Science play

Many, many, many years ago, when I was in high school, in Omaha, actually, I had the amazingly good fortune to participate in an experimental physics class that was experimental in every way possible. The course itself, developed by MIT, was just being tested, and the whole program centered around what seemed to me to be very much like fun (see this article for a teacher's perspective of the program). I probably learned a lot of physics in the process, but for me the biggest learning was that learning itself can be fun (I was in high school, where I went from classroom to classroom, discovering over and over again that fun and learning were supposed to be two very different experiences). In many ways, this whole program was a validation for everything I hoped would be true about education. We played. We made our own instruments out of, basically, junk (a micrometer out of two mirror slides, a toothpick and rubber band). We learned. We learned not just about physics, but our world and ourselves.

This was 50 years ago. Today, thanks to computer technology and a few illuminated science educators, we have physics simulations - virtual playthings that allow us to explore the interdependence of all things physical. For the most part, they are refreshingly fun, immediately accessible, inviting hours of observation and experimentation.

I don't think they can effectively replace experiences like making your own micrometer, but they can ignite the curiosity and playfulness that are native to all scientific enterprise. The best of these physical simulations are the most game-like, igniting wonder, inviting play.

There are many such resources available online. Here's one more example, called "My Physics Lab."

One of these days, educators will learn this lesson. One of these days, the distinctions between play and learning will no longer be so obvious.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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The Opposite of Play

In another attempt at preparing for the future by exploring the past, I found myself reading an old interview I gave a few many years ago. And in it, I found myself saying:

"The opposite of play is death."

And you know how my friend Brian Sutton-Smith says "The opposite of play is not work, it's depression"?

I guess it's a question of how opposite you want to get.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


Knock Down Ginger

Here's a good collection of street games from the UK. There's nothing fancy about the website. The games are submitted by the people who played them.

This is where I found a game called Knock Down Ginger. I personally never thought of it as a game. To me, it much more closely resembles a prank. I quote:
"Knock Down Ginger and it's alternative named variations has been played since there were front doors to play it on. Usually carried out in the hours of darkness, the aim is to ring a doorbell or knock loudly on a door, as though very urgent, and run away as fast as possible.

To make this game even more exciting you can play variations such as after knocking you hide as close to the door as possible, in shrubs or behind a tree, behind the owners gate or just around the corner.

The test comes when you try a second time on the same door, giving the owner a few moments to settle down in front of their TV, the quicker you do this the more exciting it can be."
Variations, yet. Alternate rules, even. As for example, this one, posted by David from Essex: "And the perpetual motion version where you tie two knockers together and knock on the first door, when they close their door the other knocker knocks ad infinitum."

It has all the flow-inducing properties of a good game. For the players, that is. There's a definite sense of challenge/risk. You can apparently make it more or less challenging/risky as you see fit.

This is a good example of a particular flavor of fun that leaves a certain bitter aftertaste - certainly for the victims, but also, despite the hysterical peals of laughter, for the perpetrators as well. Moderately mean fun, perhaps. Slightly irresponsible fun? Lacking-in-compassion fun? Fun that tastes like the joke's-on-somebody-else.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Digiwall - Closer We Come, Step-by-Step

Digiwall "...looks like a traditional climbing-wall but itís actually a computer game you climb upon. Every climbing-hold is equipped with a sensor that registers hands and feet. In that way DigiWall can keep track on where on the wall the climber or climbers are. This opens up for a large number of games, exercises and competitions of various kinds. DigiWall is also a musical instrument."

A computer game you can climb on. The integration of sports and technology, leading inexorably to new opportunities for bringing mind and body, self and other, into play.

Closer we come, step by step.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Angry Fun

I was talking with my friend Baz. Baz is someone whom you might call a "doom-watcher." He is a close follower of the news. An especially close follower of bad news. Especially the kind of bad news that presages the end of the world. Hence, the epithet. The point is, he is brilliant at all this (he listens to BBC alot). He has an amazing command of language, speaks with great force and passion, and, behind it all, a certain grim humor. You get a sense that he is enjoying all this - the foretelling, the tintinnabulation of the tocsin of change, the promises of plague and pestilence, tribulations and terror.

