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News 2015

News 2015

From the Ssptember 2015 Newsletter:

What works: children’s workarounds.

riding bikes through a foot of water

The sandpit: In early August a new tap was installed at the playground sandpit. The tap turns itself off every 20 seconds – a water restriction that impairs the fun and learning of the hundreds of children making dams and forts downstream from the tap. The measure was not because of water usage – the adjoining wading pool with it frequent drainings uses many times more water than the tap – but a complaint about mosquitoes, from a park neighbour. Happily, some children quickly figured out various ways to keep the water flowing, including hanging a sandpit shovel over the waterflow governor. So the fun resumed, at least part of the time.

Wading pools: for years, the city has been replacing wading pools with cheaper splash pads (no staffing), but children don’t always find them much fun. In some parks, children found that they can block the splash pad drains with a large piece of paper, so that the water will accumulate. On a recent CELOS visit to a Thorncliffe Park splash pad on a hot August day, the water was a foot deep, and kids were paddling around and even riding their bikes through – since there were no staff to stop their games, of course. The result: summer freedom.

From the Summer 2015 Newsletter:

The story of the Dufferin Grove sandpit and adventure playground.

Sand play areas in parks are a concept that’s been around for a long time. In 1955, the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Commissioner, Tommy Thompson, told a large Garden Club meeting that he wanted to make some changes to the city’s parks. He said he “visualized large, easy-going areas with outdoor cooking equipment, plenty of toilet facilities, breathing room for family parties or large and small groups, and ready accessibility.” He also said that sand play areas for children should be big: "I passed a playground the other day in which I saw a sandbox that I suspect was twelve feet square. To me, this is an insult to the sand area concept. The time has come when we've got to get bigger in our thinking and realize that, when a group of kids want to carry out something that stimulates their imagination - and this is one of the things we should be responsible for promoting - we should be putting in a sand area half as big as this auditorium. We should be putting in the kind of sand that kids can use to build, and we should not only keep it clean every day, but make sure that it's moist enough to do something with…”

In 1993, at an April community meeting, an old-fashioned sand play area was proposed for Dufferin Grove (using a $25,000 donation from the Dufferin Mall, which also included some money for a few artists to work with the kids, and a new basketball court). Some of the immediate park neighbours were not happy about the sand pit idea. They said they didn’t want more activity in the playground, it was already noisy enough, with the wading pool and the existing playground structure. But the very hands-on Recreation director at the time, Mario Zanetti, came to the park himself, to make a pitch. He got up on a picnic table in front of the crowd and asked the opposition to give the sand play area a chance. One by one, parents from the neighbourhood came forward to the picnic table and spoke in support of his request. The immediate neighbours agreed to suspend their opposition, and the adventure playground got its start.

A sandpit was proposed because it was big, and cheap, and fast to install. To build it, we needed a City backhoe driver to dig out an area 20 x 40 feet, to about 15 inches deep, and fill it with gravel for drainage, then add four truckloads of sand piled overtop, then logs to surround it, and some branches and shovels for the kids to start working. There was ample space for this sand play area, right beside the wading pool. Simple! But then the plan began to run into trouble. The month of May came and went, and the weeks ticked by into June, and still no backhoe arrived to start making the sandpit. We learned something important. In a big city, the government might say yes, yes, yes to local ideas, but nothing might ever actually happen.

In the middle of June we realized we had to make a move to jump the gap between the park playground and the city government. We had an inspiration. We decided to write a letter to Toronto’s mayor at that time, June Rowlands, inviting her and the Dufferin Mall manager, David Hall, to the official opening of the new sandpit play area, now christened “The Big Back Yard.” We hoped that the connection between the Mall and the City would attract enough interest that somebody in the Mayor’s office would take notice of our request. The date we gave was July 5 – three weeks away.

