Category Archives: International Play Association

From Hideously Uninspiring To Inherently Playful And Adventurous

A recently published article in Quartz quotes American landscape designer and researcher Meghan Talarowski commenting on the generally unenviable state of playgrounds in the US. She doesn’t pull any punches. In comparison to some European jurisdictions, she characterizes the bulk of American playgrounds as uninspiring at best – well, perhaps ‘insidiously boring’ is a tad harsher.

Taking flight – Department of Natural Resources, Nature Learning and Play Space – Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia – Canada

The UK’s Tim Gill, also quoted in the provocatively headlined Why the Danes encourage their kids to swing axes, play with fire, and ride bikes in traffic, empathizes with Talarowski’s observations. Gill suggests that Canada and Australia may be ‘turning the corner’ en route to a better place, not to be confused of course with American comedy darling The Good Place.

Tim’s assessment that change is afoot in Canada rings true for me. There is a play awakening among educators, researchers, health and recreation professionals, designers, builders, planners. foundations and granting institutions and, the media.

Prior to the International Play Association Triennnial Conference in Calgary held just over a year ago, I published CanadaPlays Eh? It’s a sampler, a roll-up of some of the activity that’s been shaking north of the 49th parallel.

Original artwork by Halifax artist, Kyle Jackson

PlayGroundology‘s home in Nova Scotia is a case in point. For starters, we’re probably the only jurisdiction in the world with an official, decades old tagline that includes the word ‘playground’. That’s right, festooned on on our motor vehicle license plates is the true blue catch phrase, Canada’s Ocean Playground. Yup, that’s us up above there in Kyle’s painting just to the left of the whale and the fishing boat …..

While momentum may not be screaming out of the gates, we can safely say it’s picking up steam. There are alternatives to the world of underwhelming playspaces. From Nova Scotia’s Northumberland shores, to the meandering Musquodoboit River, to Halifax’s urban beat, greater variety and an openness to deviate from off the shelf solutions seem to be catching on.

 

Meteghan Family Fun Park

Overlooking the mouth of St. Mary’s Bay in Meteghan, Nova Scotia is a play smorgasbord in the vernacular tradition. It is of the place. At each turn there is a handcrafted invitation to jump, climb, explore – a windmill, a tipi, boats, sheds and cabins, trains, heavy equipment, fishing nets, bouncing buoys and airplane whirligigs.

Meteghan Family Fun Park, Meteghan, Nova Scotia – Canada

Lovingly conceived and maintained, the Meteghan Family Fun Park receives widespread community support.  A local dentist rallied the community and the space is now a destination for families along the 100+ kilometer stretch of the Acadian shore.

Airplane whirligig and windmill – Meteghan Family Fun Park

Individuals, businesses, service organizations and government have all helped in one way or another. Virtually every structure and each piece of equipment display a plaque bearing the name of the individual or business whose donation and/or volunteer labour made it possible. For Meteghan and the surrounding towns this space is a celebration of community that puts childhood play front and centre.

Recycled tire ponies and buoy zipline, Meteghan Family Fun Park

 

Nature Learning and Play Space – Natural Resources Education Centre

Three hundred kilometers to the northeast in a wooded glade is the province’s most expansive playground in a natural setting. This wonderland came together through the leadership and vision of a small group of individuals working for the Department of Natural Resources, members of the local community and a passionate design-build company – Cobequid Consulting – that couldn’t resist the opportunity to play.

The Sandpit, Nature Learning and Play Space

An aha moment for two team members of the Natural Resources Education Centre made all the difference. While attending a national conference, a presentation on natural playgrounds ignited their imaginations. The aha went something like this – “let’s just do it!” To the delight of kids, parents and educators they grabbed that ball of inspiration, brought the game home and slam dunked it.

The Nature Learning and Play Space could not have taken root without champions and enthusiastic community buy in. Local grandmas rounded up all the knickknacks and paraphernalia for the mud kitchen – on opening day, there was a seemingly limitless supply of MUD! Contractors provided heavy equipment at reduced rates. Many individuals contributed sweat equity.

Opening Day – Mud Kitchen, Nature Learning and Play Space

Perhaps most importantly, supervisors at the Natural Resource Education Centre see the space as an invaluable extension of their work. They are able to demonstrate how it aligns with the Centre’s mission and exists simultaneously as a destination playspace.