During our dialogue (him ranting, me listening), he turned to his computer, fired up YouTube, and clicked on part one of a two-part Keith Olbermann editorial on President Bush. It was a perfect complement to our percussive discussion. Olbermann's anger was undisguised, his attacks on the president fearless and undiluted, his language studied and often verging on poetic, and in back of it all, it was, forgive me, immensely entertaining.

There was something fun about it - the passion, the aesthetics of a truly well-written diatribe, the thoroughness of the argument, the clarity of the supporting evidence, the sheer bravery of Mr. Olbermann's outspoken outspeaking. Along with the heaviness, the seriousness, the truth of it all, came the fun of it all. Olbermann was having fun. He was in flow. He was both brilliant and entertaining.

This led me to the discovery of yet another flavor of fun - it's the taste of fun that comes from righteous indignation, artfully rendered. Bitter, definitely. Sweet, though, sweet to listen to, to be able to agree with so thoroughly, as if the words were coming from our own anger, and it was elevating us, somehow, into some kind of joy.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


Grand Theft Childhood: Who's Stealing What from Whom?

In the first chapter of Grand Theft Childhood, authors Dr. Lawrence Kutner and Dr. Cheryl Olson make the remarkably common-sense observation that:
"...the 'big fears' bandied about in the press -- that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that children will engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games -- are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy."
Tom Hanson, in his excellent Open Education blog, has been following issues surrounding "Shoot 'em Up Video Games" for a while. In his most recent post, he interviews Dr. Kutner about some of the public reactions Grand Theft Childhood has generated. I was particularly struck by Dr. Kutner's response to Susan Estrich's review of the most recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV:
She also engages in hyperbole in her attacks, stating that kids 'spend more time with [video games] than with real life.' Think about that for a second. Itís a dramatic statement, but is it true? Our study found that only 13 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls spent 15 or more hours per week playing video games. Assuming 8 hours/night for sleep, a child would have to spend more than 56 hours per week playing video games to meet her criterion. Weíve only seen that among an extremely small group of gamers not in our study whose serious emotional problems were manifest in other waysóitís certainly not the norm!"
Such careful research and open minds marks them as true Defenders of the Playful. We are fortunate in having people like Drs. Olsen, Kutner, and Hanson to help us gain a mature perspective over mature games, and regain our trust in play, and in our kids.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need might actually be that very thing. It's short. It's clear. It's fun to read (it looks just like a Japanese comic book). And, like all useful guides, it's easy to understand. Nothing really deep, until you really think about it. And it's written by Daniel Pink, author of the best-selling A Whole New Mind.

The entire guide consists of 6, easy-to-digest lessons:
1. There is no plan. (The best career plan is ad hoc. When the diem comes, you just have to carpe it.)
2. Think strengths, not weaknesses. (Pink even alludes to our much-vaunted philosopher of fun Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
3. It's not about you. (Serving others serves you best)
4. Persistence trumps talent. (Think "long haul")
5. Make excellent mistakes. (Think big)
6. Leave an imprint. (Do something that matters)

Of course, nothing is easy. Each of these lessons can take a lifetime to pursue and understand (which is exactly what makes the guide so useful). On the other hand, these lessons are rooted in a very enlightened pragmatism, and for someone who is searching to create a life of meaningful work, they are as useful as understanding how to create a life of meaningful play.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is such an easy, entertaining, enjoyable read, and its lessons so clearly and playfully illustrated, that it's easy to overlook what a significant accomplishment this little book really is. You can read it in a half-hour, you can spend the rest of your life putting it into practice - a practice that comes from the heart, a practice whose wisdom leads the reader towards self-actualization, towards lasting, personal fulfillment. In establishing principles for a better living, Johnny Bunko guides readers to a more satisfying and meaningful life. And it's fun, too.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


Grown-Up Fun

Several years ago, when I was teaching at Esalen, a woman named Magdalena Cabrera came into my life. Last Sunday, Magdalena invited me to help her and a significant passel of her wonderful friends celebrate her birthday. I led a two-hour version of my 5-day program. And, because of her, and her friends, and the park and the finally perfect Palo Alto weather, we created something profoundly playful, lovingly fun.

