Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.
Playgrounds have for decades been shaped by a zero risk mindset, with, any injury seen as a sign of failure. But things are changing, in what the New York Times recently called a “movement for freer, riskier play.”
I am proud to be a part of this movement. And this article introduces a new report [pdf link] on play and risk that I have written for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the influential early childhood NGO, as part of its agenda-setting Urban95 initiative.
Entitled Playing it Safe? A global white paper on risk, liability and children’s play in public space, the report makes the case for a new approach, and calls for action by the key agencies involved in creating and maintaining play spaces, including city governments, NGOs, research institutions and safety and public health agencies.
Building kid-friendly spaces are also building adult-friendly spaces. Even in cities with seemingly more pressing issues, focusing on making playful spaces goes a long way to alleviate tensions and allows space to focus on those big issues.
I have been aware of Rotterdam’s child-friendly cities initiatives for at least ten years. It is the most ambitious I know, with the biggest budgets and the clearest focus. I have visited projects in 2014 and 2017, and have been impressed by what I saw.
So I was excited to be back in the city last month as part of my Churchill Fellowship travels, and eager hear more of the city’s story. And I quickly learnt one thing: Rotterdam’s push to become more child-friendly is deeply linked to its history, economy, demographics and built form.
To mark the 400th anniversary of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which was built during the reign of Phillip III, urban artist SpY temporarily transformed this hard urban place into a turf-covered green space. Over four days, some 100,000 Spaniards and tourists came to sit and chat on the circular lawn, simply named Cesped or Grass.
Cesped / SpY
According to Design Boom, the circle spans some 3,500 square meters, with a diameter of 70 meters. It’s a surprising new form for a space once used by Spanish Inquisitors to torture and execute heretics.
Cesped / SpY
SpY has done other intriguing projects using urban nature as a canvas. Grow in Besançon, France, involved pruning climbing vines into a circle. For SpY, these works demonstrate “an artist’s route through urban space.”
Grow / SpY
And SpY also playfully subverts security infrastructure. In another inventive project, Labyrinth in Ordes, Spain, the…
Especially with the increased output of Hollywood superhero movies these days, it can be easy to think of them as nothing more than shallow entertainment. However, the powerful storytelling and archetype of the superhero is something that appeals to many of us on a deeper level; it teaches us about standing up for those in need. My husband and I used this archetype recently with our own kids.
My elder son and daughter attend the same preschool, and unfortunately there was an increase in bullying behavior recently. This is developmentally typical for this age, and it also provides a good opportunity for learning how to deal with bullies in the “real world.” Kids have to learn how to respond to mean or bullying behavior, just like they need to learn how to say no when a friend wants to play house or play fight and they don’t (and don’t get me started on how adults need to learn the difference between bullying and roughhousing! That is for a later post). Kids who are not the target of bullying also need to learn how to respond when they see it. Often they will ignore it so as not to become a target themselves, or they will join in. It does not mean they are malicious kids, they are simply trying out behaviors they see.
But we asked our kids to go a step further, and not just ignore but try to help.
When we heard this was going on, we sat down with them and talked with them about why the behavior wasn’t okay, were they targets, were they participating, and did they feel safe. Then my husband told them, “You are both very strong, and I want you to try something; I want you to stand up to anyone you see picking on a kid in your class who may not feel strong, who is getting bullied. I want you to support them, even if they are not your best friend. Can you do that?”
My daughter nodded her head in understanding, but my son, who is only 3, wasn’t exactly sure what Dad meant. My husband tried to explain it again, but started getting more complicated in his wording, and I could see Keir’s eyes start to glaze over in confusion. But I realized my husband was describing something very familiar to our son.
“We want you to be a superhero,” I interjected. My son loves superheroes (and bad guys like Darth Vader, but it’s hard to have one without the other). His eyes lit up. My husband immediately caught on to where I was going.
“That’s right. Superheroes stand up to bad guys and bullies and protect their friends, even people who are not their friends,” he explained. “Even if nobody else is, in fact because nobody else is, they stand up for those who need help. Can you be like a superhero?”
My son seemed frankly a little shocked by the idea that HE, a little guy, could be a superhero in real life. But he also seemed willing to give it a try.
By reading stories and playing superhero (and bad guys), both my kids understood what it meant to stand up to bullying and supporting and defending your friends without even really “knowing” it . The hero archetype is a valuable one; through reading about it and playing one we learn to be brave for ourselves and others, and that sometimes we fight the battles nobody else wants to.
The next morning, I helped my kids bundle up against the cold morning, saying, “all right, let’s get our superhero outfits on.” As they trundled out the door to school with their dad, I called out, “good luck, little superheroes!” At pick-up that day, I asked the usual questions – what did you work on? Who did you sit with at lunch?
My daughter answered, “I asked [kid often being bullied] to play with me, and [kid who often bullies] to sit with me at lunch.”
I think she’s embodied being a compassionate superhero better than I have. But then, she and her brother play/practice being superheroes a lot.
Happy New Year! You may be wondering “where has Beth been?” Well, I have been having a baby! My whole family is thrilled, and my older kids can’t wait to play with their new baby sister once she’s big enough. My posting here will still be a little sporadic over the next few weeks as we all get into the groove of new baby life, but I am also aiming for this new addition in my life to provide me inspiration and momentum to post more about play and human development.
As we start our own new adventures in 2018, several people may be thinking about new year’s goals and resolutions. I think any time of year is a good time to start something new, but sticking with a new habit or ritual has been proven to be quite hard for most folks.
While some goals need discipline and structure – quitting smoking, getting more organized – there are also many opportunities to “gamify” your challenges for yourself.
Rafe Kelley, founder and lead coach of Evolve Move Play (and co-creator of said new baby) presented a fantastic TEDx Talk last fall about this very topic. Listen to his take on how to integrate play into both mundane and daunting challenges:
Rafe’s talk was focused primarily towards a high school and college-aged audience, but the messages are valuable for people of all ages starting out on something new or holding themselves accountable to new goals.
In the talk, Rafe discusses how it is also important to build in rewards or fun elements into your bigger to-do list when working toward your goals.
As a great example of this, I happened to stumble upon this video of a bunch of traceurs challenging each other to do vertical back-flips. These grown men are challenging each other in a seemingly frivolous activity, but it in fact helps inform multiple aspects of their broader parkour training, and is therefore valuable from a fitness & training standpoint. It also encourages problem-solving and camaraderie/accountability, two things which are vital when trying to hold yourself to new habits or goals.
While very few of us will ever be able to do what these traceurs do, I want it to inspire people (me too!) that adding play to your training – whether you’re training for a marathon or starting a new business – is not a “distraction” it is essential to maintaining your motivation and drive.
Enjoy your new year’s resolutions! Mine are crafting more, writing more, and hiking more.
At Spaulding, patients recovering from traumatic injury are rejuvenated by good medical care, but also sunlight, garden terraces, and views of the surrounding Charles, Mystic, and Chelsea Rivers. The hospital landscape is a multi-functional therapeutic space where therapists aid patients in the air and sun. In a tour of the 132-bed facility at the 2017 Greenbuild, Jeffrey Keilman, an architect with Perkins + Will and Sean Sanger, ASLA, principal at landscape architecture firm Copley Wolff Design Group explained how the facility heals, but is also one of the most sustainable and resilient…
I love Buettner’s take on the “Lazy Person’s Approach to Happiness” – in the end it really is what you are surrounded by, both in objects, people, and broader environmental things, from ads to trees to your daily commute.
Over the past 15 years, Buettner has carved out a niche at National Geographic, where he travels the world in search of the healthiest people and “distills their lessons,” as he puts it, translating existential philosophy into practical information for limited-attention-span U.S. readers.