And how many play areas have a bullrush fringed frog pond with brightly coloured dipper nets ready to borrow for catch and release amphibian tales. Spotted salamanders burrowing in the cool mud are also a rewarding treat for young observant eyes. This natural enclave is a revelation and for some urban kids a first time excursion into a wilder, less predictable world.

Frog Pond, Nature Learning and Play Space

 

The Dingle’s New Tall Tower

Halifax’s Sir Sandford Fleming Park is home to the city’s first full on example of  let’s throw away the standard playground catalogues and entertain a completely different design and build.  Opening day was an outdoor festival with hundreds of visitors eager to play. The crisp autumn air kept the kids sauntering, running, climbing and balancing their way through an unfamiliar terrain.

The New Tower at The Dingle – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

The design by Earthscape, an exciting homegrown Canadian firm working across the country and the US, includes a tower slide, balancing beams, climbers and water station. None of these items had ever seen the light of day before in this part of the world. The  space is an important trailblazer demonstrating that a wider range of play opportunities for kids in public spaces is indeed possible and popular.

Climber/balance beam – The Dingle Park Playground

The climber/balance beams are a logs akimbo projecting on different planes type of affair. There are challenges here for kids of all ages. For the younger ones, shunting along in a sitting position seems a safe and sure approach. Those embracing a little more derring-do attempt walking up or down the varying inclines. Jumping off also seems to be de rigueur along with rolling about in a net suspended below the main part of the structure.

With so much newness in design and playability, it’s tough to pick a favourite. Like beauty, favs are really in the eyes of the beholder.

 

And there are lots of eyes on the water pump. Plenty of hands and feet dipping into the rivulets making channels in the sand.  It’s a beacon calling out to all kids – come get WET! Mittens are quickly sopped and footwear is in the just about soaked stage. With abundant water and sand, even the cold can’t hold the kids back.

Thanks to the City and Earthscape for stepping up to the plate and hitting one out of the park.

 

Fort Needham Memorial Park

On high ground not far from The Narrows made infamous by the Halifax Explosion 100 years ago, is another new play space that breaks the mould. Wood, wood everywhere – plastic and metal in very limited quantities.

Up the Steps – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Wooden cannons on the hilltop hearken back to the original 18th century Fort Needham that protected Halifax’s Royal Naval Dockyards. The Fort and surrounding neighbourhoods were decimated on December 6, 1917 by a harbour collision involving a munitions ship – 2,000 were killed and thousands were injured.

Down the Steps – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

Now this part of the park is a hive of activity – kids zipping back and forth, climbing, balancing, jumping, swinging, shouting, laughing…. It’s a high energy zone complete with wonderful little shaded cubbies where kids can take a breather and get away from it all.

There is parkour potential here too though I don’t know if it has been ‘discovered’. Many pieces of equipment offer kids an open invitation to leap into the blue.

Into the Blue – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

The space is designed by Moncton, New Brunswick’s Viridis Design Studio Ltd. and constructed by Nova Scotia’s Turf Masters. There is plenty to explore and  keep kids engaged in discovery and the testing of limits and abilities. Our girls didn’t want to leave – always a good sign.

In Halifax, both The Dingle and Fort Needham playgrounds are getting the two thumbs up from kids and parents and families are dropping in from other parts of the city to give these new play hotspots a whirl. With approximately 400 playgrounds in the city (we are very well served in terms quantity and safety), Halifax could use a few more like these two.

Quiet Moment – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

Note – The much missed Halcyon, a fixture on the Halifax waterfront for close to 25 years, was one of the original adventurous playspaces in the city. A life size wooden fishing boat designed for kids featuring actual recycled boat parts and getaway cubbies out of parental vision. We miss you Halcyon.

Exciting playspaces are taking root in Nova Scotia. Let’s encourage more municipal engagement with local neighbourhoods and communities and recognize the value of variety in playground design. We’ve still got a ways to go before we’re swinging axes, playing with fire and building makeshift structures but hey we can’t have it all. Or can we, as my nine-year-old is fond of saying with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. How far away is the return of adventure playgrounds in Canada? Just sayin’…

One Little, Two Little, Three Canadians, We Love Thee – Who is Singing Canada’s Play People Chorus?

I pinched this ‘Four asks’ infographic from a Rethinking Childhood blog post published today by Tim Gill – it’s well worth a read. It’s brilliant that the Children’s Play Policy Forum has created a big tent for play where policy makers, researchers and practitioners from across the UK can get together to advocate and take action.

