Remember when the world felt full of magic? In this story I talk to MPS founder Kudzi Marufu, early childhood education instructor Justin West, and Afghan Society founder Gulmakai Sarvar about their happy memories of childhood, and the value of engaging in play.
When I was a child I thought I lived in the forest. It was actually a relatively small patch of woods.
I thought it was as remote as the end of the world. It was actually a common shortcut for kids on their way to school, and employees of the various strip malls along the neglected side of the harbour.
I thought the stream near the backyard was teeming with bass, but actually it was only loose mud and leaves. My father’s little blue house—which on the outside looked more like a shed—was a single story bungalow on a dead end street. To us, it was “Rancho Relaxo.”
When Gulmakai Sarvar was a child in Kabul, she didn’t have the money to buy expensive new kites (a national past time in Afghanistan). Instead, her and her friends spent many days collecting debris–sticks, plastic bags, string–to make their own.
Now in her 50s, Sarvar leads the Afghan Society of Halifax, where she plans public cultural events, like kite-making. “Children are happy to make their own toys by themselves,” she says. “It’s very interesting for them.” She notes that two years in a row, her kite-making workshop was one of the most popular activities at public events. The children seem to enjoy making something out of what, at first, looks like nothing.
I used to visit my father's little blue shed every summer, and every summer our main activity was hiking. We’d pass through the backyard, then the old grey-white picket fence, and the hammock strapped between two trees, through Fern Gully on the right, where the fiddleheads grew, past the King’s Treasure on the left, where if you wore my father’s yellow-tinted skiing goggles, the witch’s curse would be lifted to reveal the golden horde. Then carefully up the secret staircase, where jagged cuts in the side of a rock face made natural steps, and following the path all the way up to Pride Rock where the blueberries grew, we would eat our blue handfuls in the sun and watch the boats in the harbour far below.
Play isn’t only essential for children. Justin West, Africentric Early Childhood Education instructor at NSCC, says play is how we learn to be ourselves.
When it comes to making kites out of garbage, or fishing muddy leaves out of a stream, “there’s no boundaries to that because nobody’s saying, ‘this stick and this leaf are supposed to go together,’” he says. “They're able to create something because of their own genuine interest... what that’s doing for their brains is, they’re starting to be creative and starting to think about things beyond those limitations.”
"But what happens is, as an adult we start focusing on all these biases, or these judgments, like what are people gonna be thinking, or I can't do that anymore, I can't play. And I've seen that in my adult students when they come to me, they forgot how to play."
When her son was only four or five years old, Kudzi Marufu, founder of the Multicultural Playtime Society, noticed her son was already starting to get bored of their usual activities.
“He didn't like playing at the playground. He thought playgrounds were all the same everywhere you go: a slide here, a slide there, a swing, everything is the same,” she says.
That just wouldn’t do. “Not liking the playground became a problem. Where else are we gonna go? We need to be outside and getting active and moving. I took it as a problem [that] I needed to fix.”
That’s when she had the idea. “Maybe what I should do is introduce games from where I grew up, at the playground.” Nhodo, for example, can be played with nothing but sand or dirt, and some pebbles. Another game (known by many names across Africa, Mbube Mbube in South Africa) simply involves six or more players in a circle, protecting the designated “rabbit” from the designated “dog,” or lion versus impala, or cat versus mouse, depending on your preference.
These pop-ups brought new life to the playground, not just for her own son but for all the kids who wanted to play. That’s why, in 2019 she thought, “Maybe we can spread it to more than just this particular playground that we're going to. It could go into schools, it could be beneficial to a larger group of children other than just at the playground.” With her background in public relations and communications, everything came together quickly. MPS held several public multicultural children’s activities and educational consultations with the YMCA, the first Africentric Early Childhood Education program at NSCC, Build Nova Scotia (formerly Develop Nova Scotia) and the Afghan Society.
That is, until the 2020 pandemic led to a world-wide shut down and in-person activities were cancelled for over a year.
As I grew older, kind of like Marufu’s son, I became bored. Where water from the stream would gather and I used to imagine a sunken ship in liquid darkness, now I knew it was just metal garbage someone dumped there. Where I used to see treasure, now I only saw dead leaves. My father would invite me to hike, and I declined. It’s always the same, I’d say.
When we found out the trees would be torn down to make room for a housing development, I didn’t really understand what I was about to lose. I couldn’t imagine how total the devastation would be, but I figured I already knew the place like the back of my hand. What would I accomplish by spending more time in the woods? I had two summers left to enjoy the last moments of my childhood, and I just let it slip by. I rarely went for walks in the woods, and only alone.
Those woods don’t exist anymore. I’m not sure if the blueberries still grow but sometimes, when I’m crossing the bridge over the harbour, I still think I can see Pride Rock. Rocks are all that’s left. Now, it’s a sand coloured bald spot on the horizon. No trees, just empty slopes where roads and houses should be. Someone else lives in my childhood home now. They painted it pink.
“You know that phrase of stopping and smelling the roses? Often people in the beginning of working with children, they think, ‘if we are saying we're going to a playground, I have to get there,’” says West. “But the thing is, children like to stop and see the littlest ant crossing the crack in the sidewalk. And then they [the adults] think, ‘we gotta get to that playground, we gotta get to that playground,’ and we miss that opportunity.”
Engaging with kids can be an invitation to revive that opportunity and experience the best parts of childhood all over again. Eventually his early childhood education students start to let go and connect back to what it's like to be working with children: “you don't have to have the answers, you don't have to be perfect, you just have to be yourself. When adults switch to that, to just be themselves, it's like a rejuvenation of who they are,” he says.
West proudly recalls a recent conversation with a graduate who excitedly told him, “Hey Justin, do you know what I did today? I rolled in mud!”
After a long pause in 2020 due to the pandemic, MPS barely skipped a beat. They recently partnered with West Hants Sports Complex, Buddy Daye Learning Centre, Edward Jost Children's Centre, and Every One Everyday. In the coming year Marufu will also help students in the early childhood education program at NSCC in their work with children, and even more partnerships are in the works.
If you're a kid growing up, a grown up with kids, or just a person who was once a child: play is for you.