Category Archives: Toronto

A Canvas for Play

The northern and eastern boundaries of Toronto’s Grange Park tuck up close to two venerable institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). Over the years, the park has been featured on many a canvas and in innumerable sketches and watercolours.

Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer conducting a children’s outdoor sketching class in Grange Park in 1934. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

Canadian Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer led art classes for kids in this green space not far from the city centre. Today, kids are reclaiming the park with the opening of  a new Earthscape and PFS Studio design and build playscape.

The last time I was in Toronto, I had a chance to get a tour and poke around as the space was nearing completion. I was intrigued to see the treatment as the visual arts run in my family. Let’s cut to the quick, they took a huge leap over me but one of my older daughters was recognized by enRoute magazine as one of the top ten instagrammers to watch in the country. If you’re curious about her photos, check out seriouslyalexa. My younger kids are prolific artists in their own right. The wall surfaces of my home and work offices are festooned with their creations. Their collected oeuvres are a constant bright spot in my days.

At the south entrance to the playscape, the journey begins with two platforms approximately 8 to 10 feet above ground level supported by stylized blue, green and yellow conté sticks. The larger platform is nestled up against a mature maple and represents an artist’s palette. The day of my visit, the wooden planks are carpeted in green, awash in two winged helicopters.

Grange Park – south entrance

The platforms can be accessed by a wide stairway, a vertical, beam-me-up tunnel that provides entry through the floor and via a broad hanging rope ladder. Undoubtedly, there will be those who choose to run up the slides (most of us have done this, right?) or try to monkey up the conté sticks…

It’s the wobbly practice-your-balance nylon braid tunnel connecting the two platforms that is sure to get a lot of traffic. The intimation of adventurous derrin-do suspended above the ground will be an irresistible attraction pulling kids to scamper up and down the gentle incline.

The wobble-bobble conté bridge (not the technical name!)

I couldn’t leave before trying it myself. I wobbled, bobbled and painlessly hobbled my way across thinking of the squeals of delight that will erupt from my three youngest and my TO grandkids when they get a chance to give it a test drive.

Adjacent to the slide tower is a huge, climb-inside-me tube with oozing bouncy blue paint pooling under the nozzle and streaming to the conté tower. There’s a slide here for the small kids who will get a kick out of entering the tube, swooping down to the ground below and then wanting to try it again and again and again.

Paint tube slide, climber and ‘hide’ from the parents cubby

On the north side of the playscape is the the most challenging design and engineering element of the project – a series of connected dodecahdrons. Sitting there they look deceivingly simple but these shapes designed to simulate crushed paper models common to art classes were not a walk in the park to build.

Dodecahdron chain with paint can in background

Now that they have come off the CAD/CAM drawing board and into real life, they offer more cubbies for climbing, hiding, balancing and sliding as well as interesting shapes, sight lines and angles.

The final piece in this artistic tour de force is the lowly paint can, a vessel of colour just waiting to be applied, or spilled as the case may be. And hasn’t this crafty, painty spillage happened at all of our kitchen tables? It’s part and parcel of the creative process. If you can’t get messy, where’s the fun?

Paint can clean up (tools no longer in situ)

With Grange Park, Earthscape continues to display their rich palette. They demonstrate their ability to build high quality, custom designed, adventurous play installations with a significant quotient of natural materials. Is there anything this firm can’t build? The City of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the W. Garfield Weston Foundation are sure to be happy with the finished product as are the kids…

As the kids wrap up their play at Grange Park they may not be thinking of their next masterpiece but clearly they will have exercised body and mind in the art of play.

Here’s an early rendition of the playscape. There have been some modifications and adjustments since this animation was produced. See if you can find them if you have a chance to visit.

Ed’s note – In late May I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the nearly finished playscape in Toronto’s Grange Park. Earthscape Senior Landscape Architect and Project Manger, Dennis Taves, took me around the site which was still getting a number of touch ups from a friendly work crew. We grabbed a quick bite to eat underneath the ‘palette’ during a cloudburst. Shout out to my son-in-law James who had packed me some delicious buns with coldcuts and cheese from the family’s Tre Mari Bakery on St. Clair West. They were supposed to be for my trek from Toronto to Ottawa but Dennis and I got through half of them. You develop a healthy appetite touring and talking about play…. Thanks Dennis for your time.

Just One More Scoop – Dufferin Grove Park

​”Just one more scoop”, the father intones to his pre-schooler for the second time in as many minutes. “It’s time for us to go.” Here in the southeastern reaches of Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park, the three-year-old digger boy is busy moving dirt from a deep channel to level ground in the most ginormous kid’s sandpit in Canada.

