The first Metro Parks Commissioner, after World War Two, was Tommy
Thompson, much appreciated for his love of parks and his good sense. (He had his staff put up signs in the parks: “please walk on the grass.”) At the Toronto Archives our CELOS researcher came across a speech Thompson gave at a Parks Conference, in which he told his colleagues: "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."
The sandpit at Dufferin Grove:
The sandpit started out as an oval of sand about 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, ringed by big wooden logs. It was put into the park in 1993. A bulldozer came and dug a hole about two feet deep, and loaded the dark soil into a couple of Mack trucks, which took it away. A 15-inch-deep layer of gravel was spread across the hole, and then the trucks returned with loads of fine, damp sand, and dumped it on top of the gravel bed. A city Forestry crew brought a crane and lowered sections of maple trunks into position around the sandpit to define the edges. Then we collected long straight branches for fort-building, and ropes, and tipi cloths. Park friends bought half a dozen short-handled gardeners' spades, and kids began to build.
Human beings, as soon as they build, seem to need to mark off their property. The building projects were often impressive and the architecture was interesting and unorthodox. But for the first years of the sandpit there were daily struggles over turf, and sometimes the vibe was fierce. You stay out of here. This is my land.
All this battling over territory changed, though, in 1995. The city plumbers put in a water outlet near the sandpit, so that the volunteer gardeners could water the flowerbeds at that end of the park. One of the gardeners would set up the sprinkler and go on to weed or plant elsewhere in the park. Very soon, the kids figured out how to disconnect the sprinkler and move the hose over to the sandpit. They began to dig riverbeds, and fill them with the hose, and make dams, and soon there were rivers snaking all around the sandpit. The gardeners scolded the kids, and pulled the hose back into the flowerbeds. The kids just waited until the gardeners had left, and brought the hose into the sandpit again. They didn't mean to be stubborn or bratty, but they couldn't help themselves. They had to make more rivers.
When you want to make a river, you can't do it on your own. The water keeps flowing and the kids downstream have to dig, to let the river move. There can be branches in new directions, and dams, and bridges, and tunnels (under the logs that ringed the sandpit) and waterfalls, and interesting patterns of erosion. All of this engages the kids for hours, and the river flows best when they help each other.
As more kids discovered the joy of water, the turf struggles mostly disappeared, and children who were strangers to one another banded together into teams of little engineers. The grown-up gardeners gradually gave up competing with the kids for the hose (although it took some of us a few years to grasp the significance of what the kids discovered in a few minutes). Park friends bought a moveable Lee Valley faucet on a metal stand to hook up to the hose, and kids moved that faucet all over the sandpit to wherever it was needed. The rivers went beyond the sandpit and snaked down toward the laneway. Sometimes it got very muddy and the playground looked rough, and the kids were often smeared with mud from top to toe. Parents came to realize that they ought to bring a book or a newspaper to read (that was in the days before electronic texts took over). Their kids wouldn't leave the playground, sometimes for the whole day. For those who forgot their book, we put out a magazine rack.
The park staff brought down the food cart with coffee and watermelon and slices of oven bread, and set it up between the wading pool and the sandpit – an adventure playground with snacks, and organic shade-grown coffee for the grown-ups. No wonder people started coming from all over the city.
Excerpt from the May 2001 newsletter:Every spring there is a quest for new tipi poles for the sand pit. This year the Forestry Department staff have been doing intensive tree pruning at Dufferin Grove Park. The staff went to extra trouble to pick out the straightest branches and trim them down. So now we have a great new supply of tipi poles. In addition, one of the forestry workers, Bruce Johnston, is a scout leader. In his lunch hour Mr. Johnston built a sample scout tipi beside the sandpit, to show the most solid way to make such a structure. He also gave us good advice on where to get scout literature showing different kinds of branch structures. We'll have some posted on the park fence soon.