Beuttner: “There are two points that I make that you might not have heard elsewhere. Number one, I like the idea of thinking about happiness in the same way you think of your retirement portfolio. You want it balanced—the short term and long term, stocks and bonds. The hell-bent pursuit of purpose kind of loses the point a little bit, because there is value in the sum of positive emotions we experience every day. So if all you’re doing is pursuing your purpose, or if all you’re doing is very goal-oriented, you forgo joy today for a perceived better future… So I argue that there are a number of things you can do to enjoy your life day to day, and you ought to be putting some of your effort there.
“So what I argue for are statistically driven things you can do to optimize your environment so you’re more likely to be happy for the long term… [For example] people who live near water—whether it’s a lake or river or an ocean—are about 10 percent more likely to be happy than people who don’t. And people who live in medium-sized cities are more likely to be happy than the anonymity of a big city or perhaps the too in-your-face, limited-possibility environment of a tiny town. You’re more likely to be happy if your house has a sidewalk, and if you live in a bikeable place.
“Financial security is also, obviously, huge. It really does deliver more happiness over time than most anything that money can be spent on… The extent to which we spend money is very much a product of our environment. If you’re constantly prompted to buy stuff, if constant marketing messages are rinsing over your psyche, you’re more likely to buy things than to spend that money more wisely on experiences or financial security. So that’s yet another way we can think about our environment shaping our happiness. Or lack thereof.”
Beuttner gives examples of cities that have done exceptionally well to create positive environments for their citizens, such as Boulder, CO, and my hometown of San Luis Obispo, CA.
In your book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Design Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, co-authored with Naomi Sachs, ASLA, you argue we’re returning to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, who understood the healing power of nature and mind-body connection. Why has it taken so long to rediscover these essential understandings?
While the understanding was not entirely lost, the medical world needed proof. They were not interested in aesthetic arguments that gardens are “nice” and people appreciate “green views.” Those…
Introvert-extrovert labels have always intrigued me because I grew up in a house of introverts, where quietness was an essential part of the day. Yet we did plenty of things attributed to extroverts, like attending parties every week, having a house full of guests over the holidays, and going on road trips with other families and random friends of my parents.
There was always down time built into our days and nights. In high school, I assumed I was an extrovert because of all the tell-tale signs of things extroverts are supposed to enjoy based on the highly inaccurate and oversimplified checklist I used to self-diagnose. I enjoyed things extroverts are presumed to like that introverts supposedly don’t: playing sports, spending time with other human beings, going to crowded places like the mall, doing loud things like attending musical concerts and parties.
But at the same time, my personality seemed to be at odds with these things. There was always a caveat. I liked going to parties, but hated making small talk. I liked spending time with some people, but wanted my alone time. I liked martial arts, but hated having to perform in front of the class for promotions. I wrongly thought I must just not like these activities. I had neglected to take into account that introverts have a different approach to things like parties and learning sports than extroverts might.
Here are a list of five things I especially enjoy that are sometimes viewed as exclusive extrovert territory, yet can be very easily enjoyed by introverts without even much tweaking.
I grew up being enthralled by martial arts, primarily through Bruce Lee movies I watched as a kid. I’ve dabbled in kickboxing, kungfu, and recently capoeira, which all involve moving primarily by footwork: standing up, punching, or kicking. One of the things I really enjoy about this style is that you can have your alone time to just focus on repetitive movements, especially when using pads or heavy bags to practice.
Ground fighting styles like Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, on the other hand, seem like they’d be an introvert’s worst nightmare,because the assumption is you need outward extroversion to engage. There is no alone work, barring warm ups; you are constantly drilling techniques or “rolling” with another person from the moment you step on the mats. When Renzo Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Jersey City opened up a few blocks from us, I had no intention of signing up, but my adventurous seven-year-old ambivert daughter had other plans. I wasn’t surprised she took to it, although was a little surprised she wanted to sign up for the entire year and loves it so much she practically lives there. I was also surprised by the amount of time you’re in your own head in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Once you learn a technique, it’s all about strategizing with your partner in order to pull off the move. I’ve been training for six months, and it is pretty impressive how few moves I can pull off given the amount I train. My daughter, on the other hand, can run circles around me without even thinking about the steps required.
