A Canvas for Play

The northern and eastern boundaries of Toronto’s Grange Park tuck up close to two venerable institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). Over the years, the park has been featured on many a canvas and in innumerable sketches and watercolours.

Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer conducting a children’s outdoor sketching class in Grange Park in 1934. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

Canadian Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer led art classes for kids in this green space not far from the city centre. Today, kids are reclaiming the park with the opening of  a new Earthscape and PFS Studio design and build playscape.

The last time I was in Toronto, I had a chance to get a tour and poke around as the space was nearing completion. I was intrigued to see the treatment as the visual arts run in my family. Let’s cut to the quick, they took a huge leap over me but one of my older daughters was recognized by enRoute magazine as one of the top ten instagrammers to watch in the country. If you’re curious about her photos, check out seriouslyalexa. My younger kids are prolific artists in their own right. The wall surfaces of my home and work offices are festooned with their creations. Their collected oeuvres are a constant bright spot in my days.

At the south entrance to the playscape, the journey begins with two platforms approximately 8 to 10 feet above ground level supported by stylized blue, green and yellow conté sticks. The larger platform is nestled up against a mature maple and represents an artist’s palette. The day of my visit, the wooden planks are carpeted in green, awash in two winged helicopters.

Grange Park – south entrance

The platforms can be accessed by a wide stairway, a vertical, beam-me-up tunnel that provides entry through the floor and via a broad hanging rope ladder. Undoubtedly, there will be those who choose to run up the slides (most of us have done this, right?) or try to monkey up the conté sticks…

It’s the wobbly practice-your-balance nylon braid tunnel connecting the two platforms that is sure to get a lot of traffic. The intimation of adventurous derrin-do suspended above the ground will be an irresistible attraction pulling kids to scamper up and down the gentle incline.

The wobble-bobble conté bridge (not the technical name!)

I couldn’t leave before trying it myself. I wobbled, bobbled and painlessly hobbled my way across thinking of the squeals of delight that will erupt from my three youngest and my TO grandkids when they get a chance to give it a test drive.

Adjacent to the slide tower is a huge, climb-inside-me tube with oozing bouncy blue paint pooling under the nozzle and streaming to the conté tower. There’s a slide here for the small kids who will get a kick out of entering the tube, swooping down to the ground below and then wanting to try it again and again and again.

Paint tube slide, climber and ‘hide’ from the parents cubby

On the north side of the playscape is the the most challenging design and engineering element of the project – a series of connected dodecahdrons. Sitting there they look deceivingly simple but these shapes designed to simulate crushed paper models common to art classes were not a walk in the park to build.

Dodecahdron chain with paint can in background

Now that they have come off the CAD/CAM drawing board and into real life, they offer more cubbies for climbing, hiding, balancing and sliding as well as interesting shapes, sight lines and angles.

The final piece in this artistic tour de force is the lowly paint can, a vessel of colour just waiting to be applied, or spilled as the case may be. And hasn’t this crafty, painty spillage happened at all of our kitchen tables? It’s part and parcel of the creative process. If you can’t get messy, where’s the fun?

Paint can clean up (tools no longer in situ)

With Grange Park, Earthscape continues to display their rich palette. They demonstrate their ability to build high quality, custom designed, adventurous play installations with a significant quotient of natural materials. Is there anything this firm can’t build? The City of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the W. Garfield Weston Foundation are sure to be happy with the finished product as are the kids…

As the kids wrap up their play at Grange Park they may not be thinking of their next masterpiece but clearly they will have exercised body and mind in the art of play.

Here’s an early rendition of the playscape. There have been some modifications and adjustments since this animation was produced. See if you can find them if you have a chance to visit.

Ed’s note – In late May I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the nearly finished playscape in Toronto’s Grange Park. Earthscape Senior Landscape Architect and Project Manger, Dennis Taves, took me around the site which was still getting a number of touch ups from a friendly work crew. We grabbed a quick bite to eat underneath the ‘palette’ during a cloudburst. Shout out to my son-in-law James who had packed me some delicious buns with coldcuts and cheese from the family’s Tre Mari Bakery on St. Clair West. They were supposed to be for my trek from Toronto to Ottawa but Dennis and I got through half of them. You develop a healthy appetite touring and talking about play…. Thanks Dennis for your time.

Canada, PlayNation eh? – Playable Spaces

With so much land mass and great outdoors destinations from coast to coast to coast, Canada is a play par excellence kinda place. What other G-7 country has a province that’s branded for play? Exhibit A – look no further than Nova Scotia, marketed for nearly 100 years as Canada’s Ocean Playground.

