A new game: Reconnecting communities through play

First Published In: 
Yonge Street
First Published On: 
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

By Sheena Lyonnais

The city of Toronto has become more divided in recent years along lines of race and class, according to the Toronto Community Foundation's vital signs report discussed at last week's Yonge Street Speaker Series panel on the power of play. But, said one attendee who echoed the panel's sentiments, there are ways to bridge the gaps. One of the ways to reconnect disparate communities across the city is through parks and playgrounds.

"We take the presence of playgrounds in our neighbourhoods and our communities now for granted, but what I learned through my research was they were a turn of the century invention and they were the result of a struggle by activists who were known at the time as child savers," says attendee Erica Simmons, a social historian who is currently writing a book about the history of playgrounds, in a follow-up call. She was quick to ask questions during the panel's Q&A.

Simmons' research is an extension of the Ph.D thesis she wrote a few years ago; she has since come to further understand the playground's role in shaping and changing communities. Her fascination with the topic brought her to the panel discussion.

"I was researching a women's organization that did social welfare work in Palestine and they brought the first to playgrounds to Jerusalem. Then I got interested in the American playground movement, which built playgrounds in cities downtown for poor kids.  They were interested in using playgrounds as a type of social policy, a way to bridge social divide and build communities, end racism, and integrate newcomers. They were very concerned about the health and welfare of poor kids and poor immigrant kids who lived in downtown slums in turn of the century cities across North America, including Toronto," she says. 

Panelist Rosalyn Morrison, vice president of community initiatives at the Toronto Community Foundation, has made similar findings in her work as chair of Playing For Keeps, an initiative designed to train people to become leaders in their communities largely through volunteering. It is built into Playing For Keeps' mantra to connect long-term and new Canadians of all ages and gaps through play and games.

Morrison believes strengthening communities depends on building community leaders. She said these committed volunteers play a key role in sustaining neighbourhood initiatives such as Playing For Keeps.  

The barrier? "People need to give themselves permission to play," Morrison said.

That concept alone is perhaps the greatest challenge in building community play initiatives. Especially for adults, who are often uncomfortable to step outside of their comfort zones and embrace play and games. But as panelist Ajooni Sethi, community engagement manager for the Wedge collective, pointed out, adults tend to change their perspective when they reminisce about childhood memories. 

The conversation shifted back to the basics of recreation and using these childhood memories as a vehicle for community and city building. The panel, which also included Claire Nelson, publisher of Yonge Street's sister publication ModelD and creative director of Detroit's Urban Innovation Exchange, asked, what happens when you start to look at city problems with a creative eye? What then can you do for your city?

For Hopscotch Detroit, an initiative put forth by the Wedge collective that temporarily transformed the city of Detroit into the world's largest hopscotch game, it meant analyzing what and how we define a city. 

"When you say the city, well the city's the people," Sethi said. She believes the root of building the strength of communities starts with getting people involved. When it comes to play, that often means getting children interested first. When Hopscotch Detroit was in effect last summer, Sethi said she watched as children from throughout the neighbourhood joined together to paint on the sidewalks and transform the hopscotch track into a community art board. She said this inspired others to get involved as well. 

The sidewalks played a key role in this. Nelson talked in great lengths about how underutilized Detroit's sidewalks are, a notion we perhaps take for granted in a city such as Toronto. She said Detroit's often empty sidewalks shine light on the alarming disconnect of people. Many of Detroit's neighbourhoods are separated by abandoned stretches of property and land. She praised Hopscotch Detroit for symbolically connecting the city.

"There's more to a city than infrastructure," Nelson said. 

"What really struck me [about the panel discussion] was the real feeling of continuity about the history and politics of using playgrounds and play as a way to build community, bridge social divide to achieve social goals like integrating newcomers," Simmons says. "I find that when I read the historical documents or old newspaper articles about playgrounds and playground activists at the turn of the century, they're talking about really exactly the same issues that people talk about now."

Simmons recommended Toronto take notes from initiatives such as the UK-based Play Streets, which works similar to Playing for Keeps but instead helps neighbourhood groups find out how to get the necessary permit to close residential streets to traffic. 

"It might just be for an afternoon or early evening and in that everybody goes out into the streets and plays spontaneously. There's no organized event, they don't bring in bouncy castles and things like that, people just go out, kids ride their bikes, they have chalk. What happens naturally is a lot of the adults will teach the kids the games they used to play that kids today no longer know how to play. From hopscotch to skipping, to things like kick-the-can and so on," Simmons says.

"A lot of adults are very nostalgic and sentimental about their own history in playgrounds and on the streets. A lot of them are very eager to share their memories and to teach other people and to teach kids how to play these games. Creating community venues where that can happen would be wonderful."

It is this very nostalgia that initiatives such as Playing for Keeps and Hopscotch Detroit hope will inspire adults to realize the difference play and games can make in changing neighbourhoods. In such, it is hoped that these adults then become community leaders and activists in their own right. 

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor.