From Hideously Uninspiring To Inherently Playful And Adventurous

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

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

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

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

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

Original artwork by Halifax artist, Kyle Jackson

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

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

 

Meteghan Family Fun Park

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

Meteghan Family Fun Park, Meteghan, Nova Scotia – Canada

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

Airplane whirligig and windmill – Meteghan Family Fun Park

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

Recycled tire ponies and buoy zipline, Meteghan Family Fun Park

 

Nature Learning and Play Space – Natural Resources Education Centre

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

The Sandpit, Nature Learning and Play Space

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

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

Opening Day – Mud Kitchen, Nature Learning and Play Space

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

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

Frog Pond, Nature Learning and Play Space

 

The Dingle’s New Tall Tower

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

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

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

Climber/balance beam – The Dingle Park Playground

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

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

 

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

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

 

Fort Needham Memorial Park

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

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

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

Down the Steps – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

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

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

Into the Blue – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

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

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

Quiet Moment – Fort Needham Memorial Park Playground

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

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

St. James Park Where Kids Play with their Food

Our trek starts at the Corso Italiano on St. Clair West. By foot, streetcar and subway we hop, skip and jump cross-town to St. James Park. It’s downtown Toronto just a few blocks east of Yonge Street and a nudge north of St. Lawrence Market and the Gardiner Expressway’s endless dump of traffic into the city’s core.

It’s hot – the still, heavy air is withering but it doesn’t dampen our anticipation. Behind orange barricades, my daughter Nellie-Rose and I eyeball the new playscape still under construction.

Alex Waffle from Earthscape brings us in behind the fencing. After donning our hardhats, we waste no time. Nellie dives right into play-test mode.  I try and keep up with her while shooting a few frames. A massive, empty cake cone plonked on its side invites discovery. In front of it, melting mounds of oozing chocolate, pistachio and vanilla ice cream.

Nellie-Rose sproings from pistachio to chocolate at St. James Park, Toronto

All food related elements are mega-mega. Asparagus stalks like towering totems with tips that look ready to munch serve as supports for staggered balance beams on varying inclines. The scale of it all. How many adventurous sprites will try and shinny to the top?

Alex Waffle, landscape architect and our Most Valuable Tour Guide

Stretch carrots form a tip to tip ‘V’ hugging the ground ready to be scampered across, emphasizing that vitamin A’s veggie queen can help keep kids sharp and healthy in more ways than one.

Carrots, good for the eyes and for getting some great air

It’s produce from the tables of giants, the kind that Jack would bring back down from his Beanstalk adventures, or that Sophie’s Big Friendly Giant might add to a pot of stew.

Stacked crates with stenciled markings dwarf us of mere human size. The crates anchor a slide and a rope bridge. On this visit, prior to the public opening, access is blocked but there is the promise of fresh berries.

On this day, still a little prep work to do on the crates and slide

At the rope bridge’s other terminus is a shelter proclaiming ‘FISH’ sporting a double side-by-side slide. Fish are attached to the shelter’s vertical columns serving as decoration and a climbing aid. Beveled tails allow for little fingers to get in behind, grab on tight and pull up.

Bevel-tailed fish provide little hands a purchase to help them climb

Just beyond the fish monger, weathered pilings evoke the old piers and docklands where some of the St. Lawrence Market goods arrived by lake in earlier times. Ladies and gentlemen, another play zone where Nellie is only too happy to let loose.

Round and round….

Doffing her cool yet constraining construction helmet, Nellie limbers up with 360° rolls on the bar – round and round, over and under, one big shock of hair nearly sweeping the ground. I’m starting to get dizzy watching her. Her upper body strength and sense of balance developed at circus school give her confidence making it all look easy.

…almost touching ground

The bars and the ice cream bounce are at the top of Nellie’s list of highlights but we aren’t able to give everything a whirl as the playscape is not yet at 100% completion. There, in the near distance still not quite ready to zip is something we’d both like to put through its paces.

Spin, spin, spinny

The roundabout brings a smile. In our Nova Scotia home – and many other parts of North America – the once common roundabout , or merry-go-round – is on the endangered list. Most of them have been hauled out of their native playground habitat as a misguided safety measure. We’ll be back to ride this eight station g-force popper on a subsequent TO visit. I can almost feel the sweet dizziness of it now.

Hats off to the municipality for giving the green light to this virtuous circle of spin and to Earthscape for a deft design touch. Kids, hold on and get acquainted with the wheel of fun.