This Canada Day post kicks off a series that will run throughout July. Posts will present snapshots of various aspects of play in a country where 16% of the population, some 5.8 million people, are 14 and under. First on deck is Playable Spaces. Subsequent posts will look at Designers and Builders, Researchers, Back in the Day and The Brits Are Coming.

Playable Spaces

On the eve of modern Canada’s 150th birthday bash, here are a few play spaces that possess a certain je ne sais quoi, a distinctiveness that raises them above the crowd. This is a small representative list by no means exhaustive.

Some other fine playground folk – the Playground Writers of Canada – have compiled a collection of 150 playgrounds across the country. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can find it here.

Nova Scotia

Nature Play Space – Middle Musquoidoboit

As PlayGroundology is headquartered in Nova Scotia we’ll start by dropping in on the communities of Middle Musquoidoboit and Meteghan.

This clip of mud kitchen madness captures opening day at the Nature Play Space in the summer of 2016. This space was created by staff from the Natural Resources Education Centre which is part of the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources. Two members of the Centre’s team were introduced to natural playgrounds at a conference and were inspired to create something similar. Kids and educators now have access to an innovative resource that’s full of fun.

The mud kitchen was an unanticipated feature until women in the local community gathered up all the pots, pans, sinks and other implements and whisked them secretly into the play area prior to the grand opening. On that day there were a lot of kids who had no difficulty discovering their inner muddiness. A local contractor, Garnet McLaughlin of Cobequid Consulting, donated significant time that was instrumental to making the project a reality. More on the Middle Musquoidoboit Nature Play Space including photos here.

Family Fun Zone – Meteghan

On Nova Scotia’s French Shore, three hours and change away from the natural playground, is an enchanted play zone, a repurposed old school building and its grounds. This one of kind play space features locally designed and crafted equipment. I’m sure it’s the only play space in Canada, if not the world, where a kid can be part of a landscape that pits a spring loaded rocking horse in a race against a hand built wooden locomotive.

Family Fun Park – Meteghan, Nova Scotia

I spoke with two women the day I visited who were there with their toddlers. They regularly drove nearly 50 kilometres from Yarmouth because they enjoyed the space so much. There are funkly slides, zip lines, windmills, trains, buoy laden monkey bars, suspended fishing nets for scrabbling and climbing and a few traditional set playground pieces like swings. Local dentist Harold Boudreau rallied the community to repurpose the space ensuring that it continues to serve children. More Family Fun Park photos here.

Québec

The Boat, L’Étang-du-Nord, Magdalen Islands

Out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on a windswept archipelago of sand dunes and bonhomie are a series of wonderful playspaces fashioned hy hand by community members. They are of the place – play imitating life. My favourite, and one I return to with the kids each time we visit les Iles de la Madeleine, is a beached fishing boat emblazoned in Acadian colours.

L’Étang-du-Nord – Iles de la Madeleine

This is a great canvas for a living story. The kids run stem to stern. It’s a perpetual movement show with dollops of laughter and snatches of conversation sailing on the wind. Stomping through the wheelhouse and leaning over the bow they look out on their ocean of pretend. For me, I think of this boat as the archetype of iconic vernacular, a space that bursts with here and now and honours the daily rhythms of life. More on les îles… and a few photos too.

Salamander Playground, Mont Royal, Montréal

In a green oasis on Montreal’s mountain, Salamander Playground welcomes kids from across the city. There is a path here with embedded tiled art work by Gérard Dansereau that speaks to the rights of the child. The equipment is of a decidedly distinctive European design.

In addition to high performance equipment and a design that mimics the natural flow of vertical and horizontal axes, Salamander Playground features another distinguishing element. Embedded in the pathways and benches throughout the playground are images and excerpts of text created by artist Gérard Dansereau that tell the story of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child as elaborated and promoted by UNICEF. Salamander Playground photos…

Ontario

Strathcona’s Folly, Strathcona Park, Ottawa

Strathcona’s Folly is tucked away in a park in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood overlooking the meandering Rideau River. It is a distinctive playscape, as unusual as it is unorthodox. Only two elements are of the standard playground ilk. A bronze dipped body of a springrider rooster perches atop a column where only the most adventurous would attempt to saddle up. At ground level sand fills the space. These grains of time are constantly rearranged by wind, little hands and feet, permeating everything, drifting into the cracks, crannies and crevices.

