Category Archives: Montréal

The Greatest Show

There is a whisper of warm in the air this fine Montreal day. It’s not hot though by any stretch. A grimy, grey urban snow is stubbornly hanging on over much of the grass and scrub land.

Next to a rail line, in the shadow of the Van Horne overpass, two kids play in a narrow strip of what was once underutilized, neglected space. It’s now part of a regreening that embraces this Mile End neighbourhood – marshalling land and engaging community participation to help preserve and expand nature’s footprint.

The kids, members of the Le Lion et La Souris family, are immersed in a pas de deux. It’s a timeless dance where mud and melt water are the sacraments. The two lads are so engrossed in this organic world of their own making that my arrival barely registers a passing notice.

As the boys stir up foul looking concoctions and pour potions into vessels and through the slats of a pallet, they open a window and let me in. The kids and I check each other out by goofing around with some spontaneous sound and word games.

Over the next 45 minutes, I marvel at their ingenuity and the consonance between do-it-yourself resourcefulness and budding resilience. It seems they are impervious to the wet and cold. They elevate scrabbling in puddles to a vocation, no, even more than that, to an art form.

“By giving children the space and time to play as they want — with each other, alone, in nature, with loose parts or found materials — Le Lion et La Souris is saying to children: you matter, what you like matters, how you play matters.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie

 

In this minimalist setting the lads are attuned to each other’s company. They need little to inspire their colourful tapestry of play. With the exception of the occasional glance our way, they are self-sufficient in the moment, oblivious to the nattering adults.

Eventually the boys break away from the pallets and puddles opting for more vigorous shenanigans. Sticks are found and brandished about. There’s not a poked out eye to be seen, anywhere.

Running ensues in speeding bursts to hide, to get away. The tagged shipping container offers a great rope swinging escape route from marauding zombies. Then it’s an almost seamless transition into some mild rough and tumble, the older boy taking care not to overwhelm his younger friend.

This is my first visit to Le Lion et La Souris and I am amazed at this tour de force, this panorama of play. Now I’ve known about the community-based non profit for a few years. Last summer we both hosted our mutual friends – Pop-Up Adventure Play on their cross-Canada tour – presenting workshops and loose parts play extravaganzas in Montreal and Halifax.

“Children who get to be at the heart of their play learn to know themselves, to negotiate, to create, to evaluate and take risks, to play different roles, to work through emotions and challenges. For me, L&M makes our city more resilient and inclusive.”

Stephanie Watt – City Councillor for Rosemont La Petite-Patrie

 

It’s good to connect and learn how the small team at Le Lion et La Souris is evolving and making an impact. As I speak with playworker Gabby Doiron, she tells me how she had been invited to another Montreal neighbourhood, Pointe-Saint-Charles,  the previous evening. A group of mothers interested in establishing an adventure playground were looking for some information and inspiration. Forty years earlier a short-lived adventure playground had been a going concern in the community and these moms are hoping to bring a new one to life.

Those Pointe-Saint-Charles parents and others across the country are eager to see kids getting their play on, experiencing a wider range of play opportunities in public spaces. This is a conversation that is gaining steam at the grass roots level as well as within the mainstream media – witness recent articles in Maclean’s, Le Devoir and The Canadian Press.

Gabby is fully engaged in helping others others explore independent, child-led play. She’s moved from the academic realm, researching a Master’s degree focused on Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s Expo 67 playground to playworking at the aptly named Champs des possibles in Mile End on Montreal’s Plateau. She loves the kids and the community-based model but stitching a budget together is always challenging.

The kids started breaking the ice. It was like a tiny pond. We started calling it The Lake because it got quite big and it was very deep…

Gabby Doiron – Playworker, Le Lion et La Souris

 

Here on this small strip of land, the possibilities for play run very deep. To explore, to be dirty, to fall, to hide, to swing, to run, to risk a tumble, to have some fun these are boundless wonders. Surely this is the greatest show and Le Lion et La Souris are exporting it to other parts of the city, to schools, parks, community groups, even to the Canadian Centre of Architecture.

Le Lion et La Souris continues to reach out and make connections. This summer they will host a course with the Forest School of Canada. Other communities can perhaps benefit from their go local, embrace global model.

This grass roots playwork is supplemented by a growing body of research in Canada on a variety of topics: risk and play – Mariana Brussoni; outdoor play – Beverlie Dietze and Diane Kashin; loose parts play – Caileigh Flannigan; and. unhealthy food – Sara FL Kirk. Supported by their institutions, governments and charitable organizations such as The Lawson Foundation this research is helping to define policy goals and influence a renewed understanding of play opportunities for kids in public spaces.

