Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Toronto's Adventure Playground

Here is an article I recently wrote on adventure playgrounds, specifically an adventure playground I vaguelly remeber from when I was a kid. it should soon be up online at www.celos.ca but you can read it here now:



What most people remember about Toronto’s Adventure Playground is that it was a place where kids were given hammers, nails, saws and wood and were let loose to build structures to match their wildest imaginations. That is certainly part of what it was, but is hardly adequately in explaining the playground that once sat at the foot of Bathurst Street, or the philosophies behind it. 

Protruding from behind a brightly painted fence were waving flags made from fabric scraps, and the very tops of homemade towers and forts. This multi-coloured fence zigzagged around a “junk” playground. Inside the fence the most visible things were the forts, a whole sub-division of forts, six to ten of them, all built by the kids. They resembled tree-houses without the tree.  Some were several units high.  They were painted a variety of colors and adorned with curtains, flags, ropes and pulleys.  

However, making buildings out of scrap wood was not the only thing going on behind the fence. The organizers strived to incorporate water, wind, earth and fire into the play.   

Water flowed from a tap connected to the municipal water supply. Streams were dug through the land. Bridges and dams were built to span these streams. What ensued was a mixture of wet, dry and muddy play. One supporter of Toronto’s adventure playground, Pat MacKay, recalls that some kids spent a whole summer digging a stream that would be deep enough to fit the rowboat that was donated to them.   

One section of the playground had gardens where kids learned to plant and grow vegetables. In another area was a fire pit where storytelling took place and kids would learn to work with fire. Some European adventure playgrounds involved farm animals such as goats, where kids would be responsible for making sure the animals were fed and taken care of. However, beyond introducing fish into the streams, animals were never part of the adventure playground in Toronto – no one could figure out solutions to the multitude of logistical problems that would have accompanied animals.   

The philosophies behind adventure playgrounds is that play does not have to be trivial or frivolous. Kids can be shown how to use tools like saws and hammers, grow gardens, take care of animals, be safe around fire, and any number of other skills. Children are capable of putting hard work and passion into projects over weeks and months. They can take on real responsibilities, accept instructions, and collaborate with others. 

When we think of playgrounds what usually comes to mind are swings, climbers and slides, but these all lack the dynamic nature that can really let imagination and play flourish. Sand boxes and bales of hay give kids the ability to manipulate the world around them.  Toronto’s Adventure Playground, and adventure playgrounds around the world, embraced the idea of creating dynamic environments for play. 

Toronto’s Adventure Playground was inspired by a broader adventure playground movement.  While adventure playgrounds sometimes emerge spontaneously this movement claims its origins stem from the Danish landscape architect and playground designer, C. Th. Sørensen. In the 1930’s he realized that children enjoyed playing on the playgrounds he created far more when they were under construction, than after they were finished. He realized that many urban kids are not exposed to the sorts of play that rural kids often take for granted.   

Sørensen envisioned "A junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality." In 1943 he helped opened a “junk playground” in Denmark. In a few years the concept spread to England and before long a whole adventure playground movement was growing in Europe and North America.            

When Harbourfront was opening in 1974, Bill Rock a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, interested in adventure playgrounds, was able to create enough interest to allow for a one year trial of an adventure playground to be operated on a derelict piece of land at the foot of Bathurst St. (in what is today’s Little Norway Park).  

At the end of the year one of his students, Michael Moffat, took on responsibility for keeping the adventure playground going. He was a go-getter, able to negotiate with bureaucracy, raise funds, and start a non-profit organization called Adventure Education Concept, which would have both a board of directors and staff, to help keep the playground running.  

There were two main groups of people who used the Adventure Playground, “regulars”, and “school groups”. Bureaucrats at the school board and teachers really got the idea, and this was an era where they were able to help in the ongoing quest to find enough money to keep the playground alive and running. 

A lot of the money that the Board of Directors raised was needed to hire a staff of playleaders. They were the adult supervisors that helped facilitate the play. They would show how to use tools safely. They were charged with being aware of what was going on in all corners of these ever-changing playgrounds, making sure everything was safe, and maintaining the rules. 

One of the roles that play leaders took on was mediating the disputes that arose between rival forts. Inevitably problems would arise over who could enter and modify the coveted real-estate. This aspect of adventure playgrounds can bring out a mean spirit that is paralleled in the adult world. Forts were sometimes adorned with signs that read “private keep out” or “no girls allowed”.  Playleaders were charged with solving these problems as best they could. 