Excerpt from the May 2004 newsletter:A safety note: back in 1993 there was a community meeting to find out what people wanted in the park. An adventure playground aimed at older kids was high up on the list, and that's how we got the sand pit. But it turns out that all the kids, of all ages, love the sand pit. That's wonderful, but please remember: the older kids have first rights. Grown-ups, if you're worried about your little ones because the playing is too advanced, take them to the little sandbox. Don't get mad at the older kids for using shovels and doing elaborate building projects. On the other hand, every kid using a shovel has to be careful, and most of them are (we have far fewer injuries in the sandpit than in the regular playground). If anyone sees a child who seems to be unaware of how to handle a shovel (swinging it, using it to be pushy, throwing it) any nearby adult has the power to remind the child to be careful or, if there's no improvement, to take the shovel away and find a park staff. Adults used to look out for (and even admonish) other people's kids, not so long ago, and we can do it again.
Excerpt from the July 2014 newsletter:Kids climbing in the park – These days there’s lots of debate about playground safety: have the new, low-to-the-ground playground designs gone too far in bubble-wrapping kids? It seems that kids need to take risks, and many child advocates say it’s important to let them. So Dufferin Grove playground has kept the long swings, and the monkey bars. The playhouse roofs were not intended for climbing, but many kids do get up there, and sit there surveying the world. In the 1980s, many of the park trees had their lower branches cut off by staff so the kids couldn’t climb them, but the more recently planted cherry trees are easy to get up on, and to get high up. The top of the playground shed roof beside the wading pool is a place where kids can play cards without being bothered by younger siblings. And the new, higher storage sheds by the basketball court are a real challenge – older kids can climb up by the chain link fence and lunge across to the roof, and when they want to get back down, some use the nearby basketball pole to slide down like firefighters. Kids can even get on top of the new Zamboni garage, since it was built right up against the chain link fence. Adults may want to turn away so they don’t get anxious watching, but at Dufferin Grove, the kids are not bubble-wrapped, and their physical skills (using good sense, most of the time) are flourishing.
The fenced playground
The playground at Dufferin Grove was put in around 1983. In 2007, there was $79,000 in the Ward 18 budget to tear this playground down and replace it. The Ward 18 councillor of the time, Adam Giambrone, thought that was insufficient funds. Parents and kids said they liked the playground as it was. So the original playground is still there. It has swings, a "spider" climber, monkey bars, some rather tame slides, some springy teeter-totters, and the play houses.
That playground is quite unusual now, just for existing. In 2000, there was a move to tear out many of the original wooden playgrounds and replace them with cheap plastic structures that were said to be safer according to new standards set by the CSA, the Canadian Standards Association (now international, called CSA Group). The CSA’s playground committee was (and still is) made up of more than 50% playground manufacturers, who wrote the new standards and then sold the city the replacement playground equipment. Playground risk calculations led to a lot of new business, not only in Canada but all over, and today playground companies are a desirable globally traded commodity. For example Playpower, which sells a number of brands (you can see them in our parks) formerly owned by Apollo Investment Corp., of Dubai and London, was sold in 2015 to LittleJohn Investment, of Connecticut, which has $5 billion under its management.
Many Toronto playgrounds have either recently been replaced or are on the list in the next year or two. Since the first batch of cheap plastic structures were installed in 2000, the CSA standards have changed a number of times, and some of the same kind of equipment that was removed for being “non-compliant” was later declared acceptable. Now the fashion has gone from “cheap” to “designer,” and the cost has increased remarkably. Even small corner parkette-playgrounds cost a lot: in Ward 18, the Susan Tibaldi Parkette makeover cost $161,800, and the “natural playground at Margaret Fairley Parkette at the corner of Brunswick and Ulster cost over $400,000, with more work to be done when more money can be found.
Dufferin Grove playground is different. After it was taken off the removal list, a city playground inspector agreed that the playground was good enough that it deserved maintenance – a bit of welding and some paint, and a few new boards. But the existing playground sand was said to be too compacted, and replacement of the natural ground with engineered wood fibre or recycled rubber was suggested instead. Park friends said – what if the ground right under the climbers and the higher platforms was dug up from time to time, wouldn’t that work just as well to soften falls as artificial surfacing, but at much less cost?
Two city inspectors came to Dufferin Grove playground to walk around with five of us. The rec staff had dug up the sand, and we wanted to know if that simple digging, which could be a daily staff task, would pass the CSA playground surface test. So the men set up their shiny high-tech “triaxial accelerometer” impact-measuring tool (a metal ball on a wire). The dug-up sand passed at every spot that had been dug, with honours. No need for a pricey sand replacement.
Waterplay in the park
The wading pool was built in 1954, with a donation to memorialize Abe Orpen, the owner of the race track that stood where the Dufferin Mall is now. There’s a plaque on the pool that says THE A. M. ORPEN MEMORIAL WADING POOL 1954 ERECTED IN MEMORY OF A. M. ORPEN A LOVER OF CHILDREN BY MR. & MRS. F.S. ORPEN & THEIR DAUGHTER IRENE.
At that time the Italian workers who built wading pools, like this one, believed that the more concrete they poured, the better. Apparently there are some city wading pools where the concrete is four feet thick in places. Built to last.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a move to modernize design in public spaces. Even so, it was a surprise when park friends heard in 2007 that the sturdy Orpen wading pool was scheduled to be removed and replaced with a new pool. The plan was to tear up the old concrete and put in a sleek new wading pool, with new concrete and lots of landscaping around it, but not much in the way of updated plumbing. Yet it was the rusty old plumbing that was the real problem for the wading pool staff of the time – requiring staff to bend over a deep, dangerous hole in order to turn the creaky taps on and off.
May 2016: trees are doing well
There was a public meeting and the plans were modified to include some new plumbing. There was concern about the giant Norway Maple trees that surround the wading pool – how would they survive the demolition? So a city forester came to do an assessment. He warned that the roots of some or all of the trees near the pool might be destroyed along with the concrete removal. That caused a split in the neighbourhood: some park friends thought the trees were near the end of their life span anyway, and new ones would grow, whereas others argued that the shade was too important to allow the existing trees to be endangered.
Eventually the designers came up with a new plan: to leave the existing deep concrete and coat it with a surface “cementitious” layer that would be smooth and attractive. The money saved by not ripping out the concrete and trucking it to landfill would be spent on paving the park’s centre path and connecting it right up to the wading pool – thereby meeting some of the new requirements in the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The cost for the renovation was still considerable – $227,400 – but it seemed like a win-win, so much so that several other nearby wading pools (Christie and Bellevue pools) got the same surfacing. Nothing is ever easy, though. Eight years later, the wading pools that got the coating are peeling. Dufferin Grove seems to be the worst, with long cracks and holes. The coating lifts right up around the holes and could certainly trap dirt underneath, including e-coli. The cement below looks fine, though, just as good as before.
Some parents have said they think the large amount of chlorine put in the water nowadays, under the new wading pool regime, has caused the deterioration. That might be so, but those wading pools that kept their cement without a coating seem to be doing fine. It may be that the wading pool at Dufferin Grove just needs the coating removed – acknowledged as a useful experiment that didn’t work out. And if the coating is removed, another problem will be solved – the kids will no longer skid on the pool surface, and so they won’t cry.
More waterplay in the park
Excerpt from the Fall 2002 newsletter:This was one of the hottest, driest summers Toronto has had in a very long time. The sunny spots in the park were empty until the evening, but the shady spots were often packed. The wading pool and the playground got heavy use. On many evenings (whenever the temperature was over 30 celsius) the wading pool had extended hours until 8 p.m. So many parents and caregivers told us that the shady, breezy wading pool area rescued them this summer. Good! That's what parks are for!
Our oven builder, Nigel Dean, kindly brought an old styrofoam "Sunfish" boat down from Muskoka, in his truck. Some of the time the boat was in the wading pool, full of children (closely watched by staff). The rest of the time it was in the sandpit, where the children would often dig a little lake, to float the boat. By the end of the summer the boat finally broke, but it had a good run.