Heading to the main gate, we thank Alex Waffle for a great behind the scenes visit. Kids, when you want to play with your food, get your folks to bring you on down to St. James Park. We say goodbye to this foodalicious play spot knowing we’ll be back on our next visit with the grandkids in tow.

Thanks to Nellie-Rose my inveterate player-tester for all these years in playgrounds, campsites and backyards throughout eastern Canada. For our daredevil girl it’s a two thumbs up day even if the construction helmet sometimes seems to have a life of its own.

No kid size construction helmets…

Nellie and I both need to grab a bite. Alex’s last name inspires us as we search out a brunch spot. Le Petit Déjeuner on King St. East – a quarter million eggs since 2002 – calls out to us. Nellie goes for Belgian waffles with a  swirly tower pf whipped cream – mmmmmmm…. or as they say in Québec miam, miam.

Before we head back uptown, we hit the market – literally a three minute walk away through the fragrant gardens in St James Park. Bounty, everywhere.

Fruit stalls St Lawrence Market

Outside the South Building, Nellie spies a stall with silver jewelry. Everything is made from recycled silver extracted from various sources. She chooses a a fine chain and a small medallion, a gift for maman. Thanks Mélanie – you made it possible for the two of us to adventure this day.

St. James Park Playscape – design and build by Earthscape with PMA Landscape Architects as project landscape architects.

Thanks Earthscape Alex what a great host and a huge shout out to the Earthscape family who know a thing or two about creating award-winning public play spaces for kids.

#playrocks  #playeveryday  #playmatters #playeverywhere

Zip zip hooray

Skimming inches above the ground attached to a pulley hurtling down the line is an adrenalin charged zip, zip hooray moment. A steady stream of kids cycles through to the top of one of the twin ‘towers’ preparing to be airborne. Two zip lines, four feet apart are an invitation for back and forth races covering a distance of 100 feet.

Hands tightly grip batons as the zippers run down the 20º take-off slope before they launch — dangle — zip, or launch — drag — sputter in the sand.

This is a legs up course as there isn’t much clearance to glide over the ground surface. Either the lower legs are bent and thrust behind the zipper, or the legs are held in front of the body – both are a real workout for the abs. Of course where there are kids, there are variations….

Like the feet first ‘slice’ cutting through the air…

The ‘hopper’ reminiscent of a frog getting ready to spring off a lily pad.

Or as we can see below the closed-eyes wishing (left) and the eyes open, dust kicking dishing (right),

And the ‘going for the gusto’ parallel power start.

This zip line is located in New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park a two minute drive from the main visitor centre at the Alma entrance. There is a large grassy area, picnic benches and a variety of play structures. Our kids frittered around the other pieces but it was really the zipper that held the day.

Truth be told the kids haven’t encountered a functioning zip line they didn’t love. It’s the derringer-do, the exhilaration of defying gravity and yes, where there are double lines, the fun and thrill of racing…..

For Nova Scotia readers, there are a couple of new zip lines that have been installed recently in Kentville’s Oakdene Park

Zip you later…

on the waterfront – kids just wanna have fun

where sea meets city is not always a pretty sight – docklands, railyards, industry and in the worst cases some nasty effluents too. it’s cause for celebration when local governments get it right and reclaim urban seafronts for the public with a mash-up of recreational, residential and business opportunities.

residents and visitors to halifax have plenty to enjoy on a 1.5 kilometre boardwalk skirting the downtown core and the shoreline of the world’s largest, ice-free natural harbour. the space is a magnet for special events ranging from tall ships and beach volleyball tourneys to buskers and the night time art extravaganza, nocturne.

it’s also a place where fun and play abound as the kids showed us this weekend. the last thing we expected to come across was a bubble machine. but there it was manufacturing magical bursts of shimmery shapes (click for larger images).

 

 

all hail the bubble maker

 

 

closing in

 

 

bubbalacious

 

 

bubble poppin’ finale

 

 

for kids, the grown-up rest stops are quickly transformed into swing buzzes and obstacle courses…

 

hanging high

 

 

p is for pivot

 

 

stretching and hiding

 

 

then there is art as affordance, an irresistible invitation to skitter up to the crest of the wave sculpture and then slide down to the base…

 

cresting the wave

 

 

a hop, skip and a jump from the wave is halifax’s own orange sub complete with conning tower, escape slide, a jules verne see through nose and springrider whales flanking its seaward side.