Walking away from the Champs des possibles I am rejuvenated. I’ve caught a buzz being up close to all that unfettered, unrehearsed play. I’m energized as I head north to Le Diola on Jean-Talon for a fine Senegalese meal with one of my oldest friends. Play on…

Now, last word to the kids.

 

 

 

 

 

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Travelling with Saint Christophe, or There’s a Slide on my Street

When playfulness is injected into a cityscape a touch of magic can ensue, a breath of disbelief, an abandonment of convention. There’s a newish such micro-wonder in the heart of Montreal. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

From la rue Sherbrooke, not far from Parc Lafontaine, two flights of stairs take pedestrians to la rue Saint-Christophe. It seems like a standard stairway until the white slide pops out side by side the second run of rust-stained, iron steps. It’s a small space and a relatively gentle angle of descent.

I set up a camera on a tripod on the level ground at the bottom thinking of doing some streeters. Well I do five or six but they are of the one line variety and most people, though bemused, don’t reply to me.

I ask one woman in her late 20s, early 30s, if she ever slides down. Des fois dans l’hiver – sometimes in winter – she replies looking back at me. A man in his 70s peers a little askance at the scene – the camera bag, satchel, the tripod, me running up the stairs to slide badly with nothing even approximating swiftness, acceleration, speed. Do you know, he says, il n’y a pas d’enfants ici… He walks off and in truth I have not seen one kid since I arrived.

A smartly dressed couple about my age step jauntily down the last flight of steps. They’re smiling at my interest in the space and encourage me to:

Profitez-en… Enjoy.

I don’t want to get too old to have fun, I say.

Doesn’t seem to be any fear of that happening, they say sauntering along their way.

It’s a very urban space with the smallest little green patch that has no green yet this early in the spring.

The slide is a behemoth, no fear of pranksters running off with it as it appears to be made of concrete.

A sign advises that I’m within the age range to use the equipment but apparently I’ve been breaking the law all afternoon as the city slide is not to be in use until after April 15. Who knew – guilty as charged.

What out of the ordinary play spots are in your community?

Aside from my half-dozen, half assed attempts there is only one other brave, or foolhardy person to take the challenge while I’m on site – a younger lad who went down semi-crouched and was a bit speedier about it than me. Oh and for the record, I did not witness anyone running up…

Now as much as I love this imaginative planning idea – a little shortcut between street levels to brighten pedestrian days, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a neighbourhood somewhere in the city, a quartier populaire teeming with kids who would fly down this gift and make it a focal point of fun….

Perhaps this is only a prototype. Imagine if it was exported to other cities and installed in the likes of Paris’ hilly Montmartre. In Halifax, we could have some fun with this concept at The Citadel or Grand Parade. It could be a great companion piece to The Wave.

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

Embracing Adventure in 1970s Pointe-St-Charles, Montréal

Take one part ideals, two parts architecture students then mix with a government program for youth employment and some underutilized land in a quartier populaire and what do you get? Well, almost smack in the middle of Montréal’s international limelight decade – bookmarked by Expo 67 and the 76 Olympics – you get an adventure playground and community gardens…

Witch's Hat - MontrealGargantuan Witches Hat, Pointe-St-Charles, Montréal

In the summer of 1972, Opportunities for Youth, a Canadian federal government program, enabled 18 young people to work on two playgrounds. Located on vacant lots in Pointe-St-Charles, these play spaces were inspired by Europe’s adventure playgrounds. There had never been anything quite like them in Montréal before or since. The projects were under the overall direction of McGill University School of Architecture students, Pieter Sijpkes and Joe Carter who encouraged counsellors to take their cues from the kids.

“It’s important to keep in mind that a clean playground with brightly coloured equipment does not necessarily make for a stimulating environment for kids.”

This is a partial list of what the neighbourhood kids got up to that summer taken from the project report – Opportunities for Youth – Perspective Jeunesse: Adventure Playgrounds – Green Thumbs, Sore Thumbs (a good read with plenty of images).

What they did for the summer

These activities fall squarely within the adventure playground canon and photos in the report (some reproduced here) show kids building, creating, experimenting – having the time of their lives.

CastleBuilding the castle

Sijpkes and Carter started from scratch with derelict, vacant lots and sourced a lot of their raw, play material from Montréal companies in the form of donations. They were aware that the European adeventure playgrounds owed much of their success to the presence of capable playworkers – plug here for Penny Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood’s Playwork Primer

JumbleIt’s all a jumble

“We discovered that kids love to build but that they love to to tear things apart just as much.”

DumpPlay zone

“We quickly came to the conclusion that this type of playground and a junk yard looked dangerously alike.”

The playgrounds were not runaway best sellers right out of the gate. Prior to and during the project itself, there was limited opportunity to engage with community parents and elders. For the first month, kids were not beating a path to either one of the playgrounds. Parties became the saving grace. They got the the kids flockin’ and the spaces rockin’.

