often, when they observe or I point out a small child who is sad, or a grumpy adult, they will ask why. Why is that baby crying?
Why is that dog barking?

And I will try to give a reason if I have one:
"Oh, that baby just dropped his ice cream."
"Maybe that dog is just trying to defend his yard."

And inevitably the kids will start acting out that scenario I just posed:

My child voicing the baby’s thoughts: "Oh no! I just got this sweet delicious treat that I never get to eat, and now it is gone! My mommy won’t even let me eat it off the floor! This is the worst day ever!"
My child as the dog: "Hey! This is my yard! Go away! Don’t even think about it!"

These are not meant as teasing or condescending. They are acts of empathy. They are trying to understand and mirror the child, dog, or adult’s thought process and reasoning.

These are examples of how narrative play, storytelling, and acting out scenarios, are acts of building empathy and taking a different perspective.

While this is not a new concept, I feel like it is often a forgotten aspect of play. We focus on the physical and cognitive benefits of play, and some of the mental health benefits, but not necessarily the interpersonal, empathy building aspects that are so critical to a society’s well-being and building better interpersonal understanding and skills.

In fact, narrative play is now being used as part of therapy practices.

As we face a mental health crisis in the US, and budget cuts are in progress or threatened across US school systems as well, it is a good reminder of the importance of narrative play, whether that is theater, literature classes, or open play during recess.

Let your kids tell stories, and explore others’ feelings.

Even if it’s the neighbor’s dog.


New post New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

Repost from THE DIRT…

Jared Green posted: "

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and"

New post on THE DIRT

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

by Jared Green

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found "we are deeply influenced by our surroundings" — even more than we know.

"We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment," Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that "humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking." (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also "programmed to look for faces everywhere." This may be why many traditional or vernacular homes and buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. "We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story."

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. "It’s an artifact of evolution."

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, "we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level."

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky. The image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all "encourage walking." If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. "There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment."

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which is something consistent over millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a "mental health crisis" in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because "people need social connections in order to thrive." Happy places help create layers of social relations, including "weak ties," which are actually very important. "Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges." Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is "change ourselves by changing the city." These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond "places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves." These places enable us to "bond with the environment around us."

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s virtual gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that "humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure."

The problem, he argues, is that "our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct," so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. "Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built." Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are "close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence."

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. "Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans." Furthermore, all urban spaces should be "continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable."

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be "applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries" — or the entire design will fail. "The measure of success will be the flow of people."

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — "these place intentionally violate symmetry laws," creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. "As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture."

Unfortunately, new developments can have the problem. Sussman asked: "Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky."

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

Jared Green | June 7, 2021 at 6:30 pm | Categories: Development, Inclusive Design, Landscape Architecture, Technology, Urban Redevelopment | URL:

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Cadbury’s Virtual Easter Hunt Lets You Hide Eggs on Google Maps

A fun way to keep people connected and get people outside:

Easter egg hunts are pretty much confined to people’s backyards this year—but Cadbury has created a lockdown solution for those who want to go further afield.

The Mondelez-owned chocolate brand, with the help of agency VCCP, has created a virtual Easter egg hunt using Google Maps.

Consumers can “hide” an egg anywhere on a map and then send a clue to loved ones to help them find it via email, link or WhatsApp. It is also offering people the chance to buy and send a real egg as a reward, when the virtual one is found.

The “Cadbury Worldwide Hide” experience aims to “connect people across the U.K. through the power of generosity,” the brand said.


My Happiness Bucket List

To be perfectly honest, I usually think of the first two months of any new year as "ramp-up" time. I have learned that the dark, wet days of January and early February where I live are just no good for starting something new. Plus I’m usually still trying to clean up and decompress after the holidays. And that was true even in a pandemic year. Less family gatherings, but the logistics were still stressful. PLUS, we moved house! Also during a pandemic!

BUT, as the days get longer and warmer, and the ground is less likely to be a giant mud puddle, and frankly I’m less likely to accidentally step into a puddle of water on my floor tromped in from various household members and pets, I start thinking about what I can do to renew myself and come out of my winter hermitage. Plus lately I’ve just been thinking about how I can take better care of myself and do more things that make ME happy. And I’m using "take care of myself" broadly. I don’t mean eat healthier, although I should probably do that too. I just mean be things for me rather than anyone else. Not work, not my kids, not my husband, or even renters. Just me.

