Category Archives: natural play space

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.

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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….

When Good Things Happen

Kids and parents in Nova Scotia, Canada are giving two thumbs up to a couple of the province’s new public play spaces. Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space and The Dingle Natural Playground in Halifax make the natural world more accessible to kids.

The scale and scope of these two projects are a significant development for what is still a relatively new design aesthetic in these parts. The variety of installations and the age ranges they cater to set Middle Musquoidoboit and The Dingle apart from other natural playscapes in the province. Jubilee Park in Bridgetown, continues to delight the pre-school crowd and the Evergreen organization is working with a few individual schools to incorporate natural play areas as part of the recreation mix.

Middle Musquoidoboit’s Nature Play Space will be our first stop. Playgroundology’s next blog post will share some of the fun and excitement of The Dingle playscape’s opening weekend.

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In Middle Musquoidoboit behind a thin stand of trees there’s a clearing that on opening day buzzes with feverish excitement. Kids are zigging and zagging like hummingbirds from one installation to the next – ponds, slides, a fire tower, sandpits, a nest, a bear den, a tunnel through a small hillock and a personal favourite, a vintage three-seater Flinstone-mobile (see photo gallery here).

Tucked away in one corner is a 15 foot long pit partially filled with water that’s already churned brown. The sloping sides get muddier the closer one gets to the waterline. This is the place that holds the greatest promise of transforming white t-shirts each kid was given on arrival into authentic 100% organic dirt fabric.

The mud kitchen is an eleventh hour addition to this rootsy wonderland. Middle Musquoidoboit grandmas are the driving force behind this get grimy zone. They gathered up all the equipment – pots, pans, containers, spoons, shovels, pails, cupboards and yes, the kitchen sink – to set up a deliciously fun way to create imaginary delicacies with the most versatile of ingredients, dirt, water and mud. This open air, community kitchen, where there are never too many cooks, adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the overall ambience.

Can you say Am-Phi-Bi-An? Frog and salamander prospecting is the main attraction at a kid-sized pond bursting with green along its banks. On a second trip to the Nature Play Space the Girl Power Posse, my two girls and a couple of their friends, fan out and put the multi acre playscape through its paces.

On that occasion the pond is the place to be. Getting up close and personal with frogs proves to be a heady elixir that pulls the girls back time and again to try their luck with the dipping nets.

At another popular installation, scaling tree trunk towers presents an opportunity for airborne derring-do. The ascent is tough, it’s difficult finding the right footholds and hand grips on the vertical climb. Standing at the precipice, I can only imagine the quickened pace of pounding hearts. Then the launch and a surge of adrenalin in that split second before impact.

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The playscape offers numerous opportunities for kids to test and push their limits, to assess risk and challenge their physical abilities. These activities help build confidence, develop judgment and, when all goes well, can contribute to creating a reservoir of courage, resourcefulness and resilience.

This is a running, leaping, flying kind of place with wows at every turn. There are hills and rocks to climb, dirt and sand galore, small animals in their native habitat to catch and release, trees, grassy expanses and a welcome absence of motorized vehicles. This is a place to move and a place to play in the heart of Nova Scotia, Canada’s Ocean Playground.

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The Nature Play Space is a project led by the Department Of Natural Resources’ Natural Resources Education Centre. Two of the Centre’s team members, Amelia Kennedy and Sara Hill, were inspired to create a natural play space after attending an environmental educators conference with participants and presenters from throughout North America.

They left the conference with an aspirational goal that took form with considerable community engagement and sweat equity from volunteers in addition to support from their provincial government department. Two community build days, donations of labour and materials and invaluable advice were key ingredients in the success of the project. Nature aficionado, designer, trail developer and heavy equipment operator Garnet McLaughlin of Cobequid Consulting gets a huge shout out for his contributions.

So what good things are happening?

  • variety is being added to public play stock in Nova Scotia
  • communities are being engaged in the development and build processes
  • community mobilization and participation resulted in a very moderately priced playscape
  • media are covering the story
  • parents are talking about risk amongst each other and with their kids
  • a home grown design for natural playscapes has been developed that can benefit other communities
  • people are having thoughtful conversations about physical activity levels and the value of independent play
  • every kid who visits is getting a huge dose of Vitamin N

Our two visits to date resonated with excitement, laughter and an appreciation of the natural world. We’ll be regulars enjoying the leisurely drive there and back through Nova Scotia’s heartland.