Strathcona’s Folly – Sandy Hill, Ottawa

This sculptural playscape, commissioned by the City of Ottawa, by artist Stephen Brathwaite was designed as playable art by Canadian artist Stephen Brathwaite. His idea idea was to make a piece that would appear to be the ruins of a neighbourhood home. The artist was inspired by his own memories of childhood play with his brother. They loved putting together structures with their Canadian Logs building set, laying out roads in the sandbox and cruising their Dinky toys around the towns and landscapes they created. More on Strathcona’s Folly

Dufferin Grove Park, Toronto

If a kid could design a place to play it might very well look like the ginormous sandpit in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. It’s big enough for mom or dad to mount an expedition when junior gets lost, well not quite that big. On hot summer days, under the shade of the maple canopy, the sand is comfortably cool between the toes.

Dufferin Grove Park sandpit – Toronto, Ontario

There are dumptrucks, planks of scrap wood for making shelters, full size garden shovels and the plastic beach variety, pails and sieves and a tap for running water. Yes running water to the absolute delight of all the kids – a chance to get dirty and wet, double bonus. Oh and did I mention, this is one of my granddaughter’s fav spots to visit and play. She’s not alone. This is a destination play space for Toronto parents in the know! I’m looking forward to next month when Mr. PlayGroundology, aka grampa, and granddaughter will be able to get messy together… More here on Dufferin Grove Park including photos.

I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the last three playscapes noted below.  Each one captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photos online. These are places I hope to visit and play in with my kids.

manitoba

Assiniboine Park Natural Playground, Winnipeg

This is Canada’s only play space, as far as I can determine, that has giant balls, nicknamed skittles by park staff, scattered about the grounds. That’s right they weigh about 150 pounds each and replicate the bright colours of the sugary, chewy candy. A couple of years ago, three of the skittles went missing but were returned following a public appeal.

The video gives a partial tour of some of the play space’s features including the skittles, water play, a crow’s nest slide and climber and all abilities swings. If you like South African music, you’ll enjoy the soundtrack.

Margaret Redmond, president  and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy had this to say in a media interview about the play space just in advance of the park’s opening in 2011.

“I can try to tell you how special a place the Nature Playground is but you’ll never believe it until you see it. This is a playground unlike any other in all of Canada and we are so thrilled to hand it over to the children and families who can now make it their own. It’s just a really magical space that lets them [children] make up how they play in it. You will see no play structures like you see in school grounds and community centres.” (Source: CBC News Manitoba)

Assiniboine Park Nature Playground photos via Playworks.

British Columbia

Garden City Playspace, Richmond

space2place‘s Garden City Play Environment “is located in Richmond British Columbia. This video captures some of the play experiences at the park’s opening day. The park was designed to have a more integrated play experience across the park and the different site features. This short feature attempts to capture a few of the “stories” in the park that day.”

Nearly 10 years ago, Garden City was a beacon blazing a different trail from the off-the-shelf playground solutions commonly adopted by local governments. As reported in this Vancouver Sun article, the waterway charted new territory for play in public spaces in Canada.

“In what’s believed to be the first park of its kind in North America, it brings to the surface an underground storm water system, and then spirals the water through unusual channels and man-made structures – including a manoueverable sluice, hand pump and water wheel – all of which encourage what Cutler calls child driven ‘interventions”.

More here on Garden City Play Environment and a shout out to space2place’s Jeff Cutler for putting me in touch, a few years back, with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of  landscape architecture and a pioneer in playground design dating back to the 1950s.

Yukon

Carcross Commons, Carcross, Yukon

This is a recent design and build by earthscape, the country’s most exciting and prolific playscape crew. The Carcross Commons play area is set in a stunning landscape about one hour south of Whitehorse.

Carcross Commons, Carcross, Yukon

This project was a collaborative engagement bringing “together the vision of the Tagish First Nation community, the vast histories of the land, and research on children’s play experiences. Inspiration for the playground was drawn from local history, major landmarks and First Nations creation stories.”

Oh and did I mention that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dropped in for a visit last September? More from earthscape here on the Carcross story including photos.

Shout outs to the earthscape team who always make time for PlayGroundology‘s inquiries and consistently demonstrate a real interest in encouraging a variety of voices reporting on play.

Next up in the PlayNation series – Designers and Builders.

Original artwork by Kyle Jackson on display at Alderney Gate Public Library, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Just One More Scoop – Dufferin Grove Park

​”Just one more scoop”, the father intones to his pre-schooler for the second time in as many minutes. “It’s time for us to go.” Here in the southeastern reaches of Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park, the three-year-old digger boy is busy moving dirt from a deep channel to level ground in the most ginormous kid’s sandpit in Canada.