Throughout its existence, there were many troubles that the Adventure Playground had to face. In the early 1980’s housing developments and the creation of Little Norway Park, forced the playground to move from the foot of Bathurst Street to a lot adjacent to the Fort York Armoury. The playground had to rebuild. It was relegated to a paved parking lot and aspects like digging, gardens, fire and water became impractical.     

One night a child broke into the playground while it was closed and hurt himself while he was inside. His parents got a lawyer involved to resolve the situation. A former board member of Adventure Education Concept, Jerry Englar, recalls that the injury was not very serious in nature, but feels that it was a situation where the parents were motivated by their dislike of the whole concept of the playground.  

Jerry Englar feels that none of these problems on their own were what eventually forced the adventure playground to close in the mid to late 1980’s. He believes it was because of the tremendous amount of work that it took just to keep the operation running. A volunteer board and an underpaid, overworked staff took on a slew of tasks including: running the playground when it was open; gathering and transporting the scrap wood, fabric and other materials used at the playground; acquiring the finances needed to keep the playground running; and dealing with the paperwork and bureaucratic side of the operation.   

The heyday of adventure playgrounds is over. In North America, there are now only two in operation, both in California. In Europe there are more adventure playgrounds, but the number has also declined over the last couple decades.  

As the number of Adventure Playgrounds has been reduced, the term “adventure playground” has been appropriated to apply to far more conventional playgrounds. The Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in High Park consists of an enormous wooden castle. While it is more exciting than ordinary playgrounds, it is certainly a long way from the sort of dynamic playgrounds that the name once denoted. Even more absurd is when the most conventional of playgrounds assume the name Adventure Playground, for example this is how the daycare at Metro Hall refers to its playground. That said, the adventure playground at Dufferin Grove Park is truly in the tradition of what the name once denoted. A giant sand box surrounded by enormous logs has a tap in the middle of it, and kids are provided with sturdy shovels to dig pools, rivers and streams, and with sticks and planks to build bridges and dams.  

In the 1970’s the idea of forming an adventure playground in Toronto was an ambitious project, but it seemed realistic and even exciting to kids, parents, teachers, funders, and even bureaucrats. No regulators or authorities put their foot down and declared it outside the rules. Only three decades later the very idea of another adventure playground of this sort being created in Toronto seems outlandish and absurd. This stems from the increasing need for “safety” in our society.  

In this age of litigation, we have been infused with a fear of danger and a belief that safety is a supreme virtue. Jutta Mason, from Centre for Local Research into Public Space, asserts that the perception of playgrounds being dangerous is far, far greater than the records show. However, even many conventional playgrounds are being torn down because of the supposed danger they present. In these times, the very idea of letting kids play with saws, shovels, nails and hammers is hard to grasp.  

Adventure Playgrounds do not have a record of being excessively unsafe; they accept that risks are part of life. Rather than trying in vain to eliminate all danger, they accept that there are always risks, but do the best they can to reduce them. That idea does not sit well with today’s bureaucrats, regulators, safety consultants and insurance companies.  

Creating something akin to the adventure playground that Toronto once had, now seems hard to imagine. However that does not mean that the philosophies behind adventure playgrounds can’t be applied in today’s world. Two ideas standout: First, that kids can be given real responsibilities, learn valuable skills, and live up to the challenges that come with those responsibilities. Second, that play can be made dynamic; giving kids the ability to manipulate the world around them. These are both ideas that can be, and sometimes are, given life today. From baking cookies, to setting aside a corner of an apartment for making forts out of cardboard boxes, there is no end to the many ways that these ideas can be put into action.  

It is easy for adults to have set ideas of what play is, where it happens, and how it takes place. The real challenge is to give kids room to play in ways that push their limits - and ours.












  1. I grew up at Finch and Sentinel and one summer, an adventure playground was established at Jane and Finch. I got paint on all my clothes, my sister melted her Nikes by the fire, and we had a kick-ass fort for the summer that we made ourselves. It was coolest thing $10 could buy.

  2. I remember the Adventure Playground. It was one of my favorite places ever. I was one of the school kids that came from time to time. It broke my heart when it closed and it remains in my mind as a symbol of the type of play our modern 'helicopter' parenting wont allow. I have a little boy of my own now and I may just have to buy a bit of land somewhere so he can dig and build and really play. Thanks for the great article.

  3. I used to come to the AP with a group of multi-aged kids as staff. It was one of the most dynamic & useful learning environments for urban kids that existed. I mourn the lack of this kind of environment in the city.