Excerpt from the July 2003 newsletter:Water in the park. On the first hot day this season, Sunday June 22, there was water all over the park - not a flood, but a stream of good uses of the water that comes to us from Lake Ontario. In the sandpit by the playground, the hose was connected to the tap we bought from Lee Valley Tools. All day, between 10 and 30 kids (and some of their parents) were making channels for a river system - with lots of bridges - that wound through the sandpit and out into further "rivers" leading south. A sprinkler was set up in the wading pool (which was not yet open), and kids were not only running through the sprinkler but also finding out all the ways in which a hose could be kinked to change the water flow and trick people. Up by the pizza oven there was another sprinkler. Kids ran through that one too, and so did the performers from Clay and Paper Theatre when they'd finished their parade through Councillor Silva's annual Summerfest flea market. To the north of the rink house, the Eagles Soccer Club was running a car wash. They sudsed the cars they flagged down at the Dufferin Mall stoplights, even some tow trucks, and at the end they cooled down by also sudsing each other.
A hose led to the new cherry trees, which need a lot of water when they're just getting established, and another hose snaked in and out of Arie Kemp's poppy garden beside the hockey rink. Arie no longer looks after the park gardens but his legacy is evident all over - as the "seed man" he collected the most beautiful seeds he could find all over the city and sowed them in our park, and by now every crack in the concrete and every flowerbed has his flowers re-seeding themselves. Those flowers get thirsty, so we water them.
When it was time to wash the dishes from the pizza oven, the cooks sprayed one another with our new kitchen tap sprayer - it has very strong spray that is excellent for cleaning dishes and for park staff water-fights. The water-fight theme was repeated at most of the birthday parties and barbecues happening throughout the park. One of the parties was partly on stilts, because many of the guests - as well as the host - were stiltwalkers. They danced on stilts, leaned up against the high branches of trees, and the host had an orange and a green water pistol with which he was allowed to squirt anyone he chose, on stilts or on the ground.
At the end of the afternoon the kids at the playground disconnected the sprinkler from the hose and tried to use the hose to fill the wading pool. There was so much silt left over from the winter that the drains plugged and the pool really did begin to fill - with dark brown opaque mud-water. Kids splashed in this mucky soup and then used their plastic shovels to unplug the drains - with help from some grownups - so that there would be no standing water.
Eventually, everyone went home and the park was quiet – except for the sound of a sprinkler, swishing water back and forth between the roses and the potato plants in the park flower and vegetable gardens. What a great thing, a park in a city beside a huge lake full of water to draw on, on a hot day.
lots of chlorine
Since the city changed its wading pool routines in 2012, fewer kids have been using the pools, citywide. Some parents don’t want their kids to have so much exposure to chlorine. The city wading pools are drained and refilled so often that the water is mostly freezing, and even for the kids who don’t mind the cold, there are long intervals of draining, filling, and adding new chlorine when nobody can go in.
But waterplay in the summer is a lovely thing, and a fine way to cool down without being cooped up inside air-conditioned rooms. Lucky for Dufferin Grove, there’s also the water in the sandpit. The city plumbers recently put the better kind of tap back on, one that stays on so that rivers and dams can be made.
Some parents worry about wasting water with the sandpit tap. Actually, there’s little doubt that the main water guzzler at the park is the wading pool, with its many changes of water. It seems that the city may not have a water meter specific to its wading pools, so we may have to find another way to calculate the usage. We have bought a Lee Valley water meter for the sandpit tap and will shortly be able to compare its water usage to the wading pool.
But here’s a worthy project to address both issues: at the time of the 2007 wading pool project, the architect suggested it might be possible to work with a French drain and weeping tiles, or even a capped diversion drain to reroute the water from the wading pool toward watering the park trees. That idea seems to have got lost – but maybe it‘s time to revive it. More on this in the next newsletter.
The Dufferin Grove playground club
This new club is starting up, to help the playground be as good as it can be, and share good ideas and news of coming events. For a suggested donation of $5 a year per family, members can get a membership card (kids get their own) and news updates from time to time. The funds can be used for new shovels, pails, and building materials as needed, for the little engineers in the sandpit, and for buying play-cooking equipment at garage sales for the homebodies in the play houses. To join, ask around at the playground, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.