Adam Bienenstock spends much of his day playing outside with his two children. But don't get the wrong idea. He is actually working.
As the founder of Gardens For Living, the 43-year-old's goal is to bring children and nature together through the installation of natural playgrounds in urban and suburban Toronto. But he also wants to make a living. "We're creating social and community benefit by helping children and the environment, but with a venture that has to pay the mortgage," he says.
Mr. Bienenstock, who has worked as a landscaper for 20 years, launched Gardens For Living in 2004 with the hopes of saturating the city with natural playgrounds, outdoor play spaces that utilize elements found in nature.
Forget plastic and iron. Natural playgrounds are constructed with fallen logs, trees and shrubs and are built into the ground itself. (A slide built into the slope of a hill, for example.) Bugs are intentionally introduced and musical instruments and art are incorporated into the landscape.
"Whereas traditional playgrounds might use 13 per cent of the actual space in the playground, we use closer to 95 [per cent]" says Mr. Bienenstock, who has 10 year-round employees and 15 seasonal workers.
When Mr. Bienenstock launched Gardens for Living, he quickly realized he could not sustain the company with just the greening of playgrounds. "So we worked in the residential landscape industry and took a portion of our profits to go work on school grounds," he explains.
Unwilling to let go of his initial mandate, Mr. Bienenstock managed to slowly increase the amount of playground work his company was doing, and eventually charge for it.
Today, Gardens For Living works exclusively on natural playgrounds. Last year, that involved 60 projects, including consulting, installation and design projects, but the company is also involved in policy work and education initiatives.
Although he has enough work to keep the business afloat, Mr. Bienenstock says he's not realizing the full potential of the market - or his profit potential - because he feels would-be clients (and the general public) aren't aware of the benefits of natural playgrounds. He has made good progress with daycare centres, which strongly focus on child development, and is now keen to tackle school boards.
What the experts say
The place to start, says Tony DiGiovanni, executive director of Landscape Ontario, a provincial horticultural trades association, is with educating the public on the benefits of natural playgrounds.
To do that, Mr. Bienenstock should consider aligning himself with specialized associations that work in the fields of child development and safety, and the environment.
"Large organizations have the capacity to leverage the synergy of the community," he says.
Rick Blickstead, chief executive officer of the Wellesley Institute in Toronto, a research organization that focuses on social innovation and policy development, agrees. He points to Ryerson's School of Early Childhood Education and the Family Support Institute of Ontario.
"He should really look for a partnership and a seal of approval from such an organization," Mr. Blickstead says. Not only can they take the lead on educational efforts using their resources, as Mr. DiGiovanni suggests, but Mr. Bienenstock would then have access to the organization's existing research, and potentially be able to work with them on future research in his field.
It's also important for Mr. Bienenstock to target his potential clients - park systems, daycares and school boards - directly through their respective associations, Mr. DiGiovanni says.
But forging relationships with school boards isn't so straightforward. Canadian Standards Association regulations impose some uniformity among playgrounds, but beyond that, each school board has its own systems for procuring and maintaining playgrounds.
David Percival, manager of design, standards, compliance and environment at the Toronto District School Board, says about 25 per cent of schools in the district have playgrounds with natural elements, so the potential for greening is big. But the board already works exclusively with a group of landscapers to design and install playgrounds and wouldn't simply accept a proposal from a new landscaper like Mr. Bienenstock.
"The relationships that we have with these firms at the present time have evolved and grown over a number of years," he says.
"He would have to understand our maintenance standards and show he knows why and how we do things," says Mr. Percival, pointing to standards around issues such as drainage and tree protection, which aren't covered under the CSA regulations.
Forging relationships with school boards will take time and persistence. With that in mind, Mr. Blickstead suggests Mr. Bienenstock consider other options.
"He should expand his market," he says. "There are lots of corporations building playgrounds on site. For example, we just built a public park on an old hospital site [in Toronto] and there's no reason there couldn't have been a natural playground there."
Mr. Blickstead's last suggestion hinges on Mr. Bienenstock's strong belief that natural playgrounds stimulate children in ways that traditional playgrounds don't.
"In retail, you don't just sell a barbeque, you sell a party, you sell time with families," says Mr. Blickstead, who formerly led the retail division of Rona.
"What he's got to do is sell the fact that when you build a natural playground, there's research that says it's actually better for child development. And he must leverage that."
In a nutshell
Partner with established organizations in the fields of child development and the environment.
Leveraging the clout, breadth and expertise of industry leaders will take Gardens for Living to new heights.
Forge relationships with school boards.
This isn't a market he can break into overnight, but the place to start is in getting to know the board and demonstrating an understanding of its needs.
Expand his market.
Corporations are increasingly making use of outdoor space and shouldn't be overlooked.
Sell the entire concept.
Instead of focusing only on selling natural playgrounds, he should emphasize the effect of natural playgrounds: improved child development.