On a summer afternoon, Andrew Moore was visiting a playground with his children when he heard a subtle but noticeable sound. It was musical without a melody, random, but not chaotic.
It turned out to be the children playing the glockenspiels and drums in the music garden at Sharon, Lois and Bram playground at Mount Pleasant Road and Davisville Avenue in midtown Toronto.
That is one of the many parks Mr. Moore, a middle-school teacher in the city, visited on his mission to take his children to as many playgrounds across Toronto as he can. He launched a blog, where he has been rating and reviewing playgrounds since January.
Mr. Moore had brought his family to the midtown park for a final getaway before school started last year. His son, Simon, who is now four years old, made straight for the climbers. His daughter, Juliet, now almost 2, was just learning to walk and spent the afternoon in the splash pad.
“We ordered a pizza to the park and just had a really lovely afternoon there,” he said.
Mr. Moore has been bringing his family to parks since Simon was just a few months old, laying him on a blanket and letting him stare into the sky. Mr. Moore put up a map of Toronto in Simon’s room and every time they visited a new playground, he would mark it with a sticker. As the map began to fill up, Mr. Moore wondered how he could make it grow and potentially share it with other parents, eventually launching his blog called Danforth Dad.
“Playgrounds are a child’s first experience of public space,” said Mr. Moore. "It’s really important for that experience to be a positive one.”
Over the course of his visits, Mr. Moore noticed that some playgrounds needed upgrading and, generally, the playgrounds in wealthier neighbourhoods tended to be in better condition.
For instance, while visiting Rosedale Park, near Mount Pleasant Road and Roxborough Drive, he noticed that among the slides and swings in the sandy playground were plaques engraved with names of families that had made contributions to rebuilding the play space.
“These are supposed to be city-run parks,” he said, adding some parks he has visited in other parts of the city are in disrepair. “Like the public-school system, things are equal but not equal.”
There are 880 playgrounds across Toronto that are managed by the city. Through the State Of Good Repair (SOGR) program, about 22 playgrounds can be replaced or renovated each year through annual funding of $3.3-million. The city selects playgrounds for updating based on their condition, though, “staff are working on an improved methodology for prioritization,” wrote Jane Arbour, spokeswoman for Parks, Forestry and Recreation in an e-mail.
Ms. Arbour added that, besides the SOGR program, about 10 new playgrounds are built, renovated or improved through funding from development fees or private donations each year.
In some parts of the city, playgrounds are hard to come by at all.
North of Flemingdon Park in North York is a neighbourhood where residents have been pushing for a playground for years. Just east of the Don Valley Parkway near Eglinton Avenue East, the Wynford Concorde area is surrounded by rental buildings and condo towers inhabited by many young families and seniors. There is little publicly owned green space, besides the East Don Trail, and there aren’t many schools with schoolyards in the area, either.
“The community has wanted more parks and more playgrounds, but the real challenge is there’s no available land,” said Toronto Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong in an interview.
Instead, parents push strollers along a flat portion of the pathway leading down to the trail to spend time outdoors. Children scrawl hopscotch designs in the pavement with chalk. The city recently replaced the benches there and added some equipment for exercise.
While residents have been working with the city for years to bring a playground to the area, they may soon see one built in their midst as the city reached an agreement to build a playground on private land. Despite some delays, the city anticipates the playground could be ready as early as October.
But outdoor play spaces don’t have to take a big chunk of funding or land – sometimes it just involves thinking outside the sandbox.
“Sometimes, the best playground doesn’t look like a playground,” said Philip Winn, a vice-president at Project for Public Spaces, an organization based in New York. The non-profit helps create public spaces that bring people together.
For Mr. Winn, the best playgrounds can be enjoyed even by adults.
At Burnside Park in Providence, R.I., besides the playground, there are food trucks and movable seating, so families can lunch and lounge while their children play.
Another example is Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto at Dufferin and College streets, which offers community events, such as farmers markets, and features a wood-burning oven where visitors can make their own pizzas and watch them bake.
Montreal this spring saw an installation called 21 Swings, where children and adults could set off a different musical note on each swing, to create a melody when combined with the other swings.
“These places are most successful, and they’re of greatest value when they can be a piece of public space that’s actually for everyone,” Mr. Winn said.
Mr. Moore, who has now visited more than 100 playgrounds in Toronto, thinks playgrounds should be a priority for the city.
“If you put a great playground inside of a park that has things for adults to do and seniors to do and adolescents to do, then the city really is coming together in the best way and it makes it a true community centre,” he said.
“For the city, parks and playgrounds are one of the best investments you could make.”
For parents seeking suitable recreation, these bloggers provide digital guides to playgrounds in selected cities across Canada:
Owned by former CBC journalist Jenna Morton, this blog is named after her daughter’s nickname, “Pickle.”
“Pickle Planet is all about helping our little pickles grow,” Ms. Morton writes on her website.
She created the blog to help families such as hers stay on top of what was happening in the community. The site features photos and information about parks and playgrounds, a weekly roundup of local events, recipes and even a parenting podcast.
Launched in 2014, this Montreal-based blog features playground reviews including photos and practical information about parking, hours and shade. Christine Latreille has featured more than 800 playgrounds in different cities and towns and organized them with tags for special features, such as “outdoor gym” and “bicycle paths.” The site also includes videos of splash pads and sledding hills in the area.
Dana Wheatley started her blog nine years ago, after moving to Calgary and having trouble finding playgrounds for her son. Now a mother of three, she reviews everything from playgrounds to indoor play spaces, and includes the perspectives of her children in her posts. Reviews also contain the appropriate age range for the playground and accessibility information. Her website features an interactive map of playgrounds, parks and other attractions in Calgary.