For those readers who are curious about the pronunciation of Musquoidoboit click play below and listen to the GirlPower Nature Play Chorale who at the end of their song nail it.

One Weekend, Two American Classics

It’s a glorious end-of-summer. On deck, steaming through the Bay of Fundy’s gulf of plenty, we keep the wind’s nip in check with sweaters and light jackets. Hands shade squinting eyes from rippling light as we scan for sea life. It’s our last hurrah adventure before the regimented schedule of school begins again.

Approaching Grand Manan, minke whales in groups of two and three briefly break the surface, their dorsal fins slipping below before rhythmically rising, then dipping, rising and dipping until they deep dive beyond our vision. It’s a wonderful welcome as we enter the island’s waters and skirt the shore’s sheer cliffs.

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We are nearing the tail end of hot sun drenched days. The air temp is still warm enough to plunge into the take-your-breath-away water. Its salty buoyancy almost makes amends for the chill factor. Moored about 100 feet from the beach, is a floating home-made slide that until now we had only seen in photos. It’s a doozy, towering 15 feet above the water’s surface. And, for the coup de grâce, a tarzan rope dangles off the structure’s high point.

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Among the bunch of kids swimming, sliding, splashing and swinging, we meet the nephew of the man who created this wonder-thrill, fun zone. The kids tell us they come here frequently and they’re visibly proud of this singular attraction. One of the moms guesses it’s been here for six or seven years. Our next trip to Grand Manan we’ll be making a beeline to the beach.

Back at hole-in-the-wall campground we hike a trail skirting the cliffs. No kids in the lead, they’re tucked in between adults. There are lots of roots on the ground, some brush and precipitous drops.

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Then right in front of us is the ‘hole’. Our adventure rambles on hugging the coastal cliffs then zigging inland. Sometimes we wonder if we’re on the right path. Crossing a plank bridge we come into a clearing and a hand drawn map tells us we’re close to our temporary home. We’re tuckered from the heat and exertion and looking forward to some cold beverages and a tasty meal.

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But first there is another new experience that just can’t be missed. Again, it’s one of those magnetic simple pleasures – a small pond, rafts and poles. The kids’ first instinct is to race from the dock to the far shore. This ain’t the mighty Mississippi and it turns out that following a dry summer the water is very shallow in places and the rafts get snagged on rocks.

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Without any parental prodding, repeated groundings transform a competitive dynamic into a cooperative venture. It’s not long before all three kids are barefooting and slipping off the rafts to push, pull and cajole them along their journeys. They work together as a team, problem solving, assessing changing circumstances and experimenting with possible solutions. They are consumed with the space and their actions and all the while they’re immersed in deep, playful moments.

Nearly an hour passes and the fun maintains its quiet intensity. Finally, I have to call the kids’ armada back to dock. There’s nearly a mutiny but civility triumphs and we all march up the road for supper.

In too short a time we’re back aboard the ferry on a calm Bay of Fundy morning. About two-thirds of the way to Blacks Harbour a pod of three finbacks is spotted tails high fiving the sky and misty spouts of breath billowing from their blowholes. I can almost hear a cry, “thar she blows”.

It’s a weekend to remember. We’ll be back.

Leave a comment if you know the two American Classics I am referring to in the title.

#PlayRocks

Even a brief period of time spent watching kids engrossed in exploring the world around them, in discovering what their bodies are capable of, and just generally reveling in the independent pursuit of fun is an affirmation that, yes indeed, #PlayRocks.

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#PlayRocks is ready for the prime time social media world, ready for a little rough and tumble in the hashtag universe. Help make #PlayRocks part of the lexicon where it can join the likes of #playoutdoors, #outdoorplay, #playeveryday, #justplay and others.

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#PlayRocks can help add another voice of affirmation to play related activities, ideas and images that are being shared online at the speed of adventure. The next time you’re sharing content about the wonderful world of kids and play on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or tumblr, please consider tagging it with #PlayRocks.

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Sometimes #PlayRocks can have a very literal meaning. Rocks are like magnets to kids, their very presence a compelling attraction to climb, jump, balance.

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Help give the #PlayRocks hashtag a little push – readers are welcome to download any of the photos in this post and share them on their social media accounts.

To paraphrase a great Canadian who has penned more than a few well received tunes over the years, “keep on rockin’ in the play world……”

​Amsterdam’s Wild West: Nature Play at Woeste Westen

Ed’s note – I’m a fan of Glasgow-based City of Play. I’m a sucker for cable spools and other playcycled materials. Though I’m born and bred in Canada, my roots are from Scotland’s west coast. Having had the good fortune to visit and stay with family on several occasions as a young boy, I have a soft spot for the places along the River Clyde where my parents both grew up.

When I heard that City of Play co-founder Grant Menzies was off on a bit of a play research jaunt, I asked him if he would like to guest post here at PlayGroundology. Here he is for your reading pleasure. Woeste Westen really seems like a crossover space to me where nature play meets adventure playground. More on Grant following the post.

Woeste Westen is an exceptional natural ‘playscape’ a short bike journey west of Amsterdam City Centre. Natural playgrounds are not uncommon in the country however this is one of the few that has the psychical presence of an organisation to support it.

Considering the country’s unique geography it is perhaps unsurprising that water features quite heavily in park. To be honest, it’s the main feature. The site was once harvested for peat leaving a series of manmade waterways which have been bridged, dammed, pumped and… eh… rafted? That is, there is a water pump and a raft.

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There are also any number or den building, climbing and balancing opportunities; bonfire sites; and animal habitats both natural and man made… /child made. This amazing (and it is amazing, look at the pictures) natural playscape is supported by the weekly run Adventure Club and onsite clubhouse/ parents cafe.

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Woeste Westen is a truly inclusive landscape offering challenges and opportunities for all ages and abilities. A series of crossing points present different challenges to span the water with varying degrees of difficulty. Rope bridges, felled trees, wobbly bridges, rafts, stepping stones and shallows ensure that the body and mind are continually tested without being forced to encounter unmanageable risks. This is a land and waterscape to invite and excite all.

The abundance of water and wildlife not only provides play value but is a soothing and calming influence. Although chaotic, Woeste Westen is peaceful and pleasant in a manner rarely achieved through other designed “Nature” playgrounds.

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Our arrival coincided with the rain. We witnessed the Adventure Club dress in waterproofs building fires and making popcorn showing that this is an all weather experience.

At Woeste Westen we met founder Martin Hup a former biology and environmental education teacher. Martin discovered this publicly owned piece of land around 8 years ago not much different from what it is now, as a playground with the raft and bridges, but it was rarely used. Although only a few minutes from the bustling city it was still in the middle of nowhere; children/families had no need to pass by and therefore it was not used.

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Martin – as a self confessed adventurer, former Boy Scout and expert in environmental education but with no vision of continuing to be a teacher – saw an opportunity to exploit an underused resource to promote environmental education and facilitate outdoor play. He sought funding from the local government to install a hub with a cafe, toilets and office, to create a perimeter fence and to form the Adventure Club. He says ‘This lets parents feel it is safe, they know there is usually someone here and it has a secure gate – of course it is not “safe” it is about risky play! – but the perception is different.’

Still he insists he is not a play worker, he/they programme events and are ‘facilitators’. The playground, although now fenced, is still public property but without their presence – running the Adventure Club and serving “fine coffee” – no one would use it.

Martin knows his stuff, and he knows that even with Amsterdam’s abundance of playgrounds that free play is on the decline and that parents are to blame. ‘They are scared of cars and the “dangerous man” that wants to harm their children. In fact, there is no more danger than in the 70’s.’

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Concerned, if not dismayed, by reports of schools in the Netherlands removing skipping ropes and balls from pupils due to parent complaints of injury, Martin and the Adventure Club warn that they actively seek risks in their sessions.

