Opinion: Play leadership: the missing element

When I was a kid growing up in Vancouver’s West End back in the ’50s, our refuge was Denman Playground. Teens and young children went there every day in the summer to play and socialize. For our group of wayward adolescents, it was a welcome and much needed break from busy streets and rooming house living.

At the playground we would play paddle tennis, makeshift baseball, ping-pong, horseshoes, and other informal recreations. Things for younger children were organized by our playground leaders, but very little for us. They were there basically to hand out equipment for our use and make sure we didn’t get in trouble.

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But actually these leaders, mainly young female university students, meant much more to us. As they got to know us, and we them, they came to accept and help us in a number of subtle but real ways.

One example: I was sitting on the steps one day and holding my jaw. When our leader, Betty Ridley, asked what was the problem, I told her that I had toothaches because my teeth were badly decayed. When she asked why I didn’t get them fixed I said that my mom didn’t have the money. The next day Betty told me that her father, who was a dentist, would fix my teeth. I told her that she didn’t understand, we couldn’t afford that. Betty said that I didn’t understand; her father would repair my teeth without charge. So, for several weeks I would go to his office in the old Medical Dental Building where Doc Ridley would do his dental wonders on me after his normal working day. I am forever in the debt of this man and his daughter.

The impact of Bet Ridley, and her counterpart Joan Lennox, on our young lives was profound. I have maintained contact with these kind women over the past 60+ years and they have provided wonderful role models for me. In fact, I followed in their footsteps in my own professional training when I became a summer playground leader in Renton, Wash. when I was going to university. I hope that I exhibited some of the characteristics that they modelled when I eventually worked with youth.

Play leadership is not so much about organizing things; rather I believe it is about being there for all, listening and responding with concern and kindness, creating joy where possible, facilitating activities, and helping everyone to become more aware and civil.

My understanding is that this informal leadership model and extemporaneous play are no longer present in most parks and playgrounds. They have given way to organized classes, events, sporting activities, programming and scheduling. Basically, there is an absence of play leaders in our parks and playgrounds.

Because of the huge values that existed in the earlier leadership forms, my call is for parks and recreation authorities to revisit the dynamics at play in our parks and playgrounds today and to make changes where they are warranted. Our culture is very much in need of this vital component of interaction among adults, children and youth.

– Dr. Garfield (Gary) Pennington is a UBC associate professor emeritus. He lives and plays in Roberts Creek.

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