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

Five-year-old Isabella balances atop a new teeter-totter at the new playground at Ravina Gardens Park, while her mother, Elena Yunusov, minds her baby brother on May 3.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On a nice day in April, Elena Yunusov brought her two young children – a three-year-old and an infant – to the local playground near Annette Street and Humberside Avenue to check out some new equipment installed over the winter.

But her daughter's eager anticipation quickly turned to disappointment. City crews had removed the sandbox and several older pieces of gear, including a digging contraption kids used to pretend to excavate dinosaur bones.

Instead, they found a large new gazebo, a pair of metal tables with chessboard patterns, an asphalt path, two low, brightly coloured climbing towers, a small slide and a set of swings designed to prevent users from gaining any altitude or speed.

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Ms. Yunusov wistfully recalled the old slide, with a curving set of climbing bars up to the platform. "It was fun because there was no easy way to get [up]," she said. Now, she added, glancing at her daughter wandering around the new park, "there's nothing [fun]. We don't really go here any more."

Such are the unintended consequences when liability concerns trump play. As the city, the school board and other agencies install the newest generation of CSA Group-approved equipment, the result is often playgrounds with gear designed almost exclusively for very young children; the more traditional elements – including sandboxes and swings suitable for under doggies – have been scrapped in the name of risk management.

"Everything is built with litigation at the forefront," said Jennifer Hunter, a Seaton Village parent who was involved with a long effort to rebuild an enclosed playground in Vermont Square.

While the CSA standards are voluntary, the city's parks, forestry and recreation (PFR) division, which manages 850 playgrounds, meets or exceeds those safety standards, a spokesman said, adding that due to changes in the 2016 capital budget, the pace of replacement will more than double in the coming years.

"There's no question that the city takes user safety seriously when we're planning our play spaces, but we don't think that ensuring safety requires us to compromise on creating fun, dynamic and adventurous play spaces," spokesman Matthew Cutler said.

It's true that some children are injured and, very rarely, die in accidents on playground equipment. According to Parachute, a national safety organization, a 2015 study of playground safety found that in 2010 there were almost 24,000 ER visits, 1,700 hospitalizations and fewer than five deaths – likely from strangulation involving a piece of snagged clothing – across Canada. (The City of Toronto doesn't collect comprehensive data on playground accidents.)

What the CSA standards have done, Parachute interim CEO Pamela Fuselli said, "is narrow the choices about the kinds of play spaces [municipalities] can build." She noted that there's little on offer for older children in new play structures.

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The lack of choice bothered Ms. Yunusov, as did the fact that she wasn't aware of any effort by PFR to consult local parents before redesigning the space (she lives just a few minutes from the park). "I wish I was involved," she said. "This happened in my own backyard, and no one asked me."

Mr. Cutler pointed to examples such as the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, in High Park, to show that PFR does work with community groups on playground rebuilds.

When Ms. Hunter and a few friends began figuring out how to rebuild the Vermont Square playground (which received a generous amount of Section 37 funding, provided by developers for community projects in exchange for more density), she kept in mind what had happened a few years earlier when a funky, unstructured playground at Scadding Court Community Centre was rebuilt using standard equipment: The older kids grew bored, she said, and then began fighting with one another.

Her neighbourhood team, working with architect Lisa Rapoport, came up with a design that had a range of imaginative structures made from natural materials and designed for various age groups, not just toddlers. They also drew on the emerging research by outdoor play advocates such as Tim Gill, who has written extensively about the importance of rolling back some of the risk engineering that increasingly circumscribes childhood play.

According to Ms. Fuselli, that topic has rapidly gained currency, even in the playground safety world.

The proliferation of boring playgrounds has also fostered a wave of experiments, including a concerted push by Earth Day Canada and several high-profile partners to bring back unstructured outdoor play. EDC president Deborah Doncaster says her group is working with both the City of Toronto and the Toronto District School Board to establish pop-up outdoor playgrounds fitted out not with rigid, off-the-shelf equipment but with all sorts of "loose parts" – piles of sand, straw bales, sticks, tubes, ropes, cardboard boxes and other castoffs that allow children to build whatever comes into their heads and get their hands dirty.

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EDC will operate a few of these parks this spring and summer and is running a crowdfunding campaign to launch more in the next three years. The city, Ms. Doncaster said, is also studying the possibility of adding more and is considering street play initiatives that involve temporarily closing off residential blocks to traffic.

Such pop-up playgrounds depend on the direction of trained play supervisors, whose job, Ms. Doncaster said, often involves getting hovering, smartphone-wielding parents to keep their distance and let their kids be kids.

"We need a different play model," she said. "[Children] need that physical literacy … We can't assume we can build risk out of everything."

Video: Growing outward: The story of how we got here (The Globe and Mail)
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