I fell in love with karaoke when I lived in China, where it is a very intimate affair with a few friends and private rooms. Karaoke in the United States, with big stages in rooms full of people, would terrify anyone not drunk. Or anyone who can’t sing (not that I have that issue, cough, cough). But there are plenty of areas in many cities that have genuine Asian style karaoke with small rooms and a handful of snacks to order from. My favorite joints in New York City are the ones that allow kids. My daughter loves randomly picking a song in a different language, while I stick to familiar classics that I can introduce her to: British punkrock from the 1970s. Don’t let Hollywood fool you into thinking this is extrovert territory. The best thing about it is that you’re supposed to be off-key, just like you’re not meant to be some classically trained singer when you’re jumping on the bed belting out lyrics to a song with your friends, or you’re in the car and your jam comes on. The best part is when you make mistakes and get out of tune or read the lyrics wrong!
Fact: dancing is fun. While I prefer dancing at home with my kids, sometimes I am required to leave the house for adult social gatherings. I have exactly four moves I use at Punjabi parties that I learned when I was 13 and are still going strong. But there are plenty of venues for introverts to stomp those feet. If Salsa night or Bhangra night at a dance club are not your thing, there are plenty of other options. Many gyms offer dance classes as a form of exercise, rather than just the study of the dance technique itself.
There are many forms of dance from all over the world you can learn at a dance studio, which used to be relegated only to professional dancers, that now even casual dancers can try out. In addition to classes like breakdancing, salsa, or ballet, in places with high numbers of immigrant populations, there are also some wonderful schools catering to the art from those communities, ranging from traditional Indian dances to African dances like the Soukoss rooted in the Congo. I’ve always wanted to learn traditional Indian dances like Bharat Natyam or Kathak, with incredible footwork, facial expressions, and intricate details. In many areas of New Jersey and New York with large Indian populations (especially South Indians) you can learn these forms at dance companies like Navatman. And many of these dance studios have their own themed nights emulating a dance club, except they’re with people you know and they end at a reasonable time, allowing you to get home at a reasonable hour and read that book!
Family and Friends Road Trip!
I find it sad when introverts buy into the notion they could never survive a road trip with other people, especially family and friends. Of course, if there are deep-seated feuds happening, introversion is going to be the least of your issues. I grew up all over the world, and every country we’d live in, there would always be roadtrips whenever there was a long weekend. In Nigeria, we’d visit waterfalls, in Dubai we’d go on camping trips on the beach or to see the dunes, and in the United States we went on a big fat extended family trip to visit three islands in Hawaii. It is definitely a challenge when extroverts don’t understand the need for introverts to be alone because it’s so ingrained in our culture that this is the behaviour of someone who is angry or sad or depressed, and it must be fixed immediately. So rather than putting ourselves in a situation where we have to justify ourselves, we carved it into the schedule. Chill time, however we decided to use that time, was not optional. Without it, it feels like you’ve been scheduled for five museum visits in one day!
I once made the mistake of going on a dumpling crawl with someone I knew from work when I used to work at a company selling knives door to door (it did not go well). I got the idea from somewhere (I turned out to be wrong) that they knew what they were doing. The idea of a crawl sounded like fun – walking around exploring a city while stopping frequently to sample dumplings. It turned out to be planned with a very extroverted sense of fun in mind. There were long walks filled with awkward small talk and way too much food ordered at each dumpling joint, which gave rise to even more small talk. If Shakespeare had gone on that dumpling crawl, I’m pretty certain he would have centered his tragedies on food crawls. I can’t think of very many things worse than not being able to enjoy your food and being inconvenienced by needing to find something to say, over and over again. The dumpling crawls I subsequently planned, with my kids first and later with a select group of adults, took into top priority the enjoyment of maximum dumplings without too much time-wasting conversation. This is not to say we can’t have fun conversations, but there were no long walks, and definitely no long draining commute times!
