Observations on an Ice Rink

Last winter in London, Ontario, I spent an evening watching the ice skaters at Victoria Park. I first saw the skaters as a group, a few dozen people skating in a large circular pattern like one entity. But sitting to watch them, I saw more in motion at the rink than I can describe by the motions of the skaters around the ice.

There were games within games, merging, breaking off, and forming anew. There were stunts and tricks demonstrating skill, or daring, or beauty. There were chases where pairs weaved between slower skaters, treating them like obstacles in a game all their own.

There were individuals and groups. The solo skaters seemed lost in their experience, lost in the practiced motions of their bodies, faces blank with concentration. There were groups of friends teaching and supporting. A new skater shuffle-stepped across the ice, arms raised at their sides to balance and reach for their friends if they slipped. There was the turn-taking of teaching–I show, now you try.

There were couples skating together. Holding hands, the skaters’ different velocities drew them together or apart. Holding hands revealed a hidden goal of synchronicity. There were playful failures of one partner catching up to the other, or of one dragging the other behind. When one partner pushed too strongly ahead, their hands slipped apart.

With one couple, the young man was a more experienced skater than the woman with him. He skated a stride ahead without losing her hand, then turned to face her while his velocity continued forward. Skating backward now and slowing, he let his date continue on her own trajectory gently into him and his embrace. They laughed. A show of skill and confidence as flirtation.

As with the best playgrounds, the ice rink was a space for play that didn’t force specific acts. Instead, the ice rink enabled many forms of play that could shift and transform. A group of friends could split into pairs, become a chase, become a dance, become a tutorial, become a romance, and then reunify as a group of friends.

That same period of play could mean many things to each participant whose path had crossed many social worlds. For the couple falling in love on the ice, or for the pair chasing in sport, everyone else must have disappeared as others beyond the circle of their game.

I left wondering if I have created play spaces that allow for such a rich variety of social experience. Have I created games with greater depth or wider possibility than an ice rink? Have I created games where my players can fall in love?


Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Winter Landscape with Skaters (1565)


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