I started working on a list of things that would make me SOOOO happy. And they’re very…. eclectic. In fact many might find them odd. But that’s another thing I’m trying to do is own my unique interests and embrace what makes ME happy.

And yes, I realize that happiness is fleeting, that is the journey not the destination that truly makes us happy. But as much as I hate the term "fill my bucket" it’s very apt in describing something that we all need to do to sustain ourselves and not become shells of former humans.

So, with that aside…

Bucket List of Happiness:
1. Create beasties again. I used to make cute fabric monsters, and had great ambitions to return to ceramics. I think I need to renew that ambition.
2. Be on an episode of Sesame Street, or interview a Muppet. A true joy of mine during the pandemic has been watching Vanity Fair interviews with Sesame Street characters, and outtakes of guest stars on Sesame Street. I want in! Why can’t I dream big?!

3. More photography. I LOVE taking photos. And looking at historical photos. Seriously, I briefly considered doing my Master’s thesis on historical visual culture a la photographs. Glad I didn’t, but that’s how much it fascinates me. Capturing a moment in time. A feeling. A story. In one frame. If you dare argue it’s not an art I will smite you down!!!
4. Crafting in general. I enjoy making things with my hands, and I really want to start a new hobby, it’s more that I have SO many projects I just want to finish. Which leads me to…
5. TIME! TO! MYSELF! I have come to accept I need A LOT of quiet/down time. On the introvert/extrovert scale, I land somewhere in the hermit zone, which is surprising to many folks. I used to get enough quiet time before kids because my husband and I had different work schedules, so I’d have at least a couple of quiet hours to myself after work before he got home. Post kids…. not so much. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to use the bathroom by myself, when it wasn’t also 3:00 am. I did sort of have my commute, at least? Except for the stress of traffic and anxiety of needing to get home by a certain time to get the kids out of daycare or pay extra. But then COVID-19 hit. And I had no time. NONE. To myself. NONE! Walks were a small escape, but in the city you’re never really alone. Even in the park I had to worry about my safety. And not theoretically, I was verbally assaulted at least twice by homeless people in the park or my neighborhood. Since we moved to Bellingham, I’ve been slowly able to go on walks in places that are truly quiet and alone. But honestly I just need to embrace my need to d e c o m p r e s s. By myself. Crafting or other artistic endeavours are a good way for me to give myself quiet time while still feeling like I’m being "productive." Or creative. Or both.
6. Eating bizarre food. I mean, not that bizarre. Sushi. Odd ramen dishes. Ethiopian food. That sort of thing. I enjoy new culinary experiences. And frankly the ambiance of the restaurant makes a difference too. My great aunt would take us to the BEST French and Italian bistros in her neighborhood in San Francisco, and trying new things like squid ink pasta is just the right amount of adventure for me. 🙂
7. Travel. When that’s a thing again. It doesn’t have to be too far, really. We took the kids out to Wenatchee and Leavenworth during Covid and it was. THE BEST!
8. Physical exertion, my own way. I am sort of picky about this. I want to either go on a long hike (I’m trying to pick up trail running again since it’s basically just a faster hike), or hit/kick something. I like kickboxing, like a lot! I’m sure I look like a doofus doing it, but I don’t care. And that is the true sign of something you love! (I think).
9. Affirmations. I’m a sucker for a gold star. I am learning that I can technically just give them to myself. If I gave myself a gold star sticker on the chore list, I’m not joking I’d probably feel better about washing dishes.
10. Gardening. This is something I already do, but it’s a delicate balance of not wanting to take on too much work vs. wanting to see things grow. I am pretty deliberately not planting a vegetable garden in the plot of dirt at our new place (I’ll bet you a nickel there are two tomato plants in there by May), but I did plant a tree in a spot that desperately needed some natural restoration (ssshhhh!)

That’s a good place to stop for now. I hope that by writing these out and sharing these with the world I can hold myself accountable to actually doing them.

How do you hold yourself accountable for your own happiness, self care, whatever you like to call it? Let me know in the comments below.


As we close out the crazy year that was 2020, I think this is a great attitude towards processing the chaos of our lives and moving forward:

After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.

Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”

I have had many walks this year where I’ve had to just stop and ponder life, whether it was next to a beach, a tree, or a stop sign.

Where do you go to vent?


