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Chelsea Waterside Play Area in New York City.Handout

The two brothers climbed a rope ladder onto the ship. For a few minutes, they were happy on this playground: A game of tag started up, and there was chasing and laughter. But soon things slowed down. The older boy looked bored. He climbed to the highest point on the ship, hauled himself up onto the keel - where nobody was meant to play - looked out to the air beyond, and jumped.

The brothers were my sons, the scene was my local park, but anywhere in North America the theme would be the same: Most playgrounds are not designed to be very much fun. Over the past 30 years, public and school playgrounds have been replaced with places that are safe, lawyer-approved and dull. They aren’t places that will facilitate creative thinking or independent play.

At the same time, screens are taking over children’s lives and educators talk about “nature-deficit disorder.” As the journalist Richard Louv put it, “just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep," they also need contact with nature.

Landscape architects, play specialists and parks departments have two solutions in play. One is the invention of better playgrounds that stimulate creative play; the other, the concept of less structured “nature play.” The latter will occupy a large portion of a new park now being designed on Toronto’s waterfront, which could set an important example for public space for children and adults.

What does it take to make a good playground? For one prominent firm in the field, Danish playground designers Monstrum, it requires narrative and a sense of danger.

First, storytelling. Their projects include brightly coloured sculptural elements, such as a giant whale or worm, “that can serve as an icon of the park: ‘Let’s meet at the giant herons!’ ” explains creative director Ole Barslund Nielsen explains.

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What happens when Toronto takes the ‘play’ out of playground

River North.Grace Pelletier/Handout

Trained as an artist, Barslund Nielsen and his partner Christian Jensen want their work “also to stimulate the imagination of children,” Barslund Nielsen says. “They can easily turn a ship into a spaceship.”

The pair founded their firm 15 years ago in response to what they saw happening on Danish playgrounds. Many were being demolished and replaced, Barslund Nielsen says. In these new playgrounds, “the focus was safety,” he adds, “and that turned out to be boring.”

This parallels what was happening in Canada and even more so in the litigious United States - the latest step in a century-long progression of ideas about play.

In the crowded cities of the early 20th century, playgrounds became a tool in childhood development and of keeping children out of trouble. The standard toolkit was the “four S’s” of sandbox, slide, swing, seesaw. But after 1945, as design critic Alexandra Lange recounts in her history The Design of Childhood, “a focus on controlling and improving the lives of children, and rebuilding cities, led to an explosion of new forms of outdoor play.”

One of these was the “junk playground.” This idea was pioneered by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson in the 1940s, an acre of loosely organized space where children could build their own world with wood, bricks and tools.

Playgrounds can alienate children with disabilities. Now, they’re being built with accessibility in mind

The child advocate Marjory Gill Allen brought the idea to Britain in 1945 with a long article in the glossy magazine Picture Post. A typical playground “is a place of utter boredom,” she said. “It is little wonder that they prefer the dumps of rough wood, and piles of bricks and rubbish of the bombed sites.” This unlikely insight took hold in post-Blitz London, and in Western and Northern Europe.

And in Canada: In the 1970s, the nascent Harbourfront project on Toronto’s waterfront had its own adventure playground, which lasted about a decade.

Like others, it fell victim to a culture of caution and litigation. In 1978, a Chicago toddler suffered severe head injuries on a city playground; years later, his family won more than US$9-million in damages. By the early 1980s, cities and schools - and their insurance companies - were moving away from play structures that were high or had moving parts. They bought play structures as components from catalogues, all vetted by engineers to avoid injury at all costs. It took 20 years for that culture of safety to reach its peak.

And there have been costs. Play is an essential part of children’s psychological development and so is risk. Learning to assess risk and to get back up when we fall is part of growing up. “Kids have to take chances, to constantly experience risks, if they are going to adapt to the world around them,” scholar Susan G. Solomon wrote in her book The Science of Play.

Adapting to the world around us also means simply being in natural settings. Another movement, known as “nature play,” encourages this - what used to be known as playing outside. “We’re talking about outdoor, self-directed play in contact with nature,” says Cam Collyer, executive lead at the environmental charity Evergreen. “There have been a number of influences pushing against that: more working parents, an idea about childhood as a competition,” and the rise of screen time.

Gathering Place in Tulsa, Okla.Elizabeth Felicella

Evergreen has been working to address all this; it works with schools on “schoolyard-greening” projects and has advocated for unstructured play in parks as well. At Evergreen Brickworks, the public site that they manage in Toronto, kids get to muck around with water and sand, and shift around big logs and hunks of lumber to build their own structures. There are adults on hand, but the play is loose and intense.

It’s a rarity. “So much of the pendulum has swung toward indoor play and programmed play, that outdoor play is less familiar for kids. And for parents, there can be a lot of anxiety about letting their kids play independently.”

Similar insights are shaping two parks within the Lower Don Lands Flood Protection project, a $1.2-billion effort that will remake part of Toronto’s port lands, a few kilometres from the centre of the city’s downtown. (Evergreen is not currently involved.) The public agency Waterfront Toronto is now planning two major parks with significant play components: Promontory Park, which will have a large playground, and River Valley Park North, which will include a large natural play area.

At Promontory Park, overlooking the city’s skyline, the agency is looking to build a “destination playground,” says Pina Mallozzi, vice-president of design for Waterfront Toronto. While the details are not yet designed, she compares it to the large playground at Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park, which includes a suspension bridge, an ocean-themed water play area and an “Enchanted Forest.” (The Toronto agency will be hiring a play specialist to work on this project.)

The two herons Gathering Place were designed by Monstrum.Elizabeth Felicella

Both the Chicago and Toronto parks are designed by the prominent landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). The firm recently completed another major park that has similar ambitions: Gathering Place in Tulsa, Okla., which features two great herons by Monstrum.

“In previous playgrounds we’ve designed, there is always some kind of natural theme,” says Scott Streeb, a senior associate at MVVA.

At River Valley Park North, the designers are taking advantage of the context: a massive project that will restore the Don River with wide expanses of marsh and swamp. “It’s unprecedented to reshape a river mouth and provide access to real nature in the heart of the city,” says Streeb. “In this park in Toronto, we’re going to make that the centre of the play experience.”

That could mean a set of islands in the river, linked by bridges, which connect to inland play areas mixed with pathways and groves of trees. All this would sit alongside protected water channels where you can borrow a canoe or kayak, and say hello up close to turtles, kingfishers and actual live herons.

The River Valley Park will be unusual in this respect and in its scale. But the essential ideas are widely transferable: that play should involve some degree of autonomy for children, that the presence of flora and fauna is important and that the experience should be good for everyone. “We are very interested in creating areas that are not age-segregated,” Streeb says. “Everyone should be able to have fun. Even adults.”

Which makes me think of my older son’s experience, being thwarted by a ship meant for smaller kids. What would engage him? A river to canoe on, a copse of trees to hide in, or maybe a giant bird to catch, befriend, or ride through the sky.

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