Spring Garden in the Snow

Unpredictable twists and turns are an inherent part of play’s beauty – adventure and discovery, the lingua franca. Resilience is the pièce de résistance, a piece that in later life can make all the difference.

cropper-torstar-photoSpring Garden Public School – Photo credit: John Mahler, The Toronto Star – 1979.

Twists, turns and discovery are also hallmarks of the sedentary surfer. The internet of play offers seemingly endless redirections and constant parsing of new, unanticipated information. As frequently as not, the eventual destination is altogether different than what was initially intended.

cropped-0001Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

As dawn breaks on drifting white dunes of snow outside my window, I discover an early 1970s playspace in Toronto. I arrive by way of an article that reports Crow Nest Adventure Playground in Dewsbury, UK may be subject to cuts. From there, a Google photo search takes me to a photo of a playspace in Bowood, Wiltshire, UK. This in turn leads to Spring Garden Public School via an UrbanToronto forum and ultimately to an index of photos by Bill Chambers reproduced here.

toronto-adventure-playground004Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

I look the place up on the map and it’s in Willowdale, North York. Though the school is no longer there, I see it was close to where I lived from about 1964 to 1970. Those days, we would walk through that neighbourhood on our way to the Willow Theatre and the Memorial Swimming Pool and that little corner store where we could buy 10 cent bottles of mini-pop and get a nickel back on the empties. Those were the times that my friends and I first started getting out and about independently.

toronto-adventure-playground008Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

I can imagine myself playing here – hanging on in the crow’s nest, trying to balance on and climb the logs. It helps to see kids dressed pretty much as I had back in grades 7 and 8 – in those rockin’ late ’60s kids’ togs. The space must have been created after our family left the area. I can’t believe that our parents wouldn’t have brought us to this cool spot, or that we wouldn’t have heard about it ourselves.

Today, mysterious algorithms present a gift that in three of four jumps bring me from the UK to a familiar space close by my old childhood neighbourhood.

The black and white blast from the past is a nice visit. Here, before my eyes, the kids are exalting in the snow. The white dunes outside the window have been tamped down through the course of the day by their sledding and their first attempts at cross country skiing. This is the place to be.

 

The 2016 PlayGroundology FB Fab Four

Drum Roll Please….

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Presenting the top four PlayGroundology Facebook posts of 2016 in ascending order (click through on photos for original FB post)….

In fourth position, it’s the then under construction Earthscape playspace at The Dingle in Halifax, Nova Scotia with 86 likes, 17 shares, 5 comments and a reach of 4,053 people.

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In third place, all the way from Barcelona, Spain it’s Parc Diagonala Mar via the good folks at Creajeu with 154 likes, 45 shares, 5 comments and a reach of 12,277 people.

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In second place, it’s the woven wonder wheel of wood (weekly alliteration quotient achieved) clocking in at 141 likes, 109 shares, 12 comments and a reach of 19,715 peeps. Though a source is noted, we are still trying to find out where this is. Can anyone idenify the place?

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In the number one spot, pole position goes to a sign displayed at Telus Spark’s Brainasium in Calgary, Canada. Initially, the photo was incorrectly identified by Mr. PlayGroundology but readers quickly set me straight. Thanks to my cousin Gordon who flagged this photo for us.

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Final drum roll before the number one PlayGroundology 2016 Facebook post stats….

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Ladies and gentlemen, the most successful PlayGroundology FB post ever with 1.5K likes, 4,753 shares, 97 comments. And 640,287 people reached.

Thanks so much for contributions, comments and your readership. Looking forward to a playful 2017.

When Simple Just Rocks

Sir Sandford Flemming Park in Halifax, Canada now has two towers stretching skywards, carving out distinctive vertical planes. The new arrival is not as tall or venerable as the early 20th century Dingle Tower commemorating the establishment of responsible government in Nova Scotia. Although it may be the shorter of the two, it represents a cachet of a different order altogether.

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Tower of Play

The tower of play, framed by durable and dense black locust pillars and encased in steel core poylester wrapped rope, is a hive of activity during opening weekend. The structure is a beacon, a homing signal for kids on the lookout for a whoosh of excitement. As people arrive, reactions are squarely in the eye popping, can’t believe this, wonder zone. Kids sprint toward the installations at this playscape located not far from the city’s urban core. I can hear sharp intakes of breath and high frequency, surround sound squeals of delight are registering very audibly.

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The tower’s hollow core is a scramble of movement. It’s like the kids are aloft in the rigging of masted sailing vessels, or scaling the walls of a medieval town. Ever upwards hand over hand on a perpendicular climb to the top followed by a rapid descent on the slide. Repeat once, repeat twice, the merriment is endless.

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“This is the best, it’s awesome,” shouts Lila as she looks about for her next adventure. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump away. She spies a plot of sand with a pump firmly planted close to one of its borders. It’s a popular spot and she has to wait a few minutes before she gets a turn making the water flow.

Water and Muck

The Kaiser & Kühne water pump is well primed. Lila’s enthusiastic exertions let loose a modest cascade of the clear, wet stuff. Water sprouts out the spigot and carves narrow channels as it flows downhill in the sand – magic in the making.

I think back to a phone conversation I had with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of landscape architecture, a few years ago. She shared with me what she had adopted as a self-evident truth borne from her decades of involvement with children in play spaces. I paraphrase her here – all children really need for play is some sand, or earth, water and a place to climb. That’s a check, check and check at The Dingle.

Despite the coolish temperatures, kids are immersed in the water experience. There are soggy mittens, dark patches on the knees of pants and the squelchy sound of soakered wet footwear. The water casts a powerful spell transforming sand to muck of varying consistencies and creating ever changing topographies.  There is an irresistible quality to mucky dirt and having the license to get all messied up.

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Climb and Balance

There is also something for the climbers, balancers and jumpers. Take a dozen or so bark-stripped logs, create a frame with upright anchors and then connect the rest on different planes, angles and inclinations. Think levitating 3-D pick up sticks with netting underneath. This logs akimbo installation offers challenge, fun and a little risk depending on how adventurous the child chooses to be.

climber-1Click here or on photo above for log climber slide scroll show

There are a number of different techniques on display at the climber – the straddle hop, the creep and crawl, the slither, the sure-footed mountain goat, the bear hug and the koala. Kids find their own comfort zone and move accordingly. Inching along with arms and legs wrapped tightly around a log à la bear hug seems to offer the greatest security particularly for the younger children.

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The netting at the climber’s base is a great spot to goof around, crawling under, wobbly balancing with feet on rope, lying back and taking in the big, blue sky. And let’s not forget jumping, the airborne launch from the climber’s highest heights and getting pulled oh so quickly back to earth with a small, soft thud.

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Maintain Play Momentum

There’s more – a balancing log with bark intact, the ‘easy as 1, 2, 3’ climbing bars,  a small embankment slide, a stump stairmaster cluster, a tyke sized climber next to the water pump and the don’t try this in enclosed spaces #playrocks percussion station. Lots to do, try and experience that encourages physical activity and the development of gross and fine motor skills for a wide range of ages.

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This natural play area, by Canadian design and build firm Earthscape, is a welcome departure for urban Halifax where there has been a bit of a blight on the variety of play opportunities available to kids in public spaces. A notable exception to off the shelf solutions over the years are playscapes on the waterfront which have benefitted from the leadership of the Waterfront Development Corporation and co-funding models.

Earthscape’s Dingle playground may offer a compelling enough example for the City of Halifax to contemplate continued variety and the creation of additional signature playscapes in other parts of the city. Perhaps this is already under consideration.

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Wouldn’t it be as easy as 1, 2, 3 to engage with a representative sample of parents and caregivers to develop an overarching plan for play in public spaces for the city’s kids? Halifax could explore and embrace the growing interest in adventure playgrounds. Are these the city’s first steps in connecting the 3 Rs – risk, resilience and the renaissance of play?

Anyone with kids should take a dangle down by The Dingle. We had a great time and will certainly be returning even though it’s a 40 km return drive from home. Towering oaks, the Northwest Arm, wooded trails and the new natural playscape make this urban oasis a great place for play.

Thanks Earthscape and kudos to the City of Halifax for exploring new dynamics in public play spaces….

ScreenShot Mondays Redux – Le Lion et La Souris

In the early days of the PlayGroundology blog, I ran a regular series over the course of a year (2011-12) called ScreenShot Mondays that appeared twice a month.  I’m dusting it off and taking it out to play again. Fellow Canadians at Montreal’s Le Lion et La Souris are the inaugural subjects of ScreenShot Mondays Redux.

A few weeks back, I was reminded of the series when I reblogged Tim Gill’s piece looking at Mike Lanza’s travails following a feature article published about him in the The New York Times Magazine. Mike and his Playborhood were the subject of the first ScreenShot Mondays post in 2011.

Below is the original three paragraph preamble to the first ScreenShot Mondays.

Cyberspace is humming with inspiration and information on every topic under the sun and then some. This clickable, digital universe is ever expanding with new ideas and new perspectives coming on the scene at a dizzying pace. What a great place to play and discover what’s happening in the wide, wide world. It’s a virtual venue for passionate individuals and mindful organizations to share experiences and create content in every imaginable format.

A couple of Mondays per month, PlayGroundology will screenshot a cyberspot that focuses on playgrounds, or play. I hope that readers will dive in and explore. Even if you’ve seen the selection before, take a moment and check to see what content has been added recently.

le-lion-et-la-sourisLe Lion et La Souris

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Think of this as a very slow stumble upon, an invitation to relish something new or to revisit an old friend. Some of the people and places may be household names in the world of play and playgrounds, others not so much. I hope all will pique your interest in what they have to offer and further your own possibilities for playfulness.

Le Lion et la Souris are “inspired by playwork and forest school principles”. Pop into their site to see what they offer in terms of programs, training, community events and workshops. And yes, as their name suggests, they speak French and English.

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I’ll be in Quebec in about a month and who knows, maybe we’ll have a chance to meet. They’re located on the Plateau not far from a spot where a good friend of mine lived for years.

When Good Things Happen

Kids and parents in Nova Scotia, Canada are giving two thumbs up to a couple of the province’s new public play spaces. Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space and The Dingle Natural Playground in Halifax make the natural world more accessible to kids.

The scale and scope of these two projects are a significant development for what is still a relatively new design aesthetic in these parts. The variety of installations and the age ranges they cater to set Middle Musquoidoboit and The Dingle apart from other natural playscapes in the province. Jubilee Park in Bridgetown, continues to delight the pre-school crowd and the Evergreen organization is working with a few individual schools to incorporate natural play areas as part of the recreation mix.

Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space will be our first stop. Playgroundology’s next blog post will share some of the fun and excitement of The Dingle playscape’s opening weekend.

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In Middle Musquoidoboit behind a thin stand of trees there’s a clearing that on opening day buzzes with feverish excitement. Kids are zigging and zagging like hummingbirds from one installation to the next – ponds, slides, a fire tower, sandpits, a nest, a bear den, a tunnel through a small hillock and a personal favourite, a vintage three-seater Flinstone-mobile (see photo gallery here).

Tucked away in one corner is a 15 foot long pit partially filled with water that’s already churned brown. The sloping sides get muddier the closer one gets to the waterline. This is the place that holds the greatest promise of transforming white t-shirts each kid was given on arrival into authentic 100% organic dirt fabric.

The mud kitchen is an eleventh hour addition to this rootsy wonderland. Middle Musquoidoboit grandmas are the driving force behind this get grimy zone. They gathered up all the equipment – pots, pans, containers, spoons, shovels, pails, cupboards and yes, the kitchen sink – to set up a deliciously fun way to create imaginary delicacies with the most versatile of ingredients, dirt, water and mud. This open air, community kitchen, where there are never too many cooks, adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the overall ambience.

Can you say Am-Phi-Bi-An? Frog and salamander prospecting is the main attraction at a kid-sized pond bursting with green along its banks. On a second trip to the Nature Play Space the Girl Power Posse, my two girls and a couple of their friends, fan out and put the multi acre playscape through its paces.

On that occasion the pond is the place to be. Getting up close and personal with frogs proves to be a heady elixir that pulls the girls back time and again to try their luck with the dipping nets.

At another popular installation, scaling tree trunk towers presents an opportunity for airborne derring-do. The ascent is tough, it’s difficult finding the right footholds and hand grips on the vertical climb. Standing at the precipice, I can only imagine the quickened pace of pounding hearts. Then the launch and a surge of adrenalin in that split second before impact.

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The playscape offers numerous opportunities for kids to test and push their limits, to assess risk and challenge their physical abilities. These activities help build confidence, develop judgment and, when all goes well, can contribute to creating a reservoir of courage, resourcefulness and resilience.

This is a running, leaping, flying kind of place with wows at every turn. There are hills and rocks to climb, dirt and sand galore, small animals in their native habitat to catch and release, trees, grassy expanses and a welcome absence of motorized vehicles. This is a place to move and a place to play in the heart of Nova Scotia, Canada’s Ocean Playground.

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The Nature Play Space is a project led by the Department Of Natural Resources’ Natural Resources Education Centre. Two of the Centre’s team members, Amelia Kennedy and Sara Hill, were inspired to create a natural play space after attending an environmental educators conference with participants and presenters from throughout North America.

They left the conference with an aspirational goal that took form with considerable community engagement and sweat equity from volunteers in addition to support from their provincial government department. Two community build days, donations of labour and materials and invaluable advice were key ingredients in the success of the project. Nature aficionado, designer, trail developer and heavy equipment operator Garnet McLaughlin of Cobequid Consulting gets a huge shout out for his contributions.

So what good things are happening?

  • variety is being added to public play stock in Nova Scotia
  • communities are being engaged in the development and build processes
  • community mobilization and participation resulted in a very moderately priced playscape
  • media are covering the story
  • parents are talking about risk amongst each other and with their kids
  • a home grown design for natural playscapes has been developed that can benefit other communities
  • people are having thoughtful conversations about physical activity levels and the value of independent play
  • every kid who visits is getting a huge dose of Vitamin N

Our two visits to date resonated with excitement, laughter and an appreciation of the natural world. We’ll be regulars enjoying the leisurely drive there and back through Nova Scotia’s heartland.

For those readers who are curious about the pronunciation of Musquoidoboit click play below and listen to the GirlPower Nature Play Chorale who at the end of their song nail it.

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Encourage Breaking Glass Ceilings

Let’s prepare our girls to continue breaking glass ceilings so that one day there will be nothing but sky…

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What’s so bad about a father trying to make the world a more play-friendly place?

This reblogged post by Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood provides some valuable analysis and backstory on Mike Lanza and his perspectives on play. The New York Times Magazine published a feature story on Mike at home in his ‘playborhood’. It’s a great read and I encourage you to take a peek.

Some readers took exception to Mike’s approach to play, kids, independence and risk in his Silicon Valley neighbourhood. I read some pointed criticism online that bordered on name-calling. It was disappointing to read this from others who are equally as passionate in their advocacy of independent play for kids. I’m a believer in bringing people together under big tents so that hand in hand with others we can move the yardsticks.

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From my perspective, Mike and I are definitely working under the same tent. I first became aware of Mike nearly six years ago and posted information about Playborhood on this blog. We corresponded a little and shared snippets of our lives. I always found him very personable and respectful. What’s more, he’s trying out new stuff that is focusing additional attention on the need and value of independent play.

Although not as elaborate as Mike’s backyard, our home is a gathering place for neighbourhood kids and they are all welcome to play here. We like it that way and it seems the kids do too.

Here’s a link to an article in the Mail Online published subsequent to The New York Times Magazine piece.

I had planned to write my own post about The Anti-Helicoper Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play but I have nothing more substantive to say than Tim. Truth be told I don’t think I can match the thoroughness or the eloquence of the Rethinking Childhood piece. Now that you’ve come to the end of the preamble, settle in for Tim’s main course.

Rethinking Childhood

This weekend’s New York Times has a major feature and profile on Mike Lanza and his Playborhood campaign to make neighbourhoods more play-friendly. And it’s whipping up a storm. In this piece, I give my take on the campaign and my response to the key criticisms.

First, some background. Lanza’s rallying cry is “turn your neighborhood into a place for play” – a goal he has been pursuing for at least nine years. His book and blog are first and foremost a set of practical advice, ideas and case studies for achieving that goal.

Lanza first got into the issue because of his concerns as a dad bringing up three children. What drives him is, in large part, the contrast between his own typically free-range 70s childhood and the highly constrained lives of most children today. I share his view that this change marks a profound loss.

Lanza’s campaign is…

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