Many new parents and even children visiting the park show the same nerves we commonly see in our risk averse time; many concerned by how often their child might climb a tree – God forbid they should get a scratch or a bruise! In Woeste Westen you may well break a leg… But *shrugs* “so what?”. Although it might surprise you to learn that with 57,000 visits per year they still haven’t had any serious injuries.

Martin describes that when children visit, despite initial reservations, they are somewhat set free. They can run and explore and experience the joy of discovering nature for themselves but also they experience a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi ‘ – in a rare moment of broken English described as like “touching their inner Neanderthal” they are wild again.

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Grant gained his Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from the University of Strathclyde in Nov 2012. Inspired by the birth of his first daughter, Grant’s thesis focused around the needs and rights of children in urban design. Subsequently, Grant developed an understanding of, and passion for, play and ensuring its proper and right provision.

Grant also spent a semester studying Landscape design under Henry WA Hanson at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Having funded his time while at University working in the building services Grant has an interest and skill at making, fixing and up-cycling as can be seen in works such as The Twits Chairs.

If you have a play story you’d like to share with PlayGroundology readers, give us a shout. Cheers

Look Mom No Safety Codes

Here are the wilds of the urban forest. Stands of birch and pine overlook a partially restored 19th century canal. Woods, rocks, water in ever-changing sequences shape the contours of possibility. And much is possible for young children alert to the rustle of leaves, or the allure of pathless terrain.

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At the convergence of two paths there is a feeding spot. Here chickadees take an airy dash from overhanging branches and alight for a heartbeat or two on small outstretched hands awash in seeds. Lila experiences her first solo close encounter of the chickadee kind and cherishes the fleeting lightness as it lifts from her fingers. The memory of their sparking touch lingers and surely will echo still, days, perhaps even years from now.

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Somewhere below the canopy there is an insistent tap-tapping. Nellie’s keen eyes pick out a woodpecker hammering away for some grub. She is at the ready with her camera, nature girl strikes again. One small step for woodpeckers, one huge leap for aspiring ornithologists.

Off the paths the ground is uneven requiring concentration and surefootedness. An old dwelling reduced to rubble makes for a teetering traverse as the girls negotiate their wobbly, winding way to flatter ground.

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And of course there is wood – tree trunks, cut logs, natural falls, roots, twigs, sticks, leaves, bark. There is climbing, balancing, posing, running, chasing and watching. The girls are a skylarking spectacular, curiosity and wonder never far below the surface. For the moments we pass through we are the guardians.

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The place is fraught with danger and risk, accidents waiting to happen at practically every turn. As if the land-based hazards are not enough, there is water in great abundance – a canal and a lakeful with beach to boot. All of these hazards elicit an exploration for the next fun thing, the one that will get the adrenalin pumping, get the hilarity surging and draw on skills real and imagined.

There are a couple of falls and no wonder – there are abundant above ground root systems, rock outcroppings and steep banks leading to the canal. The last is my only real concern because of the water temperature and and the heavy clothes we’re wearing. The girls tire of my harping to stay far back from the canal bank. I can’t help it, I don’t want to have to fish one of them out of water that still has a sheen of ice on it.

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The girls’ boisterous play generates a bit of a din but still this oasis is peaceful. Although I ask them to be quieter, I love to hear them calling each other’s names, having their young voices sweep through the space and claiming themselves as part of these natural surroundings.

We spend two hours in this nirvana for squirrels and dare I say for little girls too. It is a space where play is earthy and organic, where hands get dirty and faces smudged, where curiosity is piqued and the natural world held in quiet awe.

In the Woods

In this small urban forest, there are no safety codes for walking in the woods and the kids play free.

New Brunswick, Canada’s Call to Action – Get the Kids Outside

I heard the radio version of this promotion piece earlier today driving Nova Scotia’s highways. Just the soundtrack made me smile.

The visuals add to the fun. I hope this turns out to be a successful campaign for New Brunswick. The simplicity and beauty make for a powerful message. Be nice to see a series developed on the same theme.

Unplug the kids and go solar!!!

As this comes from Canada’s only officially bilingual province, there is also a French version.

Débranchez!!!