In one of our discussions, we talked about the politics of fun - namely about how we so often feel that we don't deserve to have fun, that we are doing something wrong, something immoral, given the harsh realities of harsh reality. Magdalena was reminded of something she wrote me in response to a rather profound insight from my rather profound brother-in-law. It captures much of that feeling:
I too feel unable to enter into Fun when so much feels wrong and sad and overwhelming in the world today, everyday. I forget your teaching, so to speak, that Fun IS part of the solution and not just a form of denial, an escape, a narcissistic indulgence at the expense of others who are not as fortunate as I am...Just thoughts, which bring me back to the mindfulness practice that DeepFun is for me. It is the practice of Minor Fun all the time, despite the trying external circumstances on this beautiful and fragile earth I love and despite the woe I see. And as I practice this path, I want to change my paradigm and begin to really believe that having fun, living fun, teaching fun, being fun, can transform this world, that it is part of the solution to the distress. IF not the world at large, it may have the power to transform MY little world, my circle of influence, I hope. And that is a step in the right direction.
We continued that dialogue, Magdalena, myself, and Bruce Williamson, long after everyone had left. Two things we noted: 1) starting anything with fun is probably the best way to prepare for everything else that isn't, and 2) given the world and being a grown-up in it, having fun is inescapably a political act.

O, as they say, MG! I think we might have found the difference between the fun we have as children, and the fun we have as adults:
Kids play because they have to. It's how they learn the world, how they grow, how they cope. Grown-ups play because they choose to. It's how they change the world. It's how they endure.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Homo Ludens Ludens - of play and games

Exploring the relationship between play and games: discovering and affirming both the connections and distinctions - turns out to be ever more relevant to our understanding of the future of both play and games. In universities and art studios, in computer laboratories and workshops, investigations of game/play relationship are leading to a profound evolution of both. A goodly number of these leading-edge explorations can be found in the playful works that comprise the current Homo Ludens Ludens collection. See, for example, Stiff People's League, in the illustration accompanying this post.

In an interview with Daphne Dragona, of Homo Ludens Ludens, Ms. Dragona comments:
" reflects more the idea, the notion, the vivid and spontaneous basis for the action as well as its relation to fantasy, whereas games are closed systems and environments governed by rules which demand discipline and a constraint space and time. Play is in a way the presupposition for the games that are its expressions and forms.

"Play as a notion is much more open and therefore it may even embrace elements that come in opposition with a game's structure. For instance play has no death or end; but games do, otherwise there s no meaning into it. Or think of cheating. While it can destroy a game by breaking its rules, it is still a part, an act of play. On the same line, while any game forms hierarchies, play creates interrelations between them."

"...We can be playful anytime anyplace, not only through games. Games are basically a construction which is made possible because of this playfulness that already exists in any aspect of life."

People are doing some wonderful things in the name of play and games, art and technology. If you're interested in getting a taste, Homo Ludens Ludens is a virtual banquet.

via We Make Money, Not Art

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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If it's May 19-26, it's National Backyard Games Week

Patch Products is once again sponsoring National Backyard Games week, bless their fun-making hearts.

In his Herald Tribune article Come Out and Play, Gerry Galipault catalogs some of the games scheduled for National Backyard Games week:
"Physical Education Hall of Shame (They may try to ban them at school, but thereís no law against them at home: Dodge Ball, Duck-Duck-Goose, Line Soccer, Messy Backyard, Musical Chairs, Simon Says, Spud, Steal the Bacon and Tag. Just watch out for bruised egos.) Office Olympics (Who says you canít have games at work? Be more like Dunder Mifflin.)