Four asks for playFour asks – for play, for health, for children, for everyone. Click to enlarge.

In the UK, non-governmental organizations – Play Scotland, Fields in Trust and London Play et al – that focus their work almost exclusively on children’s play have over the years become strong voices influencing national and local government policies. This is an important strategic difference when looking at the Canadian experience. Where is our Play Canada, Joue Québec, or Toronto Play?

It’s not that there is a lack of dedicated and fun loving Canadians who recognize and promote play. They range from educators, health care professionals, designers and landscape architects to journalists, municipal recreation leaders, parents, physical activity enthusiasts, public servants developing policy and programs and all the others who are part of the play continuum. But where are the unifying Canadian voices that focus exclusively on play and its benefits? It’s very possible that I’ve missed them and if so, I would like to get acquainted with any such groups.

Spirit of CanadaSpirit of Canada by Kyle Jackson

We Canadians wouldn’t be remiss in getting better acquainted with the best practices of other jurisdictions including the UK to see what could fly here. Never mind that, we could start sharing our own best practices related to play more broadly. In addition, a clearing house of information on children’s play research and initiatives from our various orders of government and non-governmental agencies would be a step in the right direction.

In 2017, the play world is coming to Canada’s doorstep as the City of Calgary, the International Play Association (IPA) Canada and the Alberta Parks and Recreation Association are hosting the International Play Association Conference. It will be a great opportunity for Canada to share its playbook and for Canadians to take stock of strategies that are advancing play in other parts of the world.

ConferenceInternational Play Association (IPA) Conference, City of Calgary – 2017

I just signed up with the IPA last April after meeting with the association’s President Theresa Casey. She was kind enough to take time out of her day and have a coffee with me looking out over Edinburgh’s Princes St. Gardens where on that day daffodils bobbed riotously in the wind and kids rolled down the grassy incline. What great work this IPA crowd is doing – more on them in a future installment of PlayGroundology……

DSC06497Princes St. Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland

Do read Tim Gill’s post – Politicians told: invest in play, and children, families and communities will all see the benefits – then ask yourself, what can we do in Canada? What can be done in other countries?

Glasgow Green is Calling

Later today I do the Halifax – Heathrow jet skip with a final touchdown in Glasgow just a couple of weeks shy of the XX Commonwealth Games kick off that happens to fall on my birthday. It’s the second time this year that I’m a guest at a cousin’s wedding on Scotland’s west coast. Joyous days for the couples walking down the aisle and wonderful occasions for all of us to make new friends and reconnect with family on both sides of the Atlantic.

DSC06197Glasgow Green – Play Summit Pop-Up Adventure – April 2014
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My April trip coincided with the Play Summit spearheaded by Nils Norman (check Nils’ great photobank of playscapes here) and London’s Assemble. The Summit symposium featured leading play thinkers, advocates and activists in the People’s Palace and adventure play shenanigans for kids on Glasgow Green.

I was able to pop in for a couple of hours and immerse myself in conversations and presentations about adventure play. It was exciting to meet and chat with people like Hitoshi Shimamura who flies the adventure play banner in Tokyo where, he told me, there’s an aversion to fences around playgrounds. The goal is to offer an inviting, open space that presents no boundaries or barriers with the surrounding community.

Tim Gill and I sat down for lunch and a chat. Early on in my exploration of playgrounds I had sent Tim a few questions on the possibility of developing a play index that could capture how local authorities were measuring up to enabling play opportunities for their young citizens. He sent me a thoughtful and informative response that included suggested contacts and the friendly pointer that an undertaking of this nature would present unique and complex challenges.

No FearClick photo for free download courtesy of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundtation

True to form when we lunched under the glass dome of the People’s Palace, Tim was generous with his time and gave me a broad overview of the UK play landscape from his vantage point. PlayGroundology reblogs some of Tim’s work from rethinking childhood and I never tire of referencing his book, now in its third printing – No Fear – Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society – to parents, educators and the media.

Over the years, I’ve seen some great photos and video from London’s Glamis Adventure Playground. It was a thrill to be in the audience for Mark Halden’s presentation on some of the problems Glamis is encountering with fundraising. He bemoaned the significant time and energy that had to be dedicated to this activity. In an environment with small teams and already parsed budgets, the effort associated with financing can detract from programming for the kids.

