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Photos: Playground drama is the same for kids around the world

When photographer James Mollison set out to capture different school playgrounds across the world, he was surprised by something that in retrospect was obvious but which hadn’t occurred to him before.

From hand clapping to rougher, physical games, genuine laughter to tears of jealousy, fights and bullying, Mollison discovered an incredible universality in the way that kids play and communicate. Mollison captured that variety of intense interaction on all 59 school playgrounds from 17 countries and across five years.

Shohei Elementary School, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by James Mollison

Shohei Elementary School, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by James Mollison

“There was something similar in the way younger kids played,” Mollison said. About three-quarters of the schools in his book are primary schools.

“I think when you’re younger, you haven’t learned fully to deal with your emotions and anger and happiness, so there [was] sometimes more going on with the younger ones.”

Mollison conceived the idea for this project, “Playgrounds,” while reflecting back to his time at school and remembering the wide range of experiences and emotions.

“I remember it being a place of fun games, joy and running around – but it also being kind of a quite scary place,” Mollison said. “It was a place where we’d kind of argue and get into fights and jealousy and all that kind of thing. I thought it might be interesting photographically to look at that.”

Hull Trinity House School, Hull, United Kingdom. Photo by James Mollison

Hull Trinity House School, Hull, United Kingdom. Photo by James Mollison

The project had initially started as a way to capture the diversity in schools in Great Britain — he wanted to compare and contrast schools of different cultures and class — but it soon turned into an international project when he got a chance to visit Kenya.

“I was born in Kenya and lived there until I was 5, so I’ve always been intrigued,” Mollison said. “There was just something mesmerizing about it when the kids just burst out at the moment of the bell – suddenly you kind of have this invasion of children and noise.”

Valley View School, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by James Mollison.

Valley View School, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by James Mollison

Mollison describes his work as a type of time-lapse photography. In order to enrich the narrative of each image, he took multiple pictures over a single break period, then composited details of the moments that relate to his own childhood memories.

The weight he puts on these tiny moments is clear in illustrator Patrick Waterhouse’s tiny drawings in the book. The duo adopted the concept of “Where’s Waldo?” by having Waterhouse draw a single moment from each playground next to the image.

“We wanted to come up with a way for people to look into the photos because quite often there’s a lot happening in them,” Mollison said.

Aida Boys School, Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo by James Mollison

Aida Boys School, Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo by James Mollison


Kroo Bay Primary, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by James Mollison

Kroo Bay Primary, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by James Mollison


Holtz High School, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by James Mollison

Holtz High School, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by James Mollison


Inglewood High School, Inglewood, California. Photo by James Mollison

Inglewood High School, Inglewood, California. Photo by James Mollison

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