"Old standbys (Capture the Flag, Crack the Whip, Family Flag Football, Frisbee Golf, Hide and Seek, Horseshoes, Hula-Hoop Contest, Jail Break, Kick the Can, Limbo, Marco Polo, Mother May I, Red Light-Green Light, Scavenger Hunt, Stoplight, What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?)

"Suitcase Relay (Pack a suitcase with all kinds of clothes. Participants unpack the suitcase, put on all of the items and run across to a line of waiting teammates. The first team to complete the relay wins.)

"Other relay games (Baby Care Relay, Backseat Driver, Ball Relay, Balloon Head Race, Banana Olympics, Beanbag Bowling, Big Foot, Blanket Carry, Bucket Brigade, Chimp Race, Cup Stack Relay Knock Down, Dizzy Basketball. Water Balloon Volleyball (Throw and catch water balloons over a volleyball net using a sheet or blanket.)

"Other water games (Beach Ball Balance Race, Beach Ball Bumper Pool, Dolphin Relay, Fill the Bottle, Greased Watermelon Polo, Hole In The Bucket, Jump Rope Water Splash, Over/Under Game, Poison Pool Toss, Shaving Cream Shoot Off, Sponge Toss Contest, The Shark & The Mermaids, Trash Target, Tugboat Relay Race."
I, on the other hand, would rather see a National DIY Games Week, where families invent and teach other families completely new games to play. But that's me. And, though the games are mostly competitive, they're so many of them that most playful purposes should in deed be satisfied.

via Yehuda

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Make a Ball, Have a Ball

child making ball out of scrap material
Click here for a short presentation on the art of DIY fun.

Alternative ball-construction technology here. (via sacred son).

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Slapsie Redux

Montague Blister's Strange Games weblog describes an amusing variation of Slapsie (a.k.a. Red Hands), called "My Mother Says."

Whilst we're contemplating the playworthy implications of this particular variation, it is worthy of our collective note to collectively note that there are even more profound (and potentially painful) versions of the game, such as shown in this video.

Even I, I must admit, have found myself embellishing on Slapsie lore, thinking perhaps to introduce slightly kinder, potentially gentle nuances, as in 3-person Slapsie and Hand Wave.

Should you at this moment find yourself without someone else's hands to slap, you can access a virtually painless, if somewhat less engaging version of this game online.

Slapsie-related fun has its own peculiar taste: intensely, shall we say, focusing fun, with just a touch of ouchy.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Shootball " a new sport in ubiquitous computing. This game is playing with tangible ball that can control movies displayed in surrounding screens. This game is team sport played between two teams of 3 players each. The object of the game is to score by displaying movies of own team by throwing the ball at surrounding screens."

The confluence of sports and computing has evolutionary potential for both spheres of human activity, for engaging mind and body, for bridging social and geographical boundaries. It is something to watch. Something to encourage. Something to celebrate.

See also this.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Pangea Day

Walleyball is a one of the films produced as part of the Pangea Day celebration. It is a demonstration of how the power of play can transform a border fence into a volleyball net - a dividing line into a connection. Which, of course, is the whole purpose of the event.

Fun-flavor-wise, it's kind of a dark chocolate thing - sweet, with more than a hint of bitterness.

via Digital Maverick

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Sphere Play

You know those beautiful crystal-looking balls you see jugglers play with - the kind they roll on the backs of their hands and arms and stuff? Ever wonder where you can get them? Well, wonder no more, or make your own wonders. Try Out Toys not only sells these beautiful acrylic spheres, in many spectacularly different colors (and several sizes, even), and metal spheres, and wooden ones, too; they also promote play, for play's sake.

Here's a bit of what they have to say:
"We believe in promoting the importance of positive play. You could say that our mission is to offer the highest quality toys and entertainment, but really it's way more involved than that. We've developed what we call a philosophy of play.

