Category Archives: Earthscape

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.

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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

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….

What makes a favourite?


Editor’s note – It is always a pleasure to welcome guest writers to PlayGroundology. Mark Schwarz suggested the idea for this post when we got together for a lunch in Halifax at the tail end of last year. It’s a serendipitous time for me to post this as I’m just returning from a trip to visit my first granddaughter Evelyn. It was a wintry Toronto time for me, not as balmy as it is in Mark’s home away from home.


Mark Schwarz (aka Grandpa) is the co-owner of Earthscape, an award-winning Canadian custom playground design-build firm. He spends a few months each year in Australia with some of his grandchildren who provide valuable insight as playground testers for his sometimes zany ideas. He began his career as an engineer but the kid in him got the better of him and now his business is play. He has visited playgrounds around the world, always with an eye to evaluating play value and site design.

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Grandpa: “What are your favourite playgrounds in the world girls?”
Akira: “Muddy’s. That’s all.”
Elora: “Yeah, just Muddy’s”

Cairns, a small city in tropical Northern Queensland, Australia, is home to the world’s most successful playground. I know, I know everyone has their favourite playground, so why does Muddy’s get the top vote from almost everyone who has visited?

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The latest visit by my granddaughters and I demonstrates some of the great design ideas embodied in the playground which gets consistently high visitor traffic, in a city of 140,000. In the 4 years we’ve been coming to Cairns, we’ve visited Muddy’s 10 to 12 times. Most of our visits have lasted 1.5 to 2 hours. The most recent visit was on a Sunday afternoon, 32 Deg C, partial sun and cloud. 150 to 200 people were spread throughout the playground area, even when a rainstorm blew through for a half hour.

This is the most used playground we’ve been to, including 20 or so playgrounds we visited in Sydney, AU, and the much more costly Blaxland Riverside Park, built for the Sydney Olympics, Muddy’s ranks as Tripadvisor’s #2 Activity in Cairns, which is the highest rank for a playground I’m aware of.

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Great things about the playground:

– Landscape Architecture. Canopy of fig trees covers most of the site. Gardens break up views and create rooms of distinct play zones.
– Themed seating integrated throughout site. Parents can sit throughout site. The 150+ people on site Sunday all had places to sit, in the shade, close to their children. Many playgrounds we’ve visited have no seating, and those that do are rarely shaded.
– Custom themed. The playground is a mix of standard manufactured play equipment, and themed playable sculpture, art, and site amenities like seating and BBQ shelters.
– Integration. The site doesn’t read like most playgrounds – plopped from space onto a site. Circulation, plantings, play equipment, streams, BBQ area, cafe, musical instruments are integrated into cohesive design.

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– Multi-generational appeal. The BBQ areas and cafe are used by all ages, and the water features appeal to both parents and children.
– Water. This is tropical Australia, so we’re always overheated and sweaty, especially while running around a playground. Water is integrated throughout the site, in streams, fountains, a splashpad, and water walls. The splashpad is used mostly by children, the other features are used by all ages. Most of the adults don’t have bathing suits, so they cool down by walking in streams, getting partially immersed in fountains, and hanging out in the mist from the splashpad.

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What elements make up your favourite playground? Leave us a comment….