Welcome to Shangri-la for kids, a place where dirt rules. Here kids build, dig, and create worlds of their own making with shovels, scraps of wood and a dedicated supply of glorious running water. Above this constantly changing excavation site is a whispering canopy of mature maples. Even on the hottest days there is respite from the sun.

In the early 1990s, the playground started as a ‘big backyard’ neighbourhood space with the sandpit as its central feature. Community engagement, affordability and adventurous, drop-in play were the key founding principles as relayed in this presentation that captures the back story and some of the history of this enchanting space that captivates kids from pre-school to just shy of pre-teen.

“The cost of setting up the adventure playground was $5660, with another $5000 for doing programs there: $11,660.”

More than 20 years after its establishment, this quiet success continues to have star attraction chops. For those in the know, it is a highly desirable destination where simplicity – dirt, water, dig, build – provides a solid foundation for independent play.

On my first visit, I chatted with a couple of moms who were there with their pre-schoolers. It is their favourite public playspace in Toronto. Many share this opinion. Both women travel by car, or bus to give their kids the chance to enjoy themselves in this sandpit-like-no-other. I now have it on the highest authority – my soon to be two-year-old granddaughter – that this is the funnest!! place to play….

One brilliant May morning on a recent Toronto trip, I visit Dufferin Grove’s sandpit with its rivulets, gullies and hillocks of dirt. The action underway is an unfurling tapestry. There is an almost imperceptible hum of discovery under the trees. The kids are zoned in, under the spell of a space that invites them to just play, to fashion time measured in scoops of dirt and pails of water.

As I’m getting ready to leave, there is a wonderful serendipitous moment. I bump into Jutta Mason. We have corresponded about the play universe but never met. Jutta is an indefatigable champion for public community spaces in general and for this space of play in particular. Time didn’t allow for much more than hellos, a hug and a promise on my part to connect when I am in TO again. That will be part II of PlayGroundology‘s Dufferin Grove story.

Stay tuned later this summer for first person accounts from Jutta and Mr. PlayGroundology as he goes to the Grove for the first time with his granddaughter. We’ll also have the opportunity to discover the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), a strong community-based research model established by Jutta and other community volunteers.

Until then, bear in mind that ‘just one more scoop’ at Dufferin Grove’s sandpit is a tough concept for kids to embrace. From what I’ve seen on my visits, the kids are happy to stay as long as possible. Some even design and build temporary shelters…..

Play the Mother of Invention

Is play the mother of invention? A child’s nurturing Mom can certainly set the stage for a life of discovery, a journey through the imagination and the material world. The resilience and depth of a mother and child’s bond is like no other. It helps engender confidence, assurance, empathy, laughter and love.

So today, make this more than a Hallmark occasion. Do a little jig for your Mom, maman, mami, reny, haakui, mataji, muter and thank her for all the scrapes she let you get into, for all the train wrecks she rescued you from and for the uncounted hours of play she let you revel in as a child. Let’s dance…..

Play may be the mother of invention but I think we can be pretty sure that in those far distant days of hunting and gathering, of setting sun neanderthals that it was the women who invented play.

To Mélanie, the maman of our three young sproglets, I’m so happy we’re all together to share this dance. Every tune, we learn new moves. Let’s keep shakin’ it.

To my Mom, Helen – we got some wonderful flowers yesterday and tied them to the two trees by the big rock where you liked to sit. I can see you with the sun streaming down as you take a quick hop on the swing and let your toes kiss the sky.

To my daughter Makyla, our new, next generation mama, enjoy the journey, savour as much as you can and take five whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s a marathon – the best you’ll ever run.

To Nicole, ma belle mère, thanks for all the attention and sweetness to our family, particularly the kids. Bonne fête des mères.

Happy Mother’s Day and after your jig, why not a cuppa tea….

Worlds Of Their Own Making

It is a grand day. Together, my son, my papa and I join forces to make a bow and arrow. It is something our lad has been wanting for too long. We find the perfect sapling in the beaver lands, a small stand of birch and alders close by the shore of a suburban lake. The green sapling has plenty of spring and is just the right size.

Back in Grampa’s garage, Noah uses his new lock blade knife, an axe my papa has just given him and a few simple tools to transform that sapling into an archer’s bow. Outside he draws back the bow string and lets fly his first shot. It whistles up the side of the house and into the backyard. His face is radiant. His eyes sparkle. He paces off the distance – 17 metres.