"There are lots of ways to play, so we'd like to tell you about our approach. Play is an art. The kind of play we promote is interactive, creative, artistic and builds important physical and social skills."
They even organize something they call a "Play 4 All" - a celebration of "skilled play." In addition to their surprising variety of spheres, they also offer a virtual toybox of skill-inviting playworthy stuff.

They perform, they teach, they clearly love the stuff they're doing and the stuff they're selling.

Fun stuff. Good stuff, all.

via Alexander Kjerulf

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Children Will Play

Frances Henson VanLandinham's Children Will Play: Games and Toys from Simpler Times is a collection of "childhood memories," gathered from family, friends and neighbors, most of whom grew up during the depression, when times where perhaps simpler, but definitely far more difficult than most of us currently enjoy. Hence this lovingly illustrated collection describes handmade toys and homemade games - folk games and toys that are truly inspirational accounts of play and love, creativity and spontaneity, of imagination and free-range joy.

I quote from the introduction: "Children will play under almost any circumstances. I've observed children at play while cold and hungry. Even while living in an abusive environment, children play. Children don't have the verbal skills to communicate their pain and suffering, so they express pain as well as joy through play. Children play through times of social upheaval. During wars and natural disasters, children play."

The book describes how to play Appalachian jump rope, how to make corncob darts, milk can trains, bark sleds, plantain dolls, stick cows, hollyhock dolls, handkerchief dolls. It is full of stories of almost heroic celebrations of Christmas, when there was barely enough money for food.

It is a history of the human spirit. Something to treasure. Something from which to draw inspiration and hope. And it could very well open new pathways to fun, for all of us.

It can only be ordered ($12 plus $2.00 US shipping) from the author. Send your check or money order to Frances Henson ValLandingham, 812 Poga Road, Butler, TN 37640. Call 423-768-2261 for more information. Email

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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The Geography of Bliss

Amazon lists some 270,564 publications that have something to do with Happiness, the preponderance of which are serious, in-depth, carefully researched explorations of what has become the science of Positive Psychology. I've read several many of such books, but it wasn't until I found Eric Weiner's book, The Geography of Bliss that I felt truly happy about the study of happiness - mostly because Weiner is the first "happiness author" I've encountered that actually has fun researching and writing about happiness.

Weiner, a correspondent for NPR in New York, Miami and, currently, Washington, D.C., begins his search for happiness in Holland, where he meets with Ruut Veenhoven, the intrepid researcher and compiler of the World Database of Happiness. Veenhoven's database identifies the relative happiness of citizens of different nations. Weiner visits some of those nations (Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thialand, Great Britain, India and even the United States), hoping to discover how happiness manifests itself in each.

The result is spiritual travelogue, a funny, personal, and revealing exploration of the "states of happiness," so to speak, as it were.

I don't want to tell you where he found the greatest happiness, personally or politically, because that discovery is the heart of the book, and that's where you will probably reach the most provocative and profound conclusions about the state of your own happiness.

The Geography of Bliss is a study of the politics of joy. Revealing, honest, entertaining, fun to read, fun to think about. A profoundly rewarding travel book that is probably the happiest book on happiness you've ever read.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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My Fairfield Adventure - cont'd

I did mention my Fairfield adventure a few posts ago. It began with a radio interview with Monica Hadley on the similarly remarkable radio station KRUU - an all-volunteer FM station, as open source as it is possible for sources to be opened, operating at a mere 100 watts, and yet having something very close to a global following.

This was the first of many marvels I got to witness during my stay. I think Fairfield has more vegetarian restaurants, per capita, than probably India. And a friendlier, more engaged and supportive community than probably anywhere I've ever visited. (You can read more about Fairfield on Wikipedia).

Friday evening, as part of the monthly Art Walk, I got to introduce two new games: Socks and Boxes, and Extreme Pick Up Sticks. Both games were semi-instant variations, created in response to a change in weather from clear and mild, to windy and threatening. Socks and Boxes: build a city out of large cardboard cartons, water bottles and styrofoam packing blocks - make many balls out of many socks - and then use the sock balls to knock the whole thing down. Extreme Pick Up Sticks: take very long (12-foot), and potentially dangerously hefty cardboard tubes from the inner core of carpet rolls, paint them in manifold patterns, stand them up in a large circle (at least 12 feet wide), let them drop towards the center, and then try to pick them up, one at a time, without disturbing any other sticks. Or play tug of war with them. Or jump over them. Or see if you can use them as baseball bats.