Leisure time activities are often pre-scripted as “introvert” and “extrovert” activities, as if extroverts can’t enjoy a quiet evening at home with a glass of wine and a book, or an introvert couldn’t possibly go dancing because of the loud music and people.
While extroverts can spend hours surrounded by people, going from one activity to another, without any people-break, and be totally sane afterwards, introverts like myself would end up eating somebody. Strategies are important. What are some of yours?
Wow, I can’t believe it’s already November. Fall has been going fast.
It seems like I have been incredibly “busy with stuff” – kid stuff, grown-up stuff, house stuff, work stuff. Recently I realized I was forgetting to do all the also-important “me” stuff.
I mean, I wasn’t so bad; I had had several coffee dates with friends, taken time to go for more walks, was deliberately NOT folding laundry and instead just snuggling on the couch during my husband’s and my Friday night TV ritual (we won’t admit it’s a ritual but at this point it really is).
So the “little” maintenance stuff was getting done. Check.
However, I realized I wasn’t making time for the “big stuff”. The stuff that gave me purpose, that made me feel like I was contributing back to the community.
A few recent events reminded me of this.
First: Getting to attend and present at a fantastic conference two weeks ago – EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) held in Montreal this year – where I was surrounded by like-minded folks in my line of work (ethnography and studying humans in business and corporate settings). There’s nothing like being able to share your work and how you spend your days, and have people say, “wow, that’s cool!” or even “have you considered this too?”, rather than “uh, what’s that?”
Second: Halloween! While I’m not a huge fan of candy (and we ended up trading the kids’ candy for a “better” treat), I do appreciate the communal ritual of kids running like hooligans up and down their neighborhood streets, getting to show off their costumes to the grown-ups who might otherwise be isolated – whether they’re retirees or just work 70+ hours a week – who then get to be social with cute kids in cute costumes and make the kids happy by giving them treats. Not to mention the fun of dressing up and pretending to be someone or something else, or just offering a visual pun or cultural reference!
Third: my boss organized an offsite for our whole team to use glue and stickers and washi tape and cut out pictures from magazines and create “vision boards” for ourselves. Theoretically it was about work, but in reality and fully endorsed by our boss, it was really about finding four big-but-small goals that are going to keep you motivated, keep you driven, at home, at work, and in life.
Mine were pretty simple yet also pretty complicated:
Make my work more actionable (not just work for work’s sake; what were the actions that could be taken from it?).
Go on one “big” adventure a year.
Get people playing more.
Getting myself to play seems hard enough; but getting others to play more also taps into that #2 goal of making what I do impactful/actionable.
I want to do more than just support play, I want to start actively PLAYING and pushing play. Start toy-bombing again. Start promoting play activities with our neighbors and at work. I’m supposed to be in charge of a yarn bombing event at work, and yet I’ve been hesitant to promote the HELL out of it (not sure why).
All of those things have really pushed me to making both personal play and advocating play more of a reality.
Yes, the house still needs cleaning (desperately!). Yes, we still need to run and grab food at the grocery store. Yes we still have But having a mission makes all of those things more tolerable for me, and put into a perspective of being part of a larger goal. I need food to keep up my energy. I need to tidy (okay, also scrub/purge/deep clean) the house so I can find what I need and focus on my projects.
I’ve noticed over the years I coincidentally tend to come up with my “new year’s resolutions” around the pagan New Year of Samhain rather than the Gregorian New Year on January 1, so all of these experiences make it a perfect time to renew and re-assert my goals and energy towards play.
What are some of your goals for renewing yourself and keeping yourself inspired and enriched? Let me know in the comments below.