The bow, and the arrow made of dowel rod are his newest treasured possessions. Not far behind are the knife and axe firmly situated in the pantheon of wow. In the outdoors world of a young boy he has become rich beyond the singing of it.

With fort season upon us, the bow and arrow (version 1.0) will be a home-made toy of choice as he and his friends play in the woods in a world of their making. I will have to come to terms about identifying the appropriate time for the knife and axe to leave our property in his hands. I’m not ready to do so yet.

Stay tuned later this spring for the next instalment of when will knife and axe travel with the added bonus of a 1970s perspective on ‘worlds of their own making’.

Until then, enjoy the outdoors and time spent together…

These Trees Are Meant for Climbing

Do you remember those first clamberings, the tentative propulsion upwards, the scrambled search for a purchase with feet or hands, a roughness of bark rubbing legs and arms as they grappled with the ascent?

The liberation of leaving the ground behind and entering the leafy expanse above was an exhilirating paradigm shift. The world opened up from that peculiar vantage point perched between earth and sky.

I remember the precariousness and shimmerings of fear, well okay sometimes it was a healthy dose. A sense of release fueled by the accomplishment of a successful climb was tempered by a general cautiousness underscoring a strong desire not to slip, misstep, or worst case scenario, fall from the tree.

Our kids have a couple of climbable trees in the backyard. They’ve become old friends. Each spring they are reacquainted – branches a little stronger, kids a bit bolder. The trees are a testing ground for dexterity, daring, judgment and strength.

We have had to talk them down on a couple of occasions after hearing the nervous yell for help when one of them ventured a little too high, a little too soon, or a little too quickly. These minor hurdles don’t put them off at all. The smallish specimens in our yard are a training ground for the wide world of trees. The kids always return to the climb undaunted calling out, “maman, papa – look, look how high we are”.

In the lofty heights, trees are also a resting place to get far from the madding crowds, a green sanctuary nurturing contemplation and dreams. After buds pop into full leaf, our favourite backyard tree is part of a fort complex and a great hiding place too as long as the kids can muffle their giggles.

And can we hear derring-do? Yes we can, it’s that contact thud as feet or other parts of the body hit the ground after the big jump. Once you launch, there is no going back. Gravity’s unforgiving pull returns you rapidly to earth. That airborne second or two packs one big wollop of excitement, a breath sucking aha of adrenalin.

The new tree climbing season is underway up in the northern hemisphere. This year, like previous ones, there are sure to be new exploits, higher heights and undoubtedly a scare or two. Keep on climbing!

Hug a tree today, or better still climb one.

If you’re looking for a great Earth Day story, look no further than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Sure to be a classic for many years to come.

“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy.”

Do yourself a favour and get out into the trees….

Preserving Play in Guadalajara

Public playspaces are joyful places. They’re filled with laughter, adventure and the promise of discovery. When these spaces are removed they leave a void. Where there was once breathless wonder, the adult world ushers in a pall of ordinariness.

Source – Mónica Del Arenal

The pall is at risk of descending on Morelos Park in Guadalajara, Mexico. Fifty years ago, the Mexican architect Fabián Medina Ramos, designed this playscape. Now the local government plans to destroy it.

I would rather a park that gives sanctuary to an elephant, a hippo, a camel, an untamed zone of wildful imagination. Surely these attract a greater quotient of magic than lawns, gardens, or auditoriums could ever hope to do.

Sometimes when spaces like these are threatened, civic-minded individuals mobilize public opinion to try and save them. This social action can be resoundingly successful. San Gabriel, California and L’Haÿ-les-Roses, France are examples of two sculptured playscapes from the same time period that have been saved from the wrecker’s ball.

Source – Pablo Mateos

Pablo Mateos an associate professor in social anthropology has taken up the charge. He’s trying to save this children’s playscape in Guadalajara. You can sign the petition at change.org to help save these endangered animals and protect a children’s space that has intrinsic historical and cultural value.

“What playgrounds have survived without maintenance for 50 years?” – Pablo Mateos

Source – Equipo Aristoteles

Well there seems to have been a coat of paint from time to time. The vibrant colours are in keeping with the imaginative play kids have experienced here for generations.

Help ensure that the kids of Guadalajara can continue to play in this space – drop in on change.org and add your signature to the petition.

Ed’s note -Thanks to PlayGroundology friend Suzanne McDougall for sharing information about this endangered Guadalajara playscape.