Then I did something like a reading/performance of Recess for the Soul at a typically remarkable Fairfield institution called Revelations - a restaurant, used book store, wifi hotspot and town gathering center. The audience was remarkably receptive, responsive, down-right enthusiastic. There was much laughter and something close to complete Grokkage.

Saturday I led a workshop based on some of the concepts in The Well-Played Game. We played, of course, Bernie Found Nirvana (did I tell you that Fairfield is the home of the Maharishi University of Management?). And after a few more games and discussions, we played two different rounds of Junkyard Sports Tabletop Olympics. Very different rounds. The first with a core group of around 30 people. The second with that group and another 20 or so people (with kids, even).

The vast majority of the responsibility for the success of these events rests squarely on the shoulders of Steve Cooperman, who put everything together, and on the amazing spirit of the townsfolk. Fairfield, Iowa. A most remarkable community. A most remarkable experience for your personal Funsmith.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


The Romance of Sound and Senses, revisted

A couple years ago, I wrote about Ken Feit's remarkable sound poem, The Romance of Sound and Senses. Ken was the "holy fool" who taught me about the Frog of Enlightenupment. His sound poem is another example of his amazing wit, profound sensitivity, and endless creativity.

When I was in Fairfield I met a storyteller, and in telling her about Ken's sound poem, I realized how important it was to me that she knew about it, and that you knew about it. So I decided that maybe I needed to write yet another post about this amazing work, and to publish it again, in perhaps a more accessible format.

Which I did, here, as well as here.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Fascinating Fun: Spinning tops and things in a bowl

Take, for example, top spinning. In particular example, take the video of spinning tops and things in a bowl. Watch the whole thing. Get a good taste for the fun of it. The fascination of it.

That taste of fascinating fun, of something almost magic in how it makes you watch it, almost magic in how it beckons you to fall into its everchanging beauty. That taste of fun when we get fascinated by making something fascinating happen. How sheerly delicious!

Fascination. The fun that is peculiar to that moment of being fascinated. So much to be fascinated by. So many ways to taste this kind of fun. On watching a baby's eyelid. On listening to a dragonfly's stillness. Tracing the shine of a spider web. Observing a cloud spin dreams. So much to be fascinated with. So much fascinating fun to be had.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


Live, from Fairfield, Iowa

Where in the world is Bernie DeKoven? So glad you asked.

As described in this weekend's Fairfield Art Walk: "Bernie DeKoven, renowned author of The Well-Played Game and Junkyard Sports, is coming to Fairfield for a weekend of fun and learning Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3, 2008. Bernie uses games of all kinds to explore how to make our lives more enjoyable and fulfilling, and how to be fully engaged and present in activity, individually and with others.

Bernie will be leading two workshops, co-sponsored by First Fridays Art Walk and the Fairfield Community Learning Project."

This evening, a genuine Junkfest, with Junkyard Symphony, and, among other delightfully silly things, Giant Pick Up Sticks as well, even? Tonight, a reading/performance from Recess for the Soul. Tomorrow, a bit of Leading with Fun, a smattering of Tabletop Olympics, interspersed with some Pointless Games sprinkled with a hint of flow and coliberation.

Amazing how a city of 10,000 can support such an event. Amazing how local activist Steve Cooperman, who conducted this interview, has been able to galvanize this remarkable community, all in the name of fun.

Let this be a lesson to us all.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

Mewe-making fun

Yet another take on the me/we-meme - the WEME Illiterate T-Shirt. Similar in theme, if not in message, to this. And, while you're at it, see also this:

Let's see, what fun flavor might this be? Symbolic fun? Meme-making fun? Or is that Mewe-making?

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith