Category Archives: Sorel-Tracy

Wintry Outdoors

Ed’s note – Our youngest daughter Lila and I just spent two days camping with our Cub pack. The snow and -20° C nights are super chill for us these days. Winter ain’t what it used to be though. The snow doesn’t seem as abundant and fluctuations of temperatures day over day and week over week appear to be more pronounced.

This is a lightly edited post from The Finest Gift, a kids and family blog that predates my writing about play and play spaces. It was a way of holding on to memories and giving thanks for nine months that Mélanie and I were able to be at home together with the kids – all made possible by the Canadian government’s generous parental leave policies.

PlayGroundology is an organic exploration that grew out of those days drenched in curiosity, adventure, discovery and the love of kids.

The days are clear and bright as crystal. Each step crunches as we break through the old snow’s crusty covering. The powder underneath is a fine spray of fresh wisped away almost weightlessly, each flake a granule of geometric perfection. There is a lightness in the air, a cleansing crispness that shines and sculpts faces buffing cheeks and furrowing creases.

An unrehearsed symphony weaves its way in diminishing waves across open spaces. The refreshing crack of pucks and children’s voices are counterpoints to the traffic releasing us from its drone. Slapshotting sticks, squeals of laughter, skates spraying to a stop float across the white expanse. This soundscape rings true like impromptu celebrations, breathless victory dances and joyful embraces of fun.

Winding up at the outdoor rink

We are getting a high quotient of snow and ice time. I’m enjoying plenty of kid flashbacks to winter days in North York – extreme tobogganing, outdoor hockey, snowball fights, frozen feet and perpetually wet mittens, the standard stuff.

There have been windows of winter wonder in the adult years just nothing sustained. Alexa and I had a few Citadel Hill sledding adventures in Halifax and a blast of Winterlude in Ottawa when we lived there. Halifax is not a blustery winter place. We can’t really lay claim to a deep of winter tradition unlike the culture in Québec as immortalilzed in the Gilles Vigneault classic, Mon Pays.

Our best winters are in Sorel, Quebec (birthplace of PlayGroundology:-). The town has a strong recreation program that maintains several outdoor rinks with boards, lighting and cabanes for changing and warming up. Over the years, we’ve checked out several including Parc Nadeau, Parc de la Rivière and Parc Bibeau. So many outdoor rinks, so little time.

The skating and hockey are big draws for Noah on each winter visit. This is where he first rattled the puck off the boards and then skated close to examine the black mark of vuclanized rubber smudged on the wood.

There is quality sliding nearby les grand-parents too. The hill is just a short walk from rue Hébert. In the early years my father-in-law and I pull the kids up and give them a little push down. In those days, we had the legs for about 20 trips. The general rule of thumb is that the kids’ energy and enthusiasm eclipses ours. As a toddler, Nellie Nellie would tumble off the back of the sled on the way to the top. Noah’s infectious laughter would be our only clue that something was up. Turning around from our beast of burden imitations, Nellie would be sprawled on the hill giggling, happily rolling around.

Exhilaration

At the bottom of the run, where the squeals of delight start to trail away, the flats are a sheet of ice. Some of the smooth spots prove tricky for Nellie to keep her footing. She does well though only landing on her bum a couple of times. She improvises a little skating routine pushing her feet out and to the sides in an alternating sequence. She nails the movement and has a nice skating flow on the go minus the blades.

On that visit ten years ago, we were treated to a St. Valentine’s Day sleigh ride the day before we left. La tante Danièle harnessed up the gentle giants King and Prince to pull us along the back trails. It was a greatly anticipated family adventure in a class all its own. For over 2 hours we wisked over the snow in a toasty -8 °C and the trees cut the wind to a whisper.

On that day at La Halte there was a big gathering. Four sleighs, six horses, five or six dogs and about 25 people mill about the cabane. There’s a wood stove inside burning hot, bubbling chocolate for fondue with strawberries and pineapples. Hot dogs, toasted buns and all the fixings are the main course. Coffee with liqueur, champagne and beer are the beverages on offer.

There is lots of laughter and camaraderie. Danièle and Richard know everyone under this blue sky clearing. They are a passionate lot. They love their animals, the outdoors and the bonhomie of the woods and sweeping fields. Everyone is welcome to share a few moments of cheer, to befriend the cold, to imagine the days when sleighs ruled the countryside.

A lesiurely break at La Halte

An older fellow comes to speak with Danièle. He has a horse he’s been trying to sell for two years, a ringer for King, he says. He wants to know if Danièle is interested. Danièle extends her arm, “My team is here. King and Prince pull this sleigh. I’m not looking for any other horses.” It’s a no pressure pitch. The old guy says, “You never know, he’s getting old…” Danièle is not biting. She’s polite and says she’ll keep in touch.

