Editorial: Natural Playscapes and Outdoor Education

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 47 – Number 2


This issue focuses on ‘playscapes’: on how nature or natural elements have been incorporated into playgrounds; and how other, virtual, artificial or ‘smart’ elements of play are competing, complementing or otherwise influencing the way children and young adults are experiencing the outdoors and how and what they are learning there. The contributions include examples of outdoor play and learning in Europe, the United States and Mexico and, importantly, they give voice to practitioners as well as academics.

Rethinking ‘Playscapes’ in the Built Environment


When I first proposed this thematic issue on ‘Natural Playscapes and Outdoor Educa- tion’ to the editors of Built Environment, I had no idea how timely its core themes would be by the time of its publication in mid-2021 – a time when much of the world was still in full or partial lockdown from a deadly pandemic that had made safely- distanced outdoor encounters the only pos- sible alternative to working, learning and socializing in closed indoor environments. In many ways, 2020 became a watershed year for planners, designers, and educators as the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to move many crucial functions of urban life – recreation, entertainment, social dining, and yes, even education and childcare – exclusively outdoors while simultaneously beimg stuck inside our own homes for endless hours of online learning, teaching and working. ‘Opting outside’ suddenly became the only way in which children and adults were able to meet and engage face- to-face at all: safely distanced, out on traffic- calmed streets, open meadows, local trails or beaches. And of the few schools in locked- down areas that were able to still provide in-person instruction, almost all of them were doing so by adapting existing outdoor learning spaces in their school grounds (Rueegger, 2021). Traditional playgrounds, meanwhile, where fenced off everywhere for fear that the virus would be transmitted via grubby hands-on shared metal and plastic surfaces. It is unclear how many of our newly formed outdoorsy habits and pedestrianized streetscapes will linger post- pandemic, but the experience of the past year certainly shed a bright new light on the value of quality outdoor environments.
Back in autumn 2019 when I first sketched out this thematic issue, we still lived in a pre-COVID-19 world where arguments for more outdoor play and outdoor learning grew from the simple, valid concern that too many children and teenagers were growing up too detached from nature and with way too much time spent in virtual worlds in front of computer screens. An ever-growing body of literature argued that insufficient contact with nature has a negative impact on humans, and on children in particular. Best- selling American author Richard Louv had coined the poignant if scientifically dubious term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods to highlight the idea that the excessive time children now spend indoors and hooked to technology is responsible for many modern-day behaviour- al issues related to attention and mood.

From Playgrounds to Playscapes

But once we move play and learning out- doors, where exactly are we moving it to? Are we just talking about sending kids out- side – into nearby woods, or parks, or the nearest neighbourhood playground? What exactly constitutes a suitable playscape or landscape for play in today’s urban and sub- urban environments? Over twenty years ago, this journal published an issue ‘Playgrounds


Figure 1. This playground in Montreal is off limits to children during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada


in the Built Environment’, characterizing – and aptly critiquing – them as ‘insignificant, underestimated and ignored’ sites in the city (McKendrick, 1999). While playground design has come a long way in many European and American cities since then, meaning this is no longer the case everywhere, we are still definitely a very long way from pro- viding children and youth, let alone adults, with enough biophilic spaces in our built environments for playing, learning and being happy. Of course, playing and learning go hand-in-hand. Therefore, a key aim for this issue of Built Environment is to take another look at ‘playscapes’ in cities more generally, with a particular view on how nature or natural elements have been (re-) incorporated into playgrounds – but also how other, virtual, artificial or ‘smart’ ele- ments of play are competing, complement- ing or otherwise influencing the way children and young adults are experiencing the outdoors and how and what they are learn- ing while outdoors. So, rather than limiting this issue to questions of playground design and park planning, we take a broader view, understanding ‘playscapes’ as important locales in our urbanized environments that by no means have to feature classic play structures such as swings, seesaws, and sand boxes. We also look more closely at the way outdoor learning more generally has been integrated into childhood education. Our initial focus was on outdoor education in Northern European countries, most notably Sweden and Denmark, with their rich tradi- tion of forest preschools, nature schools and friluftsliv (literally: ‘free air life’). How do children and youth, who grew up with the benefits of sustained outdoor education and experience, integrate this ecological literacy and environmental awareness into other aspects of their lives? Is it mere co- incidence, for example, that the world’s most prominent young climate activist, Greta Thurnberg, hails from Sweden? How do play experiences in nature carry into adult- hood?
Figure 2. A street in New York City is opened for play during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: CC Streetlab)

The Importance of Ecological Literacy and Environmental Awareness for Children and Adults

A frequent criticism of most modern national education systems is that they over- emphasize number and word ‘smartness’ at the expense of other crucial skills and values that make a well-rounded child and person, particularly with regard to what we might call nature smartness or ecological literacy. These days, you hear educators wanting to foster different kinds of literacy, ranging from digital, informational, tech- nical, or visual literacy to political, civic and (multi-) cultural literacy. Yet even these more sophisticated pedagogical visions remain limited in that they still largely ignore humanity’s connections and co-existence with nature. There is a rapidly growing literature showing that substantial time spent interacting with outdoor environments pro- motes overall wellbeing and positive environ- mental values among children (O’Brien and Murray, 2007; Taylor et al., 2006). In a review article in the Journal of Environmental Educa- tion, Adams and Savahl (2017) conclude that childhood experiences in nature foster an intrinsic care for the environment. And in a more recent article in the Journal of Ad- venture Education and Outdoor Learning Ham- marsten et al. (2019, pp. 227–228) found that as ‘cities become more dense, green spaces disappear and children spend less time outdoors. Research suggests that these conditions create health problems and lack of ecological literacy’. Nature education is still a relatively new field of practice and research and its deep- est roots are found in Northern Europe, par- ticularly Denmark and Sweden. Although the UK, Germany and even the US all have growing movements in this area, the practice, pedagogy and research on outdoor edu- cation for all ages is clearly much more developed in Northern Europe than in other places.

Biophelia and Access to Nature seen through an Environmental Justice Lens

‘Access to nature’ has also become an im- portant theme in the environmental justice literature. A large subset of the ‘sustainable cities’ literature talks about ‘bringing nature back’ into cities so that grey concrete and dark asphalt is replaced with more permeable materials including compound soil and grass. Planners often work hard to bring additional greenspaces into cities and thus can be key partners in the fight for the pro- tection and preservation of crucial natural habitats in metro areas. Beatley and New- man (2013) have called this the emergence of a ‘biophilic perspective on cities’, based on the idea that ‘good design, at the building, site, city and regional scale, must include nature and natural elements’. This idea is not so new, of course: E.O. Wilson’s bio- philia hypothesis already reminded us in the mid-1980s that humans had co-evolved with nature and that we have an innate emotional need to be in nature and connect with other living organisms to live happy and healthy lives (Wilson, 1984). And Wilson, in turn, took his inspiration from psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who used the concept of biophilia in his 1973 book on The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
But are children who grow up in cities able to make sufficient contact with nature during their formative years? Unequal access to nature for low-income and minority students is an increasingly recognized prob- lem, with young British-Bangladeshi birder Mya-Rose Craig setting up her non-profit Black2Nature when she was only 14-years old, campaigning to get Visible Ethnic Minority (VEM) youth out into the British countryside. Natural England’s 2010 report, Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment, showed that while about three- quarters of non-VME children frequently visited green spaces, this was the case for only 57 per cent of VME kids. Similarly, socioeconomic status strongly influences access to green spaces, with three-quarters of higher-income children reporting going frequently as opposed to only 65 per cent from lower-income households. The report also highlighted the key importance of urban greenspaces for all children, with only 17 per cent of any children spending time in a woodland, and only 8–9 per cent being able to access farmland in the countryside or a nature reserve within the month of the survey.
The Nature Playground in Valbyparken in Copenhagen, the wooded areas surround- ing the four after-school centres in South Sweden, and the Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground in Cornwall described by Nebe- long, Hammarsten, and Russell and her colleagues in their articles in this issue are all excellent examples of natural playspaces in or near urbanized areas which can bene- fit children and youth of all ages and cul- tural backgrounds (Nebelong, 2021; Ham- marsten, 2021; Russell et al., 2021). For reasons explored in more depth by Loukaitou- Sideris (2021, also in this issue), many play- grounds and parks in (sub-)urban multi- ethnic neighbourhoods in the United States are in fact underutilized, with children spending much less time outdoors than pre- vious generations. Some, but certainly not all, of the blame goes to the often uninspired and inferior design of urban playgrounds – but ultimately, many wider sociocultural factors need to be considered when aiming to get children to ‘opt back outside’.

Outdoor Education and the Nordic Tradition of Friluftsliv

The issue draws its original inspiration from the academic and professional connections made during this guest editor’s Winter 2020 academic study trip to Sweden and Denmark. My undergraduates, who hailed from places as diverse as Japan, Ghana, Mexico and Switzerland as well as various states in the US, all with vastly different childhood experiences, were exposed to some of the best examples of outdoor playscapes that Scandinavia has to offer. Although we had studied Nordic Outdoor education in the classroom prior to our arrival, experi- encing this approach first-hand exceeded everyone’s expectations, despite the fact that we visited during the coldest, dreariest time of the year. The day after our arrival in Sweden, we met up with Siw Linde, the founder of the Swedish Rain-or-Shine pre- school network (Linde, 2016), and her husband Magnus at the Ropsten metro stop near Lidingö Island. We then spent a magical first day with a group of about twenty-five children aged 2–6 and their teachers, experi- encing the true power of the Skogsmulle ‘love of the outdoors’ (Friluftsliv) pedagogy (Frohm et al., 1975). Shelby Kohn, a third- year undergraduate concentrating in Environ- mental Studies, later described the experi- ence as follows:
We arrived at [Vattendroppen preschool] just in time to see toddlers all bundled up in snowsuits walking two by two, waddling their way to the nearby forest. [T]he children spend the majority of their time every day in the forest, [so they] guided us through the wooded landscape, introducing us to the sacred spaces they knew so well. [We] met Mrs. Pine, a tall and wide- stumped pine tree marking the entrance of the forest. The children and adults hugged her

Figure 3. Children of the Vattendroppen Rain-or-Shine preschool on Lidingö Island in Sweden on their morning journey into the forest. (Photo: Saanika Joshi and Celine Fawaz)


and just up the hill, we encountered Mr. Fir, her husband, who had sprawling roots above the earth, perfect for climbing and crawling about, supporting his trunk high into the sky. They are together, connected beneath the earth, but still keep physical space. There were many landmarks like Mr. Fir and Mrs. Pine the children recognized along the path; it was clear that each of them had developed a special relationship with the nature through their many adventures in that space... The [main play] area was abundant in tall trees with low branches, rope swings, and homemade stick tipis. There was a small meadow, and logs sur- rounding a communal space for making a fire. Throughout the morning, the children taught us songs (in Swedish and English) about nature and togetherness while we cooked and drank coffee and tea by the fire. We painted watercolor rainbows on the grass, climbed trees and rocks, and had several stick battles. Some of us got a lesson in Swedish by spelling our names on the earth with natural materials like pinecones, sticks, and leaves... While only there for a few hours, the bonding power of nature gave us the unforgettable opportunity to play, laugh, and love with the children of the forest... If you spend enough time exploring the outdoors, you will soon learn that the language of nature is the language of humanity, and you, too, will become a Friend of the Forest. (Kohn 2020)

Yet we were only a short bus and metro ride away from the heart of Stockholm. The next day, local educator Sawako Akune in- troduced us to some of the city’s best play- grounds, including the manned playspace, Rålis Parklek, at Rålambshov Park where staff member Ms Lianna demonstrated the full range of play opportunities for children and teenagers, including a cozy club house and a fully equipped wood workshop that enables children to acquire valuable wood- working skills, seamlessly integrated into simple play.
The use of natural materials such as sticks and rocks along with adult-size sharp tools such as knives, hammers, nails, and saws to engage in simple woodwork and bushcraft exercises was a recurring theme during our visit. Children are trusted to handle them- selves and the tools safely – and the re- spective playspaces are not a completely risk-free environment but rather one where even very young children can learn to assess risk and experiment with risk-taking rather than avoiding it altogether.
Figure 4. Forest Kindergarten preschoolers engaging in a stick battle with U.S. university students. (Photo: Saanika Joshi and Celine Fawaz)
Figure 5. Soka University study tour visit to the Rålis Parklet manned playground in Stockholm. (Photo: Author )
Our visit to the Nature School in the small hamlet of Nynäshamn also let us experience the simple beauty of solving increasingly complex algebra equations by collecting varying sets of twigs, pine cones and leaves or of testing and expanding our Swedish and English language vocabulary by skipping, trotting, sauntering, lumbering and tip-toeing around in cold winter air, moving single-file as a group as Nature School headmaster Mats Wejdmark belted out new movement instructions every few seconds. There were also great lessons in teamwork and collaboration as small groups competed to collect and evaluate natural objects with different qualities and proper- ties (‘hard’, ‘soft’, ‘pliable’ etc.). All students agreed that this form of ‘dirty teaching’ (Robertson, 2014) was a vastly superior, more effective, and more engaging way to learn traditional subjects such as maths, science or English compared to the conven- tional schooling they themselves had ex- perienced as children.
Subsequent highlights were outdoor group sessions in mind and body awareness with Anders Szczepanski and Paul Silverstrale in Linköping, in great part inspired by
Figure 6. Learning maths outdoors by collecting different sets of sticks, leaves and pinecones. (Photo: Saanika Joshi and Celine Fawaz)
Figure 7. Collaborative problem solving in nature. (Photo: Saanika Joshi and Celine Fawaz)
ancient Tai Chi techniques, and a visit with Marianne Larsen and Viktor Håkansson to the St. Hansgården After School Centre in Lund where young children not only learn
cooking, crafting, and forging but also about permaculture and how to take care of their own rabbits and of the goats, sheep and pigs on site. Including small-scale husbandry
Figure 8 and 9. St. Hansgården Afterschool Centre in Lund, Sweden, teaches childen permaculture and animal husbandry. (Photos: Author)
in preschool or school aftercare settings is a logical expansion of nature and outdoor pedagogy, with some obvious overlap with animal-assisted therapy approaches in cases where the animals are important ongoing companions integrated into a young person’s overall treatment plan, to help them over- come physical, social, or emotional struggles and improve cognitive functions (Levinson, 1984). Many urban children have very few opportunities to engage directly with any animals on a daily basis.
Anna Ekblad and Anders Kjellson of Lund’s Nature School took us to the ex- cellent, well-designed natural playgrounds at Kulparkskolan and Stångby preschool. Meanwhile, during our visit to the Habiteum Environmental Workshop in Helsingborg,
education lessons are organized by Helsingør Aquarium which collaborates with local schools and universities to optimize a home- away-home learning approach in which bi- weekly outdoor lessons are carefully comple- mented by other preparatory and reflective indoor lessons, thus maximizing what students can take away from the field visits.
Taken together, these amazing places and people embody the richness of Scandinavian pedagogies based on the firm belief that children must remain connected with nature even if they grow up in cities and suburbs. Natural playscapes may be designed and ‘edited’ yet what matters is that these play- scapes are deeply and consciously integrated into our built environment and our daily experiences and learning.
Figure 10. The Helsingør Aquarium offers hands-on outdoor science school classes in the Øresund. (Photo: Author)
Our host Therese Olofssen and her team taught us the restorative value of ‘forest bathing’ (Miyazaki, 2018) while also sharing many valuable pedagogical techniques to teach children about sustainability and ecology. Across the Øresund in Danish Helsingør, we were then fortunate to experience a hands-on marine biology lesson, wading in the cold winter sea to catch, identify and release crabs and fish under the watchful eye of local nature instructors and interpreters Jan Wilkens and Michael Hansen, once again reinforcing the notion that people of all ages learn best when ‘the hand, the head and the heart’ are all involved. The outdoor

The Contributions in this Issue

The contributions in this issue include ex- amples of outdoor play and learning in Europe, the United States and Mexico. To- gether, they provide a partial yet very in- sightful perspective on what natural play- scapes and outdoor education programmes can do for the hearts and minds of both younger and older humans. The three Scan- dinavian pieces were solicited directly fol- lowing my Winter 2020 study tour with my students, while the other three contributions stem from my desire to complement these Northern European insights with places where outdoor pedagogies are a less firmly established element of national education and culture. I also realized that the impact and influence of virtual play – be it in the form of video gaming, augmented reality or other forms of computerized play should be more closely investigated, not just as a bipolar counterpoint to ‘natural’ forms of play but rather in terms of its potential to enhance and complement outdoor experiences. Many contributions in the issue attest to this grow- ing trend. Another goal for this issue was to give voice to practitioners in addition to academics. Just as during our study trip, I wanted to hear directly from those who actually design playscapes and/or create play and outdoor learning experiences by working with the children directly as educators and/ or playworkers.
The entire collection is framed by these practitioner perspectives. We open the issue with what is probably one of the purest cele- brations of natural playgrounds to be found anywhere. Helle Nebelong’s article ‘When there is Nothing but Nature’ is a lovely auto- biographical account of how this gifted Danish landscape architect came to be con- vinced that most standardized play equip- ment is detrimental to children’s develop- ment and that, instead, ‘nature is the best place for children to play and develop their creativity’ (Nebelong, 2021). Being able to tour several of her celebrated natural play- scapes and the Garden of Senses in Copen- hagen with her as guide for the day was the final highlight of our January 2020 study tour. Her rich account speaks for itself. And it is immensely gratifying to see that her work is receiving increasing international recognition even across the Atlantic now as she was recently commissioned as lead designer for an inclusive natural playscape at a local elementary school in Normal, Illinois where she was able to team up with UK play safety expert and ‘Urban Play- grounds’ author Tim Gill and the Bienen- stock Natural Playground manufacturers. She was always ahead of her time in design- ing rich sensory experiences for children of all abilities, providing opportunity for both contemplation and creative play.
Maria Hammarsten’s research on how children ‘play’ and make meaning in outdoor places was another of my original inspira- tions for this issue. The article included here is part of her doctoral research which uses walk-and-talk conversations with 8 and 9 year old children, supplemented by photo- graphs taken by the children themselves, to document school-age children’s perspectives on ‘unedited’ outdoor places with natural features that were not designed by adults (Hammarsten, 2021). Not surprisingly, trees were favourite features for climbing, jump- ing, hiding as well as game- and role- playing with others while many other spaces in the thickets and meadows, among rocks or alongside small ponds or creeks were imbued with special meaning as well. The children loved being able to access these unscripted ‘free’ spaces in addition to the more traditional, ‘boring’ school-yard areas in their afterschool environments.
In the next contribution, Wendy Russell, John Fitzpatrick and Bridget Handscomb turn the tables and investigate the value of play and the learning that occurs in natural playscapes not just among children but also among playworkers (Russell et al., 2021). Focusing on adventure playgrounds, their short history on the production of play- grounds reminds us how today’s adventure or ‘junk’ playgrounds disrupt notions of directed and normative play while still hav- ing to work ‘within a system that requires measuring outcomes in order to secure funding’. They present the case study of Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground in Cornwall, UK. The comprehensiveness with which the playworker team analyses child- ren’s and adults’ experiences in the space is impressive, including drone photos, hand- drawn maps, and videos ‘capturing and recording events and playful moments’ as well as reflections on sound and ‘memories of small, touch and taste [and] movements, on the flows and rhythms of the space’.
The playworkers also made creative use of critical cartography in order to map rela- tional encounters between people, landscapes, and material objects as well as symbols and desires, thus problematizing simple binaries such as nature/culture, child/adult, and play/ work.
Following this theme of non-binary think- ing, Mathias Arvola, Inger Edforss Fuchs, Ingemar Nyman, and Anders Szczepanski report on the Swedish VASS project which sought to use mobile augmented virtual reality in the form of specially programmed iPads in order to enhance outdoor education in a Swedish primary school, thus creating experiences that were both ‘authentic’ and ‘virtual’ (Arvola et al., 2021). School-age students were sent in small groups to a forest trail and places near the school with the tablets where they were able to scan QR codes along the way and overlay in- formation on local fauna and flora or use GPS coordinates for geocaching treasure hunts where teachers inserted place-based lessons about local historical figures or pol- lution incidents. The aim was not just to take children ‘back to nature’ but also to explore the constraints and possibilities that dense urban environments afford for engag- ing children and youth in meaningful out- door activity. This can certainly mean the integration of modern technology and design in order to enhance neighbourhood play- scapes – but there are important questions as to how exactly this should be done. As Fägerstam (2012, quoted in Arvola et al.) pointed out, ‘there are four central compo- nents to outdoor education: the concrete sensory experience itself; learning through this experience; the authentic place where the learning activity that constitutes the ex- perience occurs; and finally, reflecting upon the experience in an interplay with text- based learning in a classroom context’.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, in her article on ‘smart playgrounds’, then presents an- other example of using interactive technol- ogy outdoors, yet under very different circumstances (Loukaitou-Sideris, 2021). Allow- ing young children to explore their neigh- bourhood by themselves as is customary in Scandinavia has become unthinkable for most parents and educators in the United States. Children’s independent mobility has been consistently diminished over the past few generations as neighbourhoods be- came more sprawling and car-dependent, and ‘stranger-danger’ became a thing. Add to that an increasing commercialization and privatization of leisure activities, the over- regulation of public spaces, and a culture of playground design that is focused more around injury prevention and risk mini- mization than on stimulating creative play and it is hardly surprising that playgrounds and parks in many US cities are severely underused. Loukaitou-Sideris discusses the history of playgrounds in the US as well as the specific causes and consequences of their underuse in her home region of Los Angeles before presenting different examples of interactive play structures designed to entice middle-school age children away from their electronic devices back to the outdoors. These smart playgrounds typically use but- tons, colours, sounds and computer gaming technology to entice the children to engage in various physical activities. Other ex- amples include energy-generating exercise equipment, outdoor music booths or water, sound and light installations for people of all ages. Loukaitou-Sideris, like Arvola et al., decries the false dichotomy between nature and technology. She also identifies play- ground underutilization as an environ- mental justice issue, noting that ‘especially for inner-city children, who do not have the means to reach the hikes and trails of natural areas in periurban parks easily, retrofitting the existing playgrounds near their homes in ways that make them more appealing should be a policy priority’.
Yet in the end, the question whether ex- isting traditional playgrounds are best re- designed and retrofitted with ‘more nature’ or ‘more technology’ – or perhaps with more of both – only addresses part of the larger issue at hand. Yes, we need to liberate children’s play from the confines of tradi- tional playgrounds which are uninspiring, underutilized and generally underper- forming. But ideally, city planners and designers should be creating entire biophilic neighbourhoods where lots of natural spaces have been preserved or re-introduced and where contemplation and play are universally encouraged. In short, we come back full circle to Colin Ward’s (1978, p. 73) famous anarchist mandate from The Child in the City, where he proclaimed that:

one should be able to play everywhere easily, loosely and not forced into a playground or a park. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of playgrounds.

Befittingly, Edwina Portocarrero, in the final contribution in this issue, reposits this same conundrum, stating that, ‘the play- ground as such, as a designated destination for play, is an oddity that emerged with urbanization. How can play opportunities be re-introduced in places where play has lost its grounds?’ (Portocarrero, 2021). One such opportunity is ListenTree, ‘an audio- haptic display embedded in a tree’ that Edwina Portocarrero and her co-creator Gershon Dublon installed in several differ- ent places, with the most successful one being a run during the Day of the Dead holiday in a Mexico City park where eight trees were fitted with hidden bone- conductor technology such that visitors could hear famous Mexican poetry recited when hugging and leaning their ears against these trees. The author describes the experience that adults and children had as deeply meaningful, with many children and teens ‘sticking around long enough to hear the full length of a poem and going to each of the trees’. The site-specific cultural resonance of the installation made for a powerful blend of nature and technology that was both playful and deeply evocative for participants.
As demonstrated by ListenTree, the act of tree hugging can thus be an act of silent meditation or of active listening and cultural learning. Nature and technology can come together in specific places to create new meaning – and together, they can present opportunities for interactive play and deep sensory engagement. As we continue to think through the idea of natural play- scapes, we necessarily also continue to think through humanity’s relationship to nature, and our own nature in relationship to the environment we live in. And we ack- nowledge our need for play beyond the confines of the sandbox that early twentieth- century city-makers provided. This is not as much a ‘child-saving’ (Frost, 2009) as much as it is a city-saving movement – and the global movement for more and better natural playscapes transcends their local specificity and place-based attributes in individual cities.


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