 

we all play in an orange submarine

 

 

the sub is no longer quite as shiny as it appears in this photo from a few years ago but it continues to be a waterfront favourite with the kids. thanks to develop nova scotia as well as the municipal, provincial and federal governments for working together to make the land meets sea zone a kid friendly place with playable spaces.

what’s happening on your waterfront?

 

Kids and Freedom – Tim Gill’s HuffPost 9 Plus 3 from PlayGroundology

Great list from Tim Gill on giving kids more freedom in a recent edition of UK Huff Post. Each of the 9 items listed in the article will help kids blaze a trail to greater freedom. Together they are a powerful recipe for fun, discovery and stretching limits.

I’m supplementing Tim’s list with 3 additions of my own (10 through 12) to make it an even dozen. Send PlayGroundology a comment if you have items to add to the list.

10. Create opportunities for your kids to explore and play in the natural world. If you have green spaces close to where you live, set the children free to explore. If not, take them to a park, a ravine, to the woods, the seashore – many opportunities for play will present themselves and the benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Do caution about potential hazards.

Because They Want to Live in Nature

11. Make your home a play zone. I’m not talking anything grandiose here, no large infusions of cash for play installations or play houses and such. Get a few loose parts – milk crates, tires, inner tubes, tarps, ropes, cardboard boxes, a few planks of lumber and let the kids have at it in the backyard. There are hours of self-directed play and discovery with this kind of material and your yard will become a very popular destination. No backyard? Get a small group of parents together and explore what’s possible on lands managed by your local authority.

In Kids We Trust

12. Listen. Listen to your kids about what they would like to do. They have great play ideas. Make the space and time to embrace some of them and enable them to happen. Listen to yourself, remember the play adventures you had as a child – savour, share with your own kids…

Fort Summer

Support play, independence and resilience – get the kids outdoors to explore and have fun.

 

Open House – Pop-Up Neighbourhood

This is a big shout out to the Pop-Up Adventure Play crew – Zan, Morgan and Andy. One year ago, they touched down in Halifax to kick off a very successful cross-Canada summer tour.

Click here, or on image for photo story.

Kids and adults alike had a great time creating and destroying over the course of nearly three hours on a sun washed summer afternoon. Check out some highlights in the photo story by clicking through above.

If you are intrigued by pop-up play and loose parts, then maybe Pop-Up Adventure Play’s next Campference in Houston, Texas is for you – details here.

Survey says – CityLab is looking for our help

Ok, actually CityLab is looking for a few minutes of your time, your opinions and insights. Thanks to Canada’s Mariana Brussoni for sharing news about this CityLab survey yesterday. The good people at CityLab are part of the Atlantic Media family. In short, their mission is to “focus on five areas of urban coverage—design, transportation, environment, equity, and life—as well as a new Solutions hub to collect the best ideas and stories for an urbanizing world.”

From Jessica Leigh Hester’s CityLab article – Science to Parents – Let Your Kids Run a Little Wild. Photo credit – Andrea Slatter/Shutterstock.com

The survey is a component of Room to Grow, a new series on raising small children in cities around the globe. In the survey’s intro (full text below), CityLab editor, Molly McCluskey, extends an invitation to parents to get involved: “If you’re a parent with opinions about how your region supports young kids and their caregivers, help inform our reporting by taking a few moments to complete the survey.”

Click through here or on the image above to go to the online survey

I completed the survey last night in just over 15 minutes. This is a great outreach and research tool that CityLab is developing. It’s a strategy that could benefit other publications looking for a broad range of input. Kudos to Atlantic Media for adopting this approach.

Here are a few sample questions that will whet your appetite.

Do you feel safe letting your child play outside in your city?
Yes
No
Other:

 

What has your city done to shape your feelings on this issue?

 

What are some of the biggest challenges in raising young children in your town/city?

 

How and where do you find community and support as a parent in your city?

 

Don’t delay, click here and complete your survey today. By doing so, you will help provide a foundation for more informed and relevant reporting on kids in the urban world from the good folks at CityLab.

Reporting like this –

From Mimi Kirk’s CityLab article Can We Bring Back Riskier Playgrounds? Photo credit – Lady Allen of Hurtwood Archives, Coventry, U.K.

Take a few minutes and share your thoughts. We will all benefit from more insightful stories that put children first.