Out of reach of the horses, Noah, Nellie and Maxime are eyes to the sky, immersed in the snow waving their arms and legs in unison making angels. The white stuff’s powdery texture means no forts, projectiles, sculptures, snowmen, or other mischief. Now that the yummy Krispy Kreme donuts have all been scarfed the younger adventurers are starting to get restless for this show to get back on the trail. There is one notable exception, Lila-Jeanne. She’s as quiet as falling snow, not a rustle, not a sound. At three-months-old, this is her first Quebec winter, her first winter anywhere.

Noah’s favourite spot is a securely fastened saucer that drags, sometimes flies, behind the sleigh. It glides in a bumpity-bump fashion over everything including generous quantities of road apples in various degrees of freshness. Doris and Sam, the country dogs, do whizz, buzz, zips skirting the saucer on each side at full run. Noah hears them charging and looks out of the corner of his eyes for the flash of balled muscles in full stride. They’re our outriders making sure everything is right.

Old time snowy trails

Noah is riding the saucer like a pro. He gets a little additional speed and requests even more juice. Then it happens. The saucer is off the trail. He tips and at the same time King falls to his knees. Prince continues to canter dragging King and the sleigh. I run back for Noah. His tears are quickly dried with a kiss and a hug. He has snow up his nostrils and in his mouth. Despite the scare he hops back into the saucer and continues until we hit the road.

The woods are lively
Light and clear
But biting cold this time of year
I’ll keep you warm, I’ll hold you dear
I’ll not let go, I’ll keep you near.

 

Apologies to Robert Frost for the doggerel.

 

PlayGroundology’s Roots

Just back from a trip to Mé’s hometown, Sorel, Quebec. It also happens to be the birthplace of PlayGroundology. The three wee ones, Mé and I spent the Easter weekend with Mé’s immediate and extended family. It’s always great to get there and be welcomed into the fold. And the kids, well they jump for joy every time we hit the road to visit les grands-parents. I’m right there with them, I understand their excitement. For all of us Sorel is ‘play central’.

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It doesn’t seem to matter what time of the year we arrive, playfulness is in the air. The maestro, the impressario is grand-papa Raymond. The now retired primary school physical education teacher knows how to hit all the right notes. And we of course have the gift of stepping outside of our domestic and professional daily routines.

In July of 2008 we spent some quality time hanging out in Sorel. Raymond got Noah-David and I out to different playgrounds almost every day. At nearly three-years-old, Noah was adventurous and wanted to try everything. He was a climber, a slider, a swinger… Those couple of weeks with Raymond made up the most concentrated burst of playgrounding we had ever done and the first time we had visited a series of playgrounds day after day.

Started herePlayGroundology started here

The sun drenched weather, the fun and simplicity of the activities and the Ville de Sorel’s posting of playground locations online inspired me. In the summer of 2009, I started blogging about Halifax, Nova Scotia’s playgrounds in Halifax Plays.

As I started to explore, I gained an appreciation of the richness and variety of the playground world – design, landscaping, preservation, community engagement and of course the intrinsic value of play itself. It was clear that there was an abundance of interesting historical and contemporary stories to share from a variety of international sources. PlayGroundology made its debut six months after Halifax Plays hit the streets.

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There was enough warmth in the air this Easter weekend for a couple of playground excursions. We took the five minute walk through the ‘magic pathway’ (a pedestrian connector between two streets) over to Parc des Trembles. This playground, one of our favourite stops in Sorel, is a like an old friend even though it’s over 1,000 kilometeres from our Halifax home. We know the swings, slides and obstacle course like the back of our hands. The familiarity brings comfort, warmth and even after all these visits a tinge of excitement. There is as much love, memories and milestones invested in this park as any of our local playgrounds in Nova Scotia.

We made time to get over to grand-papa’s old school too. We all wound up with soakers as our feet crashed through a thin layer of ice and into shallow puddly pools below. It wasn’t enough to deter us from scampering about the old equipment or trying out the new gargantuan multi-climber.

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There was plenty more play during those few days in Sorel – horseback riding with the cousins, swimming, floor hockey and a trip to Brossard to see the Montreal Canadiens practice. We love the time we spend together in Sorel’s playgrounds. They’ll always have a special place in our hearts.

Playground Odysseys at Home and Abroad

It’s the last day of classes for public schools in Québec. The sun is cracking hot, an open invitation to summer fun. We have all our essential supplies – water and snacks for refueling, sun block and hats to protect us from the pounding rays.

Nellie and Noah are oblivious to the high humidity. It’s so thick and sticky it feels like you should be able to peel it off but there is no such relief. They know there is a playground adventure in the offing and that grand-papa is part of the team. They’re primed, prepped and persistent. “Are we ready yet?” Noah asks as he hops down from the breakfast table.

None too soon for the kids, we’re out the door, buckled into the car and heading off to our first destination, Parc Chalifoux. The original concept for the day was for play time at all 20 plus playgrounds in Sorel-Tracy, Québec – a marathon of fun. It’s an idea I had dreamed up the previous summer and kept alive with Noah and Nellie over the winter months.

Even though it’s all physically possible, it turns out the concept is not ready for prime time. The challenge is proper routing along with a little advanced scouting and precision timing that takes into account, snacks, naps, bathroom breaks and so on. After taking into consideration drive time between the playgrounds, I calculate that we’d have about 10 minutes per stop to let loose on the equipment.

It’s on the eve of the event that I come to terms with my lack of preparation. My loving wife who helps to bring me to my senses wonders if I have totally lost touch with reality. I’m inclined to think that it’s less fiasco and more like a temporary folly zone. While the Marathon of Playgrounds is theoretically doable, it’s not advisable with our key participants just on the cusp of three and five-years-old. Fond memories of an exciting day of playgrounding are not the likely outcome.

We radically alter the day to a 2 1/2 hour morning window with four or five playgrounds that we have not previously visited. In fact, we get to three – Parc Chalifoux, Parc Réal-Lemieux and the Parc-école au Petit Bois. Each visit is a leisurely affair exploring new spaces and equipment.

Two of the playgrounds are adjacent to soccer fields. Noah grabs his soccer ball from the car trunk and spirited games à la World Cup break out. Nellie holds her own against big brother while Raymond and I poke a foot in here and there.

Chalifoux’ miniature giraffe is as at home in the beating sun of the playground corral as she would be on the African veldt. We’ve never seen a giraffe springrider before. Nellie hopes on and has a good go at riding her under the brilliant blue sky with wispy feathers of cloud.

The kids are having a great time and I’m pretty much over my disappointment. The Playground Marathon really only had advanced billing hoopla in my own folly-stricken mind. Over the course of our stay in Sorel we’ve probably visited ten different playgrounds including today’s three. We have favourites like Parc Bibeau and Parc des Trembles. We have other old friends here too like Parc Larivière and Parc Regard-sur-le-Fleuve.

There’s been an influx of new equipment this summer. Some of the old metal stuff has been kept to share the space with the new plastic. It’s heartening to see that older equipment hasn’t been removed in toto. The caterpillar at Parc Bibeau got a new coat of paint and looks great on her perch on top of the hill. The rocking horse swings at Parc Larivière and the spider monkey bars at Parc Soleil were not as lucky. I guess they’ve been transported to that great playground junkyard in the sky.

No brand new stuff at either Chalifoux, Réal Lemieux or Petit Bois but lots of opportunities to discover equipment that they’ve never played on before while doing the swinging, climbing and sliding thing.

Our final stop of the morning is at Petit Bois. It’s a modest little playground positioned right next to the main doors of a primary school. We’re the only ones there as the kids are in class or playing out back as part of their final phys ed class of the year.

It doesn’t take long for us to run through all the equipment here – the mini-arched bridge, the slide, the stepping platforms. The kids are starting to wear down a bit from the heat too.

We hear sounds of play coming from the back of the school and can see some of the kids on a hill that overlooks the recreation space. We head over that way to see what’s happening. Raymond knows the teacher leading the game and we all get introduced.

Noah and Nellie are invited to join the game. Each of them is paired with an older kid to give them a hand. Their smiles break out as they stand up at the plate to kick the ball and round the bases in this hybrid baseball soccer game. It’s a very successful conclusion to our outing – a sporty activity playing with the big kids.

We hit three playgrounds instead of the anticipated (dreamed of) twenty-some that I had dancing around my head like quixotic windmills. We all had a great time and the kids’ endurance has been stretched just enough. Our day is a triumph of quality over quantity. At this age they’re just not ready for the kind of novelty challenge I have in mind.

Never say never however. I’m convinced that a few years from now as the kids are winding up their pre-teen days we could polish this off quite handily. Stay tuned for a post in 2018. That kind of advance should allow me ample time to iron out any planning wrinkles too…

A National Challenge of Marathon Proportions

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. the playful minds at KaBOOM! have been busy. These folks love to raise awareness about the value of play and the important role of playgrounds within communities. They’ve raised their advocacy to an art form that’s all about doing and getting people engaged.

