Category Archives: Cornelia Oberlander

True North Playscapes – Canada 150

As Canada celebrates 150 years, PlayGroundology is inviting those who love play to join True North Playscapes – Canada 150. This new flickr group has been created to document and share the diversity of children’s playscapes across the country.

expo-67-iiChildren’s Creative Centre Playground – Canada Pavilion – Expo 67. Photographer – unknown. Source – Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Photos can depict any time period and any kind of space – urban, natural, other – that kids use for play. Photos do not have to be limited to ‘playgrounds’. Any space or feature that kids convert for play purposes will be a welcome addition to the group.

Please tag your photos by province, by town/city and by year. If the playscapes are distinctive in other ways, please tag them accordingly.

childrens-creative-centre-playground-iiSwallows and Amazons, anyone? Children’s Creative Centre Playground – Canada Pavilion – Expo 67. Photographer – unknown. Source – Canadian Centre for Architecture.

It is my hope that True North Playscapes – Canada 150 will attract a wide variety of playscapes and play spaces that provide alternative opportunities to the standard, off the shelf, pre-fab installations commonly installed in public venues in many communities.

Upload your photos at True North Playscapes – Canada 150 and let’s help build a resource for communities from coast to coast to coast and beyond.

the-waveThe Wave on the Halifax, Nova Scotia waterfront – sculpture becomes play environment.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Confederation, everybody play…..


The Box Syndrome

There’s a new playground in our neighbourhood and the kids are flockin’ to it. It’s shiny-off-the-shelf with multicoloured artifical turf. There are climby things, swings, yellow wind socks on poles and a moulded plastic percussion station. It’s a prefab wonder replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the continent.


It’s after supper and our guys are clamouring for a visit. When we arrive with scooters, a bike and unbounded energy there are probably about 10 other kids already there. We are in Erindale an as yet unbuilt subdivision. Streets are paved, curbs installed and one lone show house looks out over empty lots of earth and rocks. The playground is an island surrounded by newly installed sods of grass and bordered by empty streets.

I notice the boy and girl as soon as we arrive. They’re whaling away with great intent in a muddy puddle. Each of them is wielding a wooden picket. I lean on the fence that separates the playground from the land under development. They see me watching them and continue with their play.


At this particular moment in time, these two kids only have eyes for the landscape around them. They are immersed in activity of their own design showing no interest in the playground that is only 100 metres distant. Their play continues in a leisurely fashion for nearly 20 minutes.

When the two playdirt kids come into the playground they tell me they are having fun over in the empty lots. They still have their stakes which are doubling as swords that they are brandishing in the air. The girl’s hands are caked in mud and both of them are coated liberally with dirt. The dirt does not seem to be a worry for either of them. Quite the opposite, there appears to be a quiet satisfaction in their state of blissful unkempt. The girl says her mom will just pop the clothes in the wash.


They chat with some friends in the playground, give the swings a desultory try and then it’s back to dirt paradise. The expanse of uneven terrain is a game changer for these two kids representing some variety in public space play opportunities.

I’m reminded of three things. First is the empty box at Christmas time. You know the one, it becomes the most fascinating play thing under the tree eclipsing even the toy that was packaged in it. On this occasion, our intrepid players choose hills of dirt, boulders and puddles over a brand new playground and in the process create their own play experience from what they have at hand.

The second thing I thought of was a conversation I had a few years back with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of landscape architecture now in her 90s. She shared with me a conviction she has held for many years that I paraphrase here – all children really need for play is some sand, or earth, water and a place to climb…

Lastly, I remember my own fond encounters scrabbling about in the dirt, reveling in it in a Pig Pen kind of way.pigpen

So, here is a shot of the forsaken shiny new object. On this particular evening it did not have sufficient play magnetism to win over the two adventurers. It’s good to have alternatives and a muddy earth scenario can certainly be a winner.


Global Village Playground at Expo 67

Forty-five years ago this playground made quite a splash at Expo 67, the 20th century’s most successful World Fair. For a few weeks during Canada’s 100th birthday festivities, Montreal’s Expo was the cultural crossroads of the world. In that global village mashup, that summer of celebration and exuberance, the Canadian pavilion put children front and centre.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

The playground at the Canadian pavilion was a must stop for the 10 and under set. By North American standards it was cutting edge, ahead of its time, as can be seen in this short excerpt from a National Film Board of Canada documentary.

Landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander had a great stage to share her playground design ideas with an international audience and the 30,000 appreciative kids who played there over the course of the summer.

The playground especially designed for Expo ’67, in conjunction with the Children’s Creative Centre, should provide some new ideas for crowded urban communities. Everywhere in cities there are areas that could be made into “vest-pocket parks”, with mounds, ravines, treehouses, streams for wading, and places for building.

See Oberlander’s entire Space for Creative Play text and a letter to the editor of Maclean’s magazine about the playground here.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

Cornelia Oberlander is now a doyenne of the landscape architect circle. I have seen her referred to as the Queen of Green. The ideas she put in play at Expo 67 are increasingly in vogue. A case in point is the burgeoning interest in natural playscapes.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

Cornelia, thanks for the Expo 67 gift that keeps on giving. It’s as relevant and exciting today as it was forty-five years ago.

More on Expo 67 here and here.

More on Cornelia Oberlander in future PlayGroundology posts.