It worked. The Mayor’s office said, yes, she would love to attend. She was fond of playgrounds, and also fond of corporate donations. We called the City Parks staff and told them that we hoped there would be something in place for the mayor to see when she came. And so the sandpit project was moved right up to the front of the line.

the park kids, 1994

Three weeks later, the sandpit was all ready. Four artists had been signed up to do some arts activities with the kids in the new adventure playground area. The Parks Department said they couldn’t spare a storage shed for the art supplies, so the mall threw in another $1100 and we got a carpenter to build a park-style storage shed. The lead artist, Elyse Pomerantz, painted it orange with an intricate African pattern, and the park staff got us a city padlock for it. Two days before the Mayor was due to come, we opened the storage shed padlock to find ten flats of bedding plants in the shed – a surprise gift from the Parks horticulture crew. The City’s backhoe operator, after he was done with the sandpit excavation, had already dug us a small children’s garden (his idea), around the corner from the sandpit.

So on July 5, the new play area was resplendent with its African shed, its hilled-up sandpit surrounded by giant tree trunks. The children’s garden was planted with flowers. Just before the mayor and her entourage arrived, a remote-TV vehicle drove into the park close to the sandpit and screwed its antenna as high as the trees. The park kids, a pretty rough bunch at that time, turned into the house-proud sandpit “staff,” politely offering tortilla snacks to the Mall staff and the City staff and the politicians and the cameramen.

That was the formal beginning of the Dufferin Grove sandpit.

building tipi forts

At the start we only had the shovels and long poles for the kids to build with. They built tipi-forts, with pieces of cheap fabric that we brought in to cover the frames. But the forts then had to be defended, and the play sometimes became mean, focused on establishing insiders and fighting off late-comers who hadn’t been in on the fort-building.

Near the sandpit was an in-ground water outlet. Whenever the hose was set up to water the children’s flower garden, the kids would drag it over to the sandpit so they could make rivers and dams. At first we got mad at them: “keep your hands off the hose!” It took us a while to notice that the kids’ water play was more peaceful and more absorbing for them – it takes cooperation, not conflict, to make a river flow or a dam that works. We brought in shorter pieces of wood, to encourage smaller, non-fort-like structures. More and more kids came to play, and as they set up and expanded their various projects, the sandpit breached its original boundaries and eventually extended all the way down to the laneway. A proper hose with a tap on it was set up in the sandpit, and waterplay was officially allowed.

The sandpit is probably the best warm-weather element in the park, better than the bake-ovens, better than the cob cafe, better than the new reflexology footpath, maybe even better than the basketball court or the skateboarding area on the rink. It needs care, though. Sand has to be topped up when it gets low, the tap has to be easy to turn on and off, there have to be plenty of shovels and building materials, standing water has to be cleared when the dams get too high, the laneway has to be kept free of mud. Recently, the Dufferin Grove recreation staff’s attention to the sandpit has been sliding. This is partly because staff tend to be assigned tasks that focus on money-generating activities associated with food sales. Activities that don’t make money can become a bit orphaned. Building materials have dwindled as they bio-degrade, so the older kids for whom the sandpit was installed are bored, and the little kids are deprived of watching and learning from the older kids’ projects. Park neighbours report that at times the water keeps running even when there are no kids playing, and that the standing water is not cleared often enough, encouraging mosquitos.

only a few building materials left

The staff’s focus will likely not be redirected soon, so the parents and caregivers who bring their kids to the sandpit need to step up. If you are the last person to leave the playground, turn off the water. Get the kids to break dams that are left with standing water. Keep play out of the laneway.

And the most important thing: PARENTS, PLEASE BRING MORE BUILDING MATERIALS. This does NOT mean plastic – kids have too much plastic already. But spare wooden boards or 2x4’s or railway ties or poles in your garage or back yard would find a much better use at the park, and fire the kids’ imagination. With staff help, you can even drive your load right into the park (5 mph with flashers on, a person walking in front of the vehicle to make sure the way is clear). It’s time to give the sandpit a boost.


Some people brought in 2x4's, others brought in logs, others brought in branches.

Here's the situation on Friday noon, August 7:

A whole lot of happy little engineers...

...and they even made their own teeter-totter

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