Mark has a Canada connection too and has spent time in BC. He made me aware of a well loved and regarded play advocate, Valerie Fronczek who passed away last year. Many people spoke her name when they heard I was from Canada. Valerie was a respected and engaged member of the play community and worked tirelessly for kids. From what I heard, it would have been great to have known her.

What struck me during my brief interlude at the Play Summit was the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the participants. It was one of those gatherings where there was a lot of information flow and the delineation between presenters and practitioners was very porous. Many of of those in attendance had dedicated much of their working lives to help kids and play.

Just before I hopped into a cab to take me back to Central Station, I came across a playground with huge slide structures. I had to grab a few shots while the taxi waited. They sure looked like Spielgerate designs to me. When I visit again in a few days, I’ll give them a test run if I’m not chased away by parents.

DSC06992Towering, twisting slides on Glasgow Green
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April’s pop-up adventure on Glasgow Green was an early days event for the Baltic St. Adventure Playground which is located nearby in the Dalmarnock district. Their official opening weekend is on for July 19 and 20. I’ll be back in Canada by then but playworker Robert Kennedy has kindly offered to give me a tour during my visit. It will be the first time I set foot in an adventure playground. It would be perfect if I could have our three kids with me – another time…

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I’m hoping to get over to Fife too and learn a bit about some of the play happenings there from twitter friend @MairiMo. Mairi was a great help during my April visit and set up a meeting with Theresa Casey, a play author, consultant and President of the International Play Association. I’ll have more to share on the IPA and the meeting with Theresa in a subsequent post.

Glasgow Green and Edinburgh was time well spent and the first real opportunity I have had to meet with and hear the experiences of so many play people which is resulting in both pragmatic and inspirational returns. The Glasgow Green pop-up really got me juiced to work with others in Halifax to create a similar event. It will be taking place in September in association with the Youth Running Series. I’ll be picking Robert’s brains later this week to see what he can share and suggest.

DSC06231Pop-Up will be playing in Halifax, Canada soon. Thanks to the Play Summit and Baltic St. Adventure Playground for the inspiration

There may be some surprises of the dragon variety on this trip too. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m wrapping this post by giving a big shout out to my papa who will be 80 later this year. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of and sometime photographer for PlayGroundology. Yesterday, along with one his brothers and my brother and sister-in-law, he completed a six-day walk across Hadrian’s Wall. Their longest day was 27 kilometres. He did a number of interviews along the way with people from a variety of countries and is considering putting it all together to share on YouTube. This man just continues to blow me away.

It’s well past my bedtime and I need to get some rest for the long day ahead. Glasgow Green is calling and play is piping the tune. In this year of the Homecoming it’s Scotland Forever.

Postscript to The Science of Play in Today’s Parent

Today’s Parent, a Canadian magazine, ran a feature in their June issue on playground trends and designs – The Science of Play. Sarah Lazarovic’s article provides an excellent overview of some of the current thoughts and perspectives on the world of playgrounds. She draws on a number of knowledgeable people in Europe and North America to illustrate the story. As founder of the blog PlayGroundology, and a novitiate playgroundologist, I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a few comments.

When Sarah and I spoke, I prattled on and on and on. Her questions provided some airtime to share thoughts on a topic I’ve become passionate about. I now have a modest couple of years under my belt researching and conducting interviews that eventually wind up as posts in this blog. My kids and I have also racked up some practical experience putting close to 100 playgrounds in five provinces through their paces. Just today, my son Noah-David piped up to me en route to one of our current local favourites, “Papa, we’re playground explorers, aren’t we?” Our hometown adventures, captured since the summer of 2009 in Halifax Plays, are just about to get underway for this year.

Home on the Range – Halifax

The Science of Play hits all the high notes on its whirlwind tour. Sarah does a tremendous job of connecting the dots on a story where the subject matter defies stereotyping or pigeonholing. There is no one size fits all when it comes to public playspaces. Sarah’s interview for the Today’s Parent story was a chance to share some of the playground knowledge I’ve acquired in the recent past. More importantly, the story presents a significant opportunity to build on Canadian conversations about what goes on behind the scenes of playground planning and development – discussions around policy considerations, design and financing models for example.

It’s in that spirit that I offer this postscript to Sarah’s article in order to expand on a couple of the points and provide some context around one of my comments.

Comparatively speaking, from what I have seen in eastern Canada, there is a lack of creativity when it comes to playground design in this country. All we have to do is look overseas to Denmark, Germany, the UK, Sweden and Finland where design is flourishing. Their towns and cities have not been overtaken by the march of composite plastics and prefab metal posts and beams.