Welcome to Shangri-la for kids, a place where dirt rules. Here kids build, dig, and create worlds of their own making with shovels, scraps of wood and a dedicated supply of glorious running water. Above this constantly changing excavation site is a whispering canopy of mature maples. Even on the hottest days there is respite from the sun.

In the early 1990s, the playground started as a ‘big backyard’ neighbourhood space with the sandpit as its central feature. Community engagement, affordability and adventurous, drop-in play were the key founding principles as relayed in this presentation that captures the back story and some of the history of this enchanting space that captivates kids from pre-school to just shy of pre-teen.

“The cost of setting up the adventure playground was $5660, with another $5000 for doing programs there: $11,660.”

More than 20 years after its establishment, this quiet success continues to have star attraction chops. For those in the know, it is a highly desirable destination where simplicity – dirt, water, dig, build – provides a solid foundation for independent play.

On my first visit, I chatted with a couple of moms who were there with their pre-schoolers. It is their favourite public playspace in Toronto. Many share this opinion. Both women travel by car, or bus to give their kids the chance to enjoy themselves in this sandpit-like-no-other. I now have it on the highest authority – my soon to be two-year-old granddaughter – that this is the funnest!! place to play….

One brilliant May morning on a recent Toronto trip, I visit Dufferin Grove’s sandpit with its rivulets, gullies and hillocks of dirt. The action underway is an unfurling tapestry. There is an almost imperceptible hum of discovery under the trees. The kids are zoned in, under the spell of a space that invites them to just play, to fashion time measured in scoops of dirt and pails of water.

As I’m getting ready to leave, there is a wonderful serendipitous moment. I bump into Jutta Mason. We have corresponded about the play universe but never met. Jutta is an indefatigable champion for public community spaces in general and for this space of play in particular. Time didn’t allow for much more than hellos, a hug and a promise on my part to connect when I am in TO again. That will be part II of PlayGroundology‘s Dufferin Grove story.

Stay tuned later this summer for first person accounts from Jutta and Mr. PlayGroundology as he goes to the Grove for the first time with his granddaughter. We’ll also have the opportunity to discover the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), a strong community-based research model established by Jutta and other community volunteers.

Until then, bear in mind that ‘just one more scoop’ at Dufferin Grove’s sandpit is a tough concept for kids to embrace. From what I’ve seen on my visits, the kids are happy to stay as long as possible. Some even design and build temporary shelters…..

Spring Garden in the Snow

Unpredictable twists and turns are an inherent part of play’s beauty – adventure and discovery, the lingua franca. Resilience is the pièce de résistance, a piece that in later life can make all the difference.

cropper-torstar-photoSpring Garden Public School – Photo credit: John Mahler, The Toronto Star – 1979.

Twists, turns and discovery are also hallmarks of the sedentary surfer. The internet of play offers seemingly endless redirections and constant parsing of new, unanticipated information. As frequently as not, the eventual destination is altogether different than what was initially intended.

cropped-0001Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

As dawn breaks on drifting white dunes of snow outside my window, I discover an early 1970s playspace in Toronto. I arrive by way of an article that reports Crow Nest Adventure Playground in Dewsbury, UK may be subject to cuts. From there, a Google photo search takes me to a photo of a playspace in Bowood, Wiltshire, UK. This in turn leads to Spring Garden Public School via an UrbanToronto forum and ultimately to an index of photos by Bill Chambers reproduced here.

toronto-adventure-playground004Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

I look the place up on the map and it’s in Willowdale, North York. Though the school is no longer there, I see it was close to where I lived from about 1964 to 1970. Those days, we would walk through that neighbourhood on our way to the Willow Theatre and the Memorial Swimming Pool and that little corner store where we could buy 10 cent bottles of mini-pop and get a nickel back on the empties. Those were the times that my friends and I first started getting out and about independently.

toronto-adventure-playground008Spring Garden Public School – Photo credit: Bill Chambers

I can imagine myself playing here – hanging on in the crow’s nest, trying to balance on and climb the logs. It helps to see kids dressed pretty much as I had back in grades 7 and 8 – in those rockin’ late ’60s kids’ togs. The space must have been created after our family left the area. I can’t believe that our parents wouldn’t have brought us to this cool spot, or that we wouldn’t have heard about it ourselves.

Today, mysterious algorithms present a gift that in three of four jumps bring me from the UK to a familiar space close by my old childhood neighbourhood.

The black and white blast from the past is a nice visit. Here, before my eyes, the kids are exalting in the snow. The white dunes outside the window have been tamped down through the course of the day by their sledding and their first attempts at cross country skiing. This is the place to be.

 

Underpasses Overlooked

An underutilized urban wasteland, a drive by blight for sore eyes has been transformed into parkland with a playground in downtown Toronto. This component of WATERFRONToronto’s West Don Lands project is the largest repurposing of underpasses in Canada and the first of its kind in Ontario’s capital. The total cost for the 1.05 hectares (2.7 acres) park is budgeted at $4.7 million.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

Underpass Park’s Phase I which includes a children’s play area is now open. The entire project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013. Here’s a video of construction at the site last fall that shows some of the already installed playground equipment.

Those who live in the new residential spaces being created as part of the overall redevelopment of the area will appreciate an opportunity to enjoy this small oasis. I wonder though about the noise and pollution levels caused by the steady stream of cars overhead. Toronto Star urban issues and architecture journalist, Christopher Hume, sees some greater significance in the creation of this park as it relates to Toronto’s overall development.

“As much as anything, Underpass Park offers hope that the city might manage to keep up with the future after all.”

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

There is much of the same sentiment in an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Toronto Star.

Kudos to WATERFRONToronto for the innovative spirit in the remodeling of yucky urban blah.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

In Halifax we have spaces in the urban core that could benefit from this kind of deep makeover. Do you have any examples of similar projects in your city – recreating beauty and useable space from post industrial neglect?

Jamie Bell Adventure Playground Photo Shoot

Earlier this week, the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in Toronto’s High Park was partially destroyed by arson. The community is outraged and vows to rebuild. I’m sure the playground will rise again and reclaim its former magical hold on kids and adults alike.

Below are four slideshows I posted on flickr today. The shots were taken about a year ago on a cold frosty March morning. Click the text links or the photos themselves to activate the slideshows.

The Towers

The Equipment

The Etchings

The Paintings

All the best on the rebuilding.

How do we stop the Jamie Bell Playground madness?

For about a year now, I’ve been compiling media stories on vandalism and arson in playgrounds with the intent of writing about this contagion. I signed myself up for a discussion group on the topic on LinkedIn but haven’t really created the time to participate though many others have as they seek solutions to the problem.

The stories I’ve read frequently report on destructive activities in small towns. Cities are not immune but proportionately, I’ve read fewer stories about vandalized playgrounds in urban centres. This may be because these kind of stories are not covered as much by big city media. Invariably, the playgrounds involved are of the composite plastic and metal variety. For these structures, a raging fire’s superheat results in twisting metal and plastic melting into a dripping caustic goo.

On St. Patrick’s Day the senseless madness struck Toronto’s Jamie Bell Playground in the city’s beloved High Park, the downtown green space sans pareil. Here’s what it looks from a Toronto Star photo.

Source: Toronto Star. Click image to enlarge.

This one really hit home for me. On a business trip to Toronto last March, I made an early morning pre-work visit to Jamie Bell Playground just to check out one of the funkier downtownish play spaces. Though I traipsed through mud on a frosty frost morning I wasn’t disappointed. This is a Robert Leathers special on a grand scale. They can be found in communities throughout North America – customized, wooden playgrounds built with community engagement and sweat of the brow labour.

I took a lot of photos that cold March morning thinking of the day I’d get to take my kids there. It was a soft, sweet and dreamy start to a long business day.

Source: PlayGroundology. Click image to enlarge.

The now burned towers once looked like this. I’m on the road again today and only have access to these thumbnails. I’ll post a set of Jamie Bell photos to my flickr account later in the week.

It’s such a despicable act of cowardice as it confronts children with senseless destruction. More than 2,000 people have facebooked the Toronto Star story. Jamie Bell will rise again through the same community spirit that created it in the first place.

Another photo of the destruction from Torontoist.

Source: Torontoist. Click image to enlarge.

More photos from Torontoist here

Here’s PlayGroundology’s original Jamie Bell post

Let’s hope the perpetrators are caught. This kind of senseless destruction is happening in communities across the US, Canada and the UK. Charred remains are a terrible way to start a day.

Calling all Dads, Attention les Papas – KaBOOM’s Pledge for Play

My friends at KaBOOM! are encouraging us all to take a pledge for play. What a magnificent idea. The pledge means a commitment of time on our part, time well spent with our children exploring their abilities, their potential, their laughter, their fun.

Here it is in all its simplicity:

I believe that my child needs to play outdoors, every day. Regular play outdoors makes children happier, healthier, smarter, more socially adept, more independent, and more creative. By pledging today, I add my voice to the growing movement of fathers who are committed to restoring play to childhood.

I’m in Toronto on business and took Kerala’s call to action to heart. Serendipitously, I have a daughter here who I was able to do some playgrounding with. Never mind that she’s in her late 20s, we had a fine time at Christie Pitts swinging and spinning.

So smile, stand up and be counted. Take the pledge for play right here.

When I get back to Halifax, I’ll be taking my wee ones out to run, climb, take big gulps of air and laugh because to play is to be.