PartySpaghetti Party Poster

“A playground of this kind only becomes an attractive place to go to when there is continuous activity – fires burning, water splashing, the sound of hammering, seeing colour, movement, people, friends.”

Forty years later, there are no adventure playgrounds in Canada to my knowledge. Readers please correct me if I’m wrong. In the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and Australia, they continue to be important kid spaces – fun fueled community assets – though some are facing funding squeezes from local authorities.

In the US, a few adventure playgrounds, such as the one located in Berkeley, California, are still in operation. Currently, there is a resurgence of interest in adventure playgrounds in the US related partially to discussions around risk and play. This interest has been reflected in the media through articles like Hanna Rosin’s The Overprotected Kid in The Atlantic and Erin Davis’ new documentary film, The Land that explores play, risk and hazard at an adventure playground in Plas Madoc, Wales.

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Isn’t it time that our children had this much fun, learned self-reliance, experienced risk and embraced lasting friendships based on the adventure of play? Are there any adventurous neighbourhoods, or communities in Canada stepping up and embracing the adventure? I would love to hear news of any adventure playground type activity already underway, being developed, or contemplated.

PulleyHome-made zip line

Many thanks to Pieter Sijpkes who got back in touch with me when I contacted him after reading a story in the Montreal Gazette that referenced his 1972, Pointe-St-Charles Summer of Play. Sijpkes and Carter’s willingness to try something new sure helped make a lot of kids happy.

Happy FacesSmiling faces

Here is part of what Pieter Sijpkes wrote to me in his reply.

I’m glad you stumbled on the little piece about the playgrounds we did in the early seventies. It seems society is moving in peristaltic movements .. about 30 or 40 years apart… your blog is what we had in mind in 1972… but the digital world was not born yet…

Across the decades, at internet velocity perhaps this Pointe-St-Charles story will help to inspire new adventure playground stirrings in Canada.

Montreal Swings into Spring with Pastel Harmonies

In Montreal a playful art installation invites passersby to kick back and let their toes touch the sky. For the third consecutive year 21 balançoires is sending waves of lightness through the downtown core’s entertainment district momentarily whisking away the urban noise and bustle. Listen carefully and you will hear a rising, falling arc of sweet music as players sail through the air on their bottom-lit swings.
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PlayGroundology’s 2011 story on Montreal’s musical swings is one of the blog’s most visited posts. Hats off again to my Montreal buddy Moussa for giving me a shout about this wildly popular interactive art.

21 balançoires (3rd edition) – Promenade des Artistes, Montreal, Canada until June 2, 2013

This year 21 balançoires has caught the eye of France’s Biennale Internationale Design Sainte-Étienne (source – designboom) and Oprah who visited Montreal earlier this month.

When in motion, each swing in the series triggers different notes and, when used all together, the swings compose a musical piece in which certain melodies emerge only through cooperation. via Daily Tous les Jours

Creators Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat have swing, swang, swung themselves into the hearts of Montrealers, the international design community and lovers of play everywhere.

The installation was awarded The Best in Show at February’s Interaction Awards in Toronto. Andraos and Mongiat have not been resting on their laurels though. After introducing the world to 21 balançoires, they created 21 obstacles. Most recently they’ve been awarded a commission for Montreal’s first permanent digital art installation at the city’s new planetarium.

This third edition of 21 balançoires features a photo contest so click off a few frames, you could be a winner.

I’m sure Andraos and Mongiat will be back with new crowd pleasers. I hope they will revisit the world of play with compelling, heart of the city projects that make the old young and the young younger still.

Playground Music – Groovin’ to the Beat

This summer Germany’s first musical playground opened in Brandis. This is where play grooves to its own beat. Here a group of kids is putting the equipment through its paces. Thanks to Roman Rackwitz for providing this behind the scenes footage.

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Erwin Stache is the conductor of this playground symphony, or at least the musical consultant. He’s interviewed in this report on the playground filed by Roman for Mediendienst Ost (German required – sorry no translation).

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I love to see this kind of experimentation with sound in a place of play where kids can let loose and make their own music. Stache is an innovator and experimentalist and as the video record attests, no stranger when it comes to working with young people.

Music and play are a dynamic duo, one that we should hear and see more frequently. Movement and sound can certainly help to brighten up our public spaces.

It makes me think of 21 balançoires – 21 swings which has briefly graced Montreal’s downtown as a temporary installation for the last two years.

Malmö, Sweden also has a well loved musical playground.

Technological sophistication can makes things fun as the kids in Brandis, Germany demonstrate but simplicity can work too.

Let’s hear it for music and play together. Do you know of any musical playgrounds, or playgrounds that have a funky musical component? Leave a comment, or drop us a line by email at playgroundology@gmail.com.

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.