Although creative design is not a hallmark of the Canadian playground ethos, it is not totally absent from the landscape. There are bright spots well worth a look. Nestled on the Mountain in downtown Montreal is Salamander Playground – green grass, grand trees and a water orb. In the nation’s capital, Strathcona’s Folly is a time capsule playspace made from architectural bric à brac, a treasure of form and texture.

Water Orb – Montreal’s Salamander Playground. Click here for Original Designs slideshow.

The Magdalen Islands’ Boats are anchored safely ashore as they crash and crest through imaginary seas. And as home port to Canada’s East Coast Navy, maritime traditions run deep in Halifax and now kids can pretend they’re on a diving adventure à la Jules Verne on their own orange submarine. In Winnipeg, there’s Assiniboine Park Playground opened in the spring of 2011 that puts nature front and center. I’m hoping someday to get out to Richmond, B.C., just to test and tour that funked up Garden City Park Playground.

In Halifax, we are well served by the number of playgrounds – over 300 – and by high maintenance standards. But with the exception of our orange submarine, we’re kind of sparse on the discovering new design frontiers department. As parents, if we’re not satisfied with the current state of playground design then we have a responsibility to band together and engage our municipal governments and/or school boards to bring about change. This is not change just for the sake of it. It’s about creating enticing spaces with public funds that will help to break the pall of physical inactivity which is becoming endemic. It’s about valuing creativity in our children and local designers and fashioning space that calls out for imaginative play.

Canada could benefit from a voluntary sector organization that focuses exclusively on advocating for play on behalf of kids. These organizations exist in Europe and Australasia. I’m thinking here of Play England and its independent sister organizations such as Play Wales which hosted the 2011 International Play Association World Conference.

These groups conduct research, develop policy guidelines, compile and curate online resources, work with and challenge government, deliver programming and fulfill an important role in the public promotion of play. They are a non-commercial voice of sanity. In the US the social entrepreneur group KaBOOM! does similar work promoting play through Playful Cities USA in addition to spearheading playground builds with local communities.

On the question of costs, customized designs local or otherwise, can be more expensive but this is certainly not always the case. If there are no requests for alternative playground designs being made of a municipality then the path of least resistance is a trip to the numerous manufacturers who provide tried and true professional service that does not deviate from code and embodies more of the same old, same old. With price tags running anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 they’re certainly not in the ‘cheap’ category. Playgrounds are big business.

Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO with Sinking Ship Productions has co-produced the first season of a show that’s all about do-it-yourself improvements and renos to local playgrounds by the kids who use them. Each project comes in at $10,000 cash with additional donations and volunteer labour. It’s an interesting model that might catch on. Read about it soon here in PlayGroundology.

Thanks to the editors at Today’s Parent for assigning this article. This is a conversation that should continue to grow. There is more to this universe of play and playgrounds than meets the eye. I don’t have any sophisticated media monitoring tools at my disposal but I sense there is an uptick in Canada’s mainstream media on coverage that focuses on play and playgrounds. I’ve seen stories on TVO, heard them on CBC Radio and read them in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun to name some that come immediately to mind.

Keep the play movin’.

Earth Day Nature Play

Is there any better playscape than our natural environment? In an increasingly urbanized world many children don’t have the opportunity to go natural.

Parc Lafontaine Playground – Montreal, Canada

Today’s post links up with a few people and organizations who are making a difference in this area.

‘Green is good for the eyes’, says mother duck in Andersen’s fairytale The Ugly Duckling and science has proved that well designed green places influence the human mind positively. – Helle Nebelong, Danish Landscape Architect

The full text of Nebelong’s Play: exploring the boundaries is available here Aside from running her own practice in Denmark, Nebelong is an active member of the International Play Association and a member of the Leadership Team for the Nature Action Collaborative for Children.

From PLACES FOR PLAY 2005

To get an appreciation of some natural play possibilities, check the PLACES FOR PLAY 2005 exhibition a series of over 60 photos curated by the Free Play Network and PLAYLINK

In related developments there is the growing Leave No Child Inside movement. This 2007 article in Orion by Richard Louw is a good read.

My compatriots in Canada are also taking up the cause of reconnecting kids with nature. Since 2009, the Child and Nature Alliance has been ‘working to connect children to nature through education, advocacy, programming, policy, research, and the built environment.’

Let’s think nature play on Earth Day.