It’s okay to reach out to a friend for no reason whatsoever

A lot of people in my life seem to need a friend to reach out to them this week.

To send a virtual hug, to give a pep talk, to say "yeah, that guy IS a jerk!"

To just be reminded they’re not alone.

I’ve never been good about reaching out, but this week I’m trying harder. Not just because it’s Mental Health Day on October 10 (which it is) but just because we all need to be reminded that there’s someone out there thinking of us, especially now.

Who can you send a text to today to let them know you’re thinking of them? Even just a book or TV show that made you think of them? Or use it as an excuse to share a funny GIF you saw. 🥰


Who needs a magical fairy door to somewhere right now?

Me! I do!
So I made one.
It was a fun project and I certainly could have done more, but it’s a good first start.
The kids helped picked out the spot.
They were worried it might be too high up, but I pointed out fairies can fly, so it’s probably fine.
And we’ll keep working on it, maybe put a deck up for the fairies to land on.
This was inspired both by my daughter’s love of building fairy houses right now, and by my discovery of the Tiny Doors of Atlanta.
I love miniatures in general, and would love to go check those out someday! And make some of my own.

In play,

anthropology · behavior · community · creativity · culture · happiness · mental health · Social

Social Cohesion in a time of Physical Distance


This is an odd time for the world. For the first time in a century we are faced with a novel virus that we don’t yet know all that is involved with keeping it at bay and keeping ourselves safe. Many nations are asking or demanding their citizens maintain “social distance” and/or quarantine themselves in their homes.

A friend pointed out an important distinction – we should be calling this “physical distance” not social distance, as this is a time when we need social cohesion and support more than ever.

And what a glorious age that we live in that we can still do this?

My kids can still call grandma on video calls, even though she is 1000’s of miles away. I can write an email or send pictures to my friends in a nanosecond.

I live in King County, one of the epicenters of the outbreak in the US, and immediately after schools closed parents created a Facebook group dedicated to supporting each other, sharing online resources for videos, workbooks, and fun online activities for kids to do while they were out of school. I’ll post a few of my favorites below.

Music and science groups also started offering their materials live, including free concerts and events. Authors have started offering “virtual” book signings and draw-alongs for kids and adults alike.

There are numerous organizations offering free resources – classes, books, videos – and even free Live events that will encourage our Netflix-enabled on-demand culture to schedule some time to tune in and all watch the same experience at the same time. The magic of the early Television age will be renewed as we will all be able to experience a concert together in real time, granted on channels like Facebook Live and Instagram, Zoom, and other channels.

Italy is demonstrating this social cohesion better than any nation currently. They have had impromptu sing-alongs, flash mob concerts, and just plain rebellious screaming from the balconies of their apartments in Naples, Rome, Sicily, and Florence.



We do not need to feel alone or isolated.

We can create solidarity among our neighbors with symbols, music, and messages.

My kids and I are going to spend the afternoon creating art and then decorating our front yard with art, just to remind everyone we are here, we are alive and well, and we are a community.


There are NUMEROUS opportunities for online learning, these are primarily Resources for online book readings, live events, and other free media that help support social cohesion and reducing feelings of isolation (although if you need those resources, here are just a few):

If you have others please share them and I will post them!



architecture · behavior · community · Social

A São Paulo Street Becomes an Urban Living Room

Great write-up from ASLA blog The Dirt:

How can a street encourage people to explore, play, and hang out? How can art, plants, and furniture be combined to create a sense of place?


In São Paulo, Brazil, a design collaboration between Brazilian firm Zoom Urbanismo Arquitetura e Design and furniture designers at LAO Engenharia & Design shows how. All Colors Sidewalk draws people in with its funky, organic charm.

In ArchDaily, the firms tell us that most streets in this mega-city, with a population of 12 million, are “very narrow, with irregular or no maintenance, and present many obstacles that discourage the circulation of pedestrians through the city.”

Through their re-imagining of the street landscape, the firms sought to show what an accessible space rich with layers would look like.

Along the 4,500-square-foot street, what grabs attention first is the flexible, wood street bleachers, which offer seating at street level and then perches above. The firms arranged them to create different views for people sitting, and flexible options for groups hanging out. At certain points, the bleachers rise up and form an arbor; at others, they become aerial structures for plants.

It is important to think about the ways we can continue to support neighborhoods and communities to make them friendly and shareable.