Playgrounds in Park Settings – Taking a Step Back on the Path Forward

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This blog post was submitted as part of the 2019 Park Leaders Development Program.

When you think of playgrounds, what comes to mind?  

Photo Credit: Saskatchewan Parks

For many years, playgrounds in Saskatchewan Parks have meant the traditional steel structures with slides, climbers, monkey bars and swings.  And for many years we didn’t think much of it.  But what if we could use play spaces to further connect our youngest park visitors to the beautiful environments our parks exist within?  Over the past number of years, the idea of natural playgrounds has surfaced.  Natural playgrounds are just that – a play space designed to emphasize the natural environment, consisting of natural features such as boulders, logs, tree stumps, and other natural elements.  

Photo Credit: Juan Pablo Risso/Google– Westmoreland Park, Oregon

When the idea of natural playgrounds first arose at Saskatchewan Parks several years ago, it was met with concerns regarding how stringent playground safety standards could be achieved and the potential extra maintenance requirements to keep natural elements safe.  We continued on with replacing old, deteriorated play structures with new standard play structures which met all safety standards, were turn key products for supply and installation, and were cost effective and efficient to deliver.  

Recently though, continued thoughts from various park staff regarding the merits of natural play, coupled with advancements and research in this field, have prompted further consideration. We recognize the path forward may mean taking a step back.  We have an opportunity to utilize natural play spaces in our parks to emphasize connections to the natural environment for our next generation of park visitors.  There are some great ideas regarding how interpretive and education components could be incorporated into natural play spaces.

At the Spring 2019 CPCIL Park Leaders course I had the opportunity to share the challenges and considerations we are facing in our playground program with park leaders from across Canada.  It was inspiring because I could see the audience was intrigued by what I had to share.  It is clear other jurisdictions are faced with these same questions.

I was challenged to take the idea to a new audience to garner additional feedback – that audience being my nine-year old daughter!  I started by sharing my presentation, the concept of natural playgrounds versus traditional playgrounds.  I then asked questions about her ideal play space in a park.  While my daughter found the concept and photos of natural playgrounds “cool” she still gravitated towards traditional play elements like swings and monkey bars.  It’s not that she isn’t interested in the concept, but it’s just that – a concept.  It’s tough for anyone to imagine something aside from what they have always known.  And she has always known traditional playgrounds. 

However, an interesting thing happened on a recent camping trip with my family.  Late August weather in Saskatchewan was not conducive to a beach day and so my kids instead requested to go on a walk to the playground.  On our walk we took the scenic route, a wandering park trail, that leads to the beach, and eventually up another trail to the playground.  This is a ten-minute walk.  However, we arrived at the playground two hours later!

Photo Credit: Jennifer Szakacs

The kids were preoccupied with exploring along the trail, followed by the realization the beach was actually a fantastic spot we had all to ourselves on this cooler, close to fall day.  Even though the temperature was cool, the perfectly calm water and sun with no wind made for great weather to sit and enjoy skipping rocks.  Soon after the shovel and pail that were meant for the man-made sandbox at the playground were being used to build masterpieces on the beach.  And not long after that we sent for bathing suits for the kids so they could get out of their wet clothes and enjoy the water.  We did make a short stop at the playground afterwards, before heading back for a very late lunch, but it was the experience on the beach that stood out. We visit the beach at the park all the time, however I looked at this experience differently, as did my daughter with her knew found knowledge of nature based play experiences.  She realized that while the playground may have been our plan, our experience was elevated by our time connecting directly with nature.        

For me, this drives the point home that while traditional playgrounds may be an amenity our visitors have come to expect, it is the natural elements of our beautiful spaces which draws them to the park in the first place.  We have an opportunity to do more now that we know more.  Remaining open to thinking outside the box could allow us to incorporate the natural features of our parks into play-based educational and interpretive experiences for our youngest park visitors to enjoy.

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Improved Accessibility in New Brunswick Provincial Parks

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(Photo Courtesy New Brunswick Parks)

In 2005, I started work with NB’s provincial parks while finishing University and accessibility was starting to become part of the core curriculum around that time.  In 2007, I had the honour to attend the Parks System Leadership course (PSL, the precursor to the Canadian Parks Collective) which was held at William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis, Alberta.

My experience at the PSL course, but more specifically of seeing William Watson Lodge – a purpose built accessible wilderness lodge – first-hand set me on a course to replicate its core values here in New Brunswick. I told Don Carruthers Den Hoed while I was there I wanted to bring it to my province, and my principle since that time has been to promote free, self-guided accessibility throughout our parks system.

This year I got to realize a big part of my accessibility dreams  with the introduction of improved facilities and new equipment in our provincial parks and a statement from our Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture that “All New Brunswickers deserve access to high-quality physical and recreational activities. I am delighted that our parks offer better access to people with limited mobility and physical disabilities, as well as new equipment, so they can enjoy nature and experience more of what our parks have to offer on the beach, in the water or down the mountain.”

Upgrades to administration offices, including accessible washrooms, campsites and cabins  and the introduction four Hippocampe wheelchairs, three WaterWheels floating beach wheelchairs and one adaptive mountain bike – the Bowhead Reach – are available this year (2019) in NB provincial parks, free of charge.

Bringing the Bowhead Reach bike to NB was icing on the cake though. I had the privilege of meeting its inventor – Christian Bagg – at another CPC led initiative, the 2016 