Monthly Archives: February 2012

Breathing Life In by Stepping Away

photo: Bernard Bradley

Sometimes the best way to enhance our communities is to step away from them. Much like the modeling exercises described in my last post, this can provide a means through which we can refresh our thoughts, gain perspective and return with renewed vision and purpose.

The business world has long recognized the idea of increasing productivity and creativity by stepping away from what one is doing. Ryan Jacques at thinkpost reflects on this idea by emphasizing the need to create change in our daily and weekly routines. Even little alterations to our day can make us more innovative and ready to deal with bigger changes. Similarly, there has been an explosion of recent stories describing companies that are exploring ideas such as ‘nap pods’ and meditation rooms in their workplaces. Many companies have discovered that these are effective ways for employees to step away and recharge themselves throughout the day. Along the same lines, Stefan Sagmeister speaks to the power of time off on Ted Talks – he closes his design studio for 1 year out of every 7.

Many of these ideas can carry over from the business world into those of place-based communities, schools or our personal lives. I have found a number of ways to shake up my regular routine, allowing me to be more creative and energized.

1. Conferences and institutes
One of my favorite ways to ‘get away’ is by connecting with people and colleagues at institutes and conferences. These experiences are refreshing in multiple ways. Not only do I get to attend inspirational workshops, but I am also reminded that the webs of creativity in our world are large. Everyone I connect with usually has a story to tell, a life path that is interesting or an inspiring nugget of information to share. Last week, I attended a conference where a colleague I had not previously met, passionately shared what she had learned from her morning workshop over lunch. This kind of sharing and connecting is both exciting and motivating. In my interview with him, Peter Block also reflected on the value of conferences and institutes: “Conferences and educational intermissions are places for reflection. Place where thought is valued. Time slows down to a natural speed. Priceless, regardless of content or keynote speakers. Living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again. It is the antidote to the dulling and life consuming effects of like-mindedness.”

2. Volunteering
I make sure that I am always involved with a committee, board of directors or other form of volunteer work in my community. I select something for which I have skills, but that is not already a part of my work or family life – allowing me to stretch out of my regular ‘comfort zone.’ Often these commitments last 1 to 5 years, meaning that I am able to pass the torch to another community member so that we can all meet new people and take part in new experiences.

3. Meditation, Yoga  & Exercise
I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world that readily lends itself to a walk in the woods, or meditation on the beach. When pressed for time, even just 10 minutes of midday stretching does wonders for recharging my body and brain. There is a great deal of research on this topic. The Mayo Clinic provides a good summary of some of the key benefits of integrating yoga and meditation into your daily routine. These include gaining a new perspective, an increased ability to manage stress, an increased self-awareness, an improved focus on the present and reduced negative emotions.

How do you get away?

Modelling community

Photo: Laura Fulton

Many of us begin planning and building communities from a very young age. The configuration and placement of blocks, train tracks or makeshift forts in the forest represent our early thoughts about built environment, what belongs in a community, and what is important to us as individuals. This is an invaluable process, both as children learning about the world around us, and as adults exploring the nature of community. Here are a few examples of how ‘play cities’ can be useful learning experiences, for people of all ages.

Photo: Laura Fulton

At École John Stubbs Memorial School, grade two teacher Denise Drouin recognizes the importance of this activity. As part of the social studies curriculum, her students have been busily building their own community out of recycled cardboard. The students needed to work together to decide what was important to include in their community, their roles as builders, and how it would all fit together. The end product is quite impressive.

Photo: Laura Fulton

For middle school students, the University of Washington runs a summer camp for students called “Community Architecture: Solving Social and Environmental Issues Through Design.”This takes cardboard city making to the next level – pushing young people to think about both the human and environmental aspects of community building.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can engage in building model communities. By taking a step back from the real world, we can consider the possibilities and challenges of communities in a fun, abstract way. This may inspire us to then enact what we want to see in our communities in real life. The consultancy, ‘Foam’, understands the relevance of adults working together to build miniature communities – they included it as part of their professional development method to encourage leaders to “think with their hands” in a collaborative way – which ultimately leads to better business practice.  This has been so popular that thee toy company LEGO has now taken over and rebranded this program the “LEGO Serious Play” method of team building in work contexts.

Examples of adults learning through toy cities can be found around the world. The Home Sweet Home exhibit that took place this past spring in Vancouver is

Photo: Home Sweet Home Exhibit, by Helen at

a larger scale version of what takes place in Denise Drouin’s grade two class. Cardboardia, a popular event in Moscow and Berlin also gives adults an opportunity to play with the idea of community – hopefully taking lessons learned from the experience back to their real lives.

At any age, the idea of taking a step away from reality and refocusing on working together to build a ‘play’ community can hold tremendous value. It allows anyone to play the part of mayor, urban planner, or active community member. Principals, teachers and students can also come together to  re-imagining their school communities in this hands-on way. The process can refine our ability to work together as a team, while encouraging us to think creatively about what our ideal communities should include and how we can get there. Although I’ve listed a few examples here, I’m interested to find more! Please leave a comment or contact me.