Toronto used to be a city of monotonous public play areas. But these days, we’re getting some structures that challenge and excite kids.
I call them the High Park heebie-jeebies. Pretty much any downtown parent can describe them. It’s the feeling I used to get at the park’s old wooden castle, a.k.a. the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, when the kids disappeared into the labyrinth of slats that led to the circular slide. The entryway was too narrow to comfortably accommodate an adult, so I stood outside and counted the seconds until my kids reappeared. What was taking so long? Could my daughter have wandered out the back, up the hill, onto the road? Could a pedophile have wandered in there? It was possible. Not probable, but possible. And then she’d appear smiling at the bottom of the slide.
A vandal burned that castle down in March, and then TV’s Mike Holmes swooped in to construct a new design. It reopened in July, as did two other distinct and unusual downtown children’s parks. Now, in what used to be a city of monotonous public play areas, we’re getting some structures that challenge and excite kids.
The new High Park playground is wonderful—a well-built wood castle that features a few important improvements over the last iteration. It has bigger windows and more spacious thruways. I could actually see my daughter in there. And when I couldn’t, it was okay because this new version makes it easy for me to get into the castle and retrieve her if something goes wrong.
Just as inventive is the Vermont Square playground, which was completed last month. It’s a naval-themed, wood-constructed exercise in whimsy, set in a charming plot of green space southwest of Dupont and Bathurst. The primary climbing structure has an elevated bow with anchors and tall twin masts that fly Canadian flags. An escape hatch leads from the bow down to the sand at ground—er, sea—level. There are other nice touches, including a shaded sandpit with a tap that kids can use to create archipelagos of islands to sail their wooden boats through. But it’s the “boat” that’s the star here for my kids. The first night we played on it was during Canada Day weekend. The next morning, I asked the kids what they wanted to do, and although they had spent three hours there the previous evening, they wanted to go back.
We visited the third playground just this week: Jean Sibelius Square, at the corner of Brunswick and Wells. It officially opened in June, and it features a fascinating structure similar to the climbing-rope archway in Trinity Bellwoods’ playground. But this one is much more fun—a 3-D diamond web of thick black rope that’s about two storeys high, one side of which funnels kids towards a parapet set into a 10-foot climbing wall. On the other side of that is a fenced area for toddlers with a water-equipped sandpit.
My daughter, who’s almost four, worked her way in among the ropes and soon was calling to me for help. By the time I gave her a boost to a new handhold, my nearly six-year-old son was calling my name. I looked up, and he was maybe 20 feet in the air, waving to me from the web’s highest point.
I’m generally not one to warn my kids to stay off dangerous things. Unless they’re risking death, I’ll let them figure out themselves how to avoid hurting themselves. But the feeling summoned by the sight of my son up so high—well, it was not unlike the High Park heebie-jeebies. “Careful!” I called out.
My son nodded. He talked about his dangerous feat for the rest of the day. I’d never before seen him so excited by any other play area. He’d accomplished something, a physical challenge that tested the boundaries of what he considered possible. And I had the city to thank for my son’s triumph.
It’s playing on stuff like this, scary stuff, creative stuff, that allows kids to test their limits. Parks-department staffers like Brian Green, city politicians like Adam Vaughan and Sarah Doucette, and the community groups that all had to work together to create these three wonderful new playgrounds understand this. And they’re making being a kid in the city a more interesting experience.