Their latest national challenge was inspired by one of their Facebook fans. In a nutshell, it’s nine parents and their kids, 50 playgrounds in 50 days – the Park-a-Day KaBOOM! Summer Challenge. The participants come from across the US – Maine, Florida, California, New Jersey and points in between. You can meet the contestants and read all about it here.

PlayGroundology hopes to catch up with some of the contestants as they hit the 40-day mark to get their perspectives on this playground odyssey.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

From Québec with Love

Eddying winds sculpt feathery drifts partially blocking steps to a slide. It’s the seasonal deluge of white. Landscapes shift presenting new contours and dips. A summer hill is now winter’s sledding delight. Snow’s crisp crunch and sub-zero temperatures jazz up the tempo of playground activity. Everyone is in pursuit of warm.

Parc Larivière is a favourite destination during this winter’s holiday in Sorel. The outdoor ice rink is the glistening jewel that keeps us coming back. Noah has just learned to skate and cannot get enough hockey time.

After we unlace the skates, he treks through the snow for a romp on the horse swings, a scoot down the slide, or a boing boing spring on the elephant. It’s not the same leisurely exploration as shorts, sandals and sunscreen days. The cold penetrates even on the move. Soft, sweet cheeks ripen round and red as apples. When it’s time to go home there are no remonstrations.

It’s here in Sorel that I had a playground epiphany in the summer of 2008. My father-in-law Raymond and I were taking then two-year-old Noah on a swinging, sliding and climbing adventure most days that there was no rain. They were fun fuelled, energizing outings for the three of us.

Each morning shortly after breakfast, Noah would ask if we could go to a playground. One of our favourites that summer was Parc Bibeau. The elephant, toucan, whale and duck spring riders were a big hit. Noah happily gave them all a whirl – riding one, hopping off, straddling another, rocking away into the sunset on his own private rodeo.

Our daily excursions inspired the idea of a marathon of playgrounds – a one day activity that consists of visiting every playground in town. In Sorel, with 20 playgrounds serving a population of just over 4,000 kids aged 14 and under, this is a challenge we should be able to manage. Despite arduous training in winter and summer conditions on all our subsequent visits, the marathon remains in the concept stage.

We should be clearing one of our key logistical hurdles this summer. Nap time, which can be a two and one-half to the three hour engagement for Noah, will be relegated to the dustbin of history by the time June rolls around. These three extra hours will make all the difference.

Quick, preliminary calculations suggest it will take about eight hours to run, swing and jump through every playground with short breaks for snacks and a picnic lunch. This estimate is based on 15 minutes play time at each playground and 10 minutes travel time between each location. It’s a gruelling schedule.

We’re fortunate to have Raymond on our marathon team. As a former physical education teacher at the elementary school level he knows how to coach the best out of kids. On our Sorel playground outings we regularly hear, ‘Monsieur Raymond’ from former students who come over to say hello. Throughout his career he was a big proponent of getting kids active outdoors. Playgrounds were one of his venues of choice.

There’s lots of work to be done leading up to June. We will need to be mentally and physically prepared. I’ll plot our preliminary route on Google Maps for Raymond’s review. Noah and I will begin our training in April back in Halifax. We won’t do a full day but will work our way up to seven or eight playgrounds in the run of a morning.

A couple of days ago while returning home from Parc Bibeau, Noah asked if we will be coming to Sorel this summer. When I gave him a yes, he responded, “I’m going to tell grand-papa and in one day we’ll go to all the playgrounds to play, all of them and Parc Bibeau too.” The marathon idea seems to have captured his imagination and really that’s all that counts.

Another result of our early Sorel playground days is the PlayGround Chronicles blog that I launched in Halifax in July 2009. Our Sorel playgrounding inspired me to start documenting Halifax’s playgrounds through narratives, photos and mapping. My general curiosity and a growing interest in all things playgroundish have led to the PlayGroundology blog. It’s amazing how a few sunny days and our smiling children can bring us to new places of discovery.

There is no doubt, I’ve truly been bitten by the playground bug in Sorel. I’m not sure if it was Parc Soleil’s red-nosed spider, or Parc Bibeau’s anorexic

caterpillar that got me. I thank them both. Each of them has made our Noah laugh.

For now it’s winter. Our yellow duck’s orange bill is nearly buried in snow and the toucan has been knocked off its perch. We’ll be back when the sun is shining and the weather is sweet. By then hopefully, the toucan will be primed for riding. We’ll let you know how we make out with the first annual Sorel summer love playground tour.

PlayGroundology will report on our marathon of playgrounds in June.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.