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Playground removes "safety" rules; fun, development and injuries ensue


The Swanson School in Auckland, NZ, quietly eliminated all the rules against "unsafe play," allowing kids to play swordfight with sticks, ride scooters, and climb trees. It started when the playground structures were torn down to make way for new ones, and the school principal, Bruce McLachlan, noticed that kids were building their own structures out of the construction rubble. The "unsafe" playground has resulted in some injuries, including at least one broken arm, but the parents are very supportive of the initiative. In particular, the parents of the kid with the broken arm made a point of visiting the principal to ask him not to change the playground just because their kid got hurt.

The article in the Canadian National Post notes that Kiwis are less litigious, by and large, than Americans, and that they enjoy an excellent national health service, and says that these two factors are a large contributor to the realpolitik that makes the playground possible. But this is still rather daring by Kiwi standards.

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A More Resilient Species

“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.

In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?

In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.

A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered.

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Kathe Koja's "Under the Poppy": farewell stage performances in Detroit this April

Kathe Koja's brilliant novel Under the Poppy -- a dark, romantic, swirling wartime intrigue -- was adapted for stage in her hometown of Detroit. It had a very successful run, and the crew and cast are coming together for a final series of performances this April, where the audience is encouraged to sport Victorian fancy dress. If I could make it to Detroit, I would be there for every show.

Poppy opens in a middle-European town on the eve of war, sometime in the late 19th century: a disreputable and dirty town full of brothels and cutpurses and spies and intrigue. One such brothel, Under the Poppy, stands apart from the others: it is more than seller of sex: it is a stage where every night, whores act out fantastic playlets, spurred on by the virtuoso piano-playing of a tongueless player who expresses himself in mime and music.

To the Poppy comes Istvan, a puppeteer whose mecs -- elaborate clockwork automata -- are perfectly suited to the Poppy's stage, being endowed with enormous clockwork organs and Istvan's bawdy and funny-cruel ventriloquism. But Istvan isn't just a travelling jongleur; he is the long-lost brother of Decca, the madame of the house, and the long-lost lover of Rupert, the front-of-the-house man. All three were orphans together in the long-ago, until love and anger drove them apart. Now, reunited, they might have all they ever wanted.

Except for the war. The war, threatening from the distance, is coming to town. With it come conspirators and commanders: Jurgen Vidor, a sexually sadistic mercantile empire-builder; Mr Arrowsmith, the special aide to to the coming forces, and the General, commander of the armies and participant in the vast conspiracy that seeks to take all of Europe for a small cabal of rich and secretive men.

War descends, dreams are smashed, old friendships split at the seams, blood is spilled, the brave are braver, the cowards cover themselves in shame, and coarse soldiers take up residence in the Poppy. When the players and the whores flee for Brussels, the dream is at an end.

This is just the first act, and it's merely the setup for a second act that's long enough to be a book in its own right, in which the stories of minor and major characters retwine: love and betrayal, blackmail and beatings, sex and death, all in that gummy blackness of stained cobbles and old blood.

This book made me drunk. Koja's language is at its poetic best, and the epic drama had me digging my nails into my palms. It's like a Tom Waits hurdy-gurdy loser's lament come to life, as sinister as a dark circus.

Under the Poppy | Under the Poppy Farewell Performance (Thanks, Kathe!)

Good news: Whale and dolphins are friends

Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".

It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.

And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."

Video Link

Via Charles Q. Choi

Little Brother stage-play in San Francisco

There's a new stage adaptation of my novel Little Brother opening in San Francisco. Charlie Jane Anders from IO9 got to go to the preview and loved it, which is incredibly heartening, since I won't get to see it!

So I'll just say that the version I saw was powerful and brilliant, and the cast was note-perfect, especially Daniel Petzold as Marcus Yallow. (The other two castmembers, Marissa Keltie and Cory Censoprano, have a harder task in some ways, since they play a variety of roles throughout the show. And they're both great as well.) The stage play uses a lot of pre-recorded video and some very clever sets to create a lot of different settings, as well as giving a primer in topics like the futility of using data-mining to catch terrorists.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother becomes a must-see stage play