Spinning yourself dizzy on a tire swing, feeling the burn of sun-hot metal on your way down a slide, or falling off the top of the monkey bars – thinking about your childhood playground probably conjures up the taste of nostalgia. And blood.
When the Canadian Standards Association introduced national requirements 20 years ago, playgrounds changed: Seesaws needed shock absorbers, metal was often swapped for plastic, and platforms required barriers and guardrails. And playgrounds in Toronto became the site of a tug of war between safety and fun.
Now, in parks from Leslieville to Seaton Village, the latest playgrounds are swinging a new vision that combines CSA standards with more chances for free-spirited play.
“I think there's a movement to put challenge back into play spaces,” says Scott Belair, owner and founder of Reliable Reporting, a Toronto-based playground inspection company.
“And there's a challenge for the standards to keep up with that demand because I think people have had enough of what I call the ‘rat-in-a-maze phenomenon' – where kids are barriered from creativity.”
Parents and community groups haven't completely shirked safety, but they're asking for features that inspire the imagination – where equipment doesn't dictate how kids should play.
In Seaton Village, the first phase of the Vermont Square Renewal Project is slated to begin this summer with the construction of a new playground. The Seaton Village Residents' Association organized a playground committee to make sure they were involved in the plans for the new play space; residents were worried they'd be saddled with a plastic playground that didn't mesh with how the kids liked to play.
Lisa Rapoport of PLANT Architect Inc. is working on the redesign of Vermont Square. She describes the community's attachment to the play space, which residents estimate was built in the 1980s.
“There's a sense that people really liked the playground the way it is, except that everything in it is kind of falling apart,” she says.
The city has allocated $500,000 for the park renewal project. (Parks projects are funded by park levies from new developments in the city, negotiations with developers who are willing to provide resources for park revitalization and the city’s capital budget.)
Playground committee chairs Erin Mitchell and Beatrice van Dijk say that the design process was a compromise between the CSA's safety standards and the playground's best-loved features.
“In discussions around the park, the new standards for safety were low down on the list. It mainly came down to, ‘Please could we not lose our sand because of the safety standards and please could we not lose our fence,'” says Ms. van Dijk. “There was a lot of worry that safety standards were a top-down imposition that didn't reflect the way we live.”
On summer mornings, the park is packed with kids clambering across the jungle gym, but most of the younger children are happy grubbing in the sand.
Many new playgrounds are replacing sand with products such as poured-in-place rubber tiles or engineered wood fibre. While sand is still allowed by CSA Standards, engineered wood fibre is considered one of the best surfacing options for head impacts and has the advantage of meeting new accessibility requirements. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act aims to make Ontario – including public spaces – fully accessible by 2025.
To balance out the need for accessibility and the kids' love of sand, the Vermont Square architects found a compromise: The sand would stay but the playground and surrounding park would have an accessible path running through it.
Other playgrounds have introduced similar features. Rexdale's Smithfield Park, upgraded last September, now has wood-fibre surfacing to meet accessibility needs. And earlier this month, the Sarah and Morris Feldman Sensory Garden and Accessible Water Playground in Earl Bales Park opened. The park has drums, animal sculptures, water jets and a wheelchair-accessible water trough.
In September, 2009, the city's first “natural playground” opened in McCleary Park in Leslieville; it's stocked with climbing boulders, a hill slide and logs from a fallen elm tree.
Mr. Belair explains the trend behind building less conventional playgrounds.
“You're probably familiar with the book Lord of the Flies? The biggest kid runs the show.
“And that's the theory on the traditional playground versus the more natural playground. Someone that's more physically developed, they sort of run the traditional playground. Whereas on the natural playground, the theory is that kids tend to play more co-operatively and it encourages more kids to get involved.”
The new Vermont Square playground will also have a natural play area.
“There's going to be fallen logs and tree stumps. It's less dictated on how you should play and left more to the imagination,” says Ms. Mitchell. Overall, she thinks the playground “will be more organic – it won't be just a disparate group of things plunked together in a park. It'll be more planned.”
The kids will keep their wading pool and seesaws. A new climber will be built, as well as a playhouse for the pre-schoolers. The concrete service area outside of the adjacent St. Alban's Boys and Girls Club and the Bill Bolton Hockey Arena will be re-purposed for older kids to play hopscotch or basketball..
Ms. van Dijk says the playground's popularity with young neighbourhood families is what she likes about the space.
“Everyone wanted to keep that community feeling of many eyes watching your children – many friendly faces. And that's what I feel makes this park feel safe.”
Special to The Globe and Mail