Playing for Real


Children and artists in the Butterfly Peace Garden of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, inspired creation of the teaching toys and practices of the original Out-of-the-Box Curriculum during a decade of civil war, economic insecurity and environmental devastation. Though they were living through times of unprecedented upheaval, in their spontaneous interactions with one another and with the Garden animators these little kids uplifted the spirits of a whole community in distress and, coincidentally, inspired development of the present curriculum based on their toys and games.

Here in Canada we have welcomed significant numbers of migrants and refugees, many of whom come from countries at war and thus share the experience of conflict-related suffering with kids at the Butterfly Garden. There are also many homeless youths living rough in the streets and parks, some born here, others not. Just look wherever you don’t want to see the sorrows of the world and there you will find them, sorrowful young souls wandering lost and alone in the city, reminding us change for the better may come too late for some. The future belongs to the young, a future of caring for the earth and love for one another. If we lose them we lose everything. We have a dream that this must never happen. The Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum nurtures this dream.

The parallels between Batti then and Toronto now, though similar to some degree, are also vastly different. Adapting lessons learned in an active war zone to the needs of outsider youth here in our city is a tall order but York University’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research has challenged us to do just that: renew the original Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum from Batticaloa to address the needs of youth here in Toronto and other urban centers where many young people are marginalized mainly because they see no future for themselves in a doomed planet. This re-purposed curriculum guide, Playing for Real, is a response to the Dahdaleh Institute’s challenge, but it is only a small first step. The next step is the riddle that perplexes all of us these days: how to inspire and support young people in deep and lasting ways through a chain reaction of apocalyptic emergencies that besiege our world today.

We have arrived at the tipping point in an existential crisis of unprecedented proportions rooted in ecosystem collapse. What we see unfolding before us is as riveting and unbelievable as a sci-fi movie. We are dealing with a population caught in reality denial like a deer in the high beams of an oncoming 18-wheeler. We watch anxiously as some people, trampling everything in their path, rush for an exit that doesn’t exist while others sit stunned in front of their home entertainment centers waiting for the intermission refill of popcorn and a Breaking News announcement with the Prime Minister declaring it’s all OK now. Things will return to normal. Soon. The problem is there’s no soon. It all happens at once these days and lasts forever, which is why there’s no normal.

Many of us know things will never be normal again. This is a blessing. With rising authoritarianism, economic inequity, perennial seasons of plague, climate meltdown and rampant racism it’s time to simplify our lives, shed our delusions, share our wealth, and above all dialogue and listen to one another. There is definitely a future possible where social justice and ecosystem integrity are taken seriously and there is a groundswell of popular support backing this change of heart. That future starts now and this Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum, which is designed as a means to create space for soulful dialogue, can be a primer for addressing the challenge of these times with young people taking the lead.

300,000 years ago we human beings, homo sapiens, made our debut on planet Earth. After so many years you’d think we might have some idea of what we’re doing here. Given the garbage and chaos we create around ourselves, and the violence we inflict of one another, it doesn’t seem that way – unless creating garbage, chaos and violence is the main idea. We flee from our predicament, and ourselves, by taking refuge in a culture of juvenile self-indulgence, Disney and Netflix, manufactured to mask the catastrophe unfolding in our midst. The pandemic and now the renewed possibility of nuclear war in Europe send a clear signal. The world as we once knew it is over.

Of course the end of one world is the beginning of another and we have considerable input into what we can do to make a better world. Three times I witnessed the world end before – in the Asian tsunami in 2004, in wartime Sri Lanka and in post-genocide Cambodia. I believe in impossible things like resurrection, reincarnation, and moving on with life here on Earth without fleeing in panic to Mars. The game’s not over. Yet. Remember the Red Queen in Wonderland who, when Alice asked her what she believed, replied, “Well, I sometimes believe seven impossible things before breakfast?” This curriculum is a place to begin again, preparing the hearts of young people to face the unimaginable, possibly impossible, transitions ahead.

The main problem these days is that there is no connection between what we know and what we do. These toys bridge that gap. They can help us find the Spirit in the gap and figure out who we really are. We need to work at re-enchanting our communities with resilience and hope in difficult times. I saw it in Sri Lanka where, paradoxically, we met the crises of those days by playing together, and by play here I mean creative inner work experienced and expressed in communion and community with others of all ages. The key is recognition of the beauty and fragility of our lives and the humility to face our predicament. As Rumi says, “Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Consider stepping away from the world for a while and with a small group of friends in your community taking up the cultivation and practice of the arts, thereby exploring, uncovering, and discovering for yourselves a way to proceed into the future. You can use this curriculum (and an experienced facilitator) to guide you through the basic course that includes many surprises, such as: story creation and narration taught by a clever crow and a snake with two heads; Mayachitram or Mystery Painting taught by a ghost who becomes visible the more you paint; Mud Mountain where it’s uphill all the way down and downhill all the way up, and labyrinths that help you get lost so that you find yourself in the end. Whatever our world may have been about in the past, it’s now all about communion, community, and creation. This is basically what we mean by Playing for Real. We are dreaming up a new world together through play. The moment is too serious to do otherwise.

We have a dream – demonstrably not delusional if you consider the Garden Path history in Canada, Sri Lanka and Cambodia – that by playing for real we give ourselves another chance to find out who we are and what we are doing here. The time of crisis through which we are passing can transform us from being vassals of violence and despair into vessels of joy and hope, with young and old together joining hearts and hands in a creative renewal at the roots of our society. We, the elders, must support our young dreamers in fulfilling their promise by connecting with what Michelangelo called their ‘ingegno’, their particular creative genius. Without a profound shift in the sphere of global consciousness and intergenerational solidarity, nothing will change for the better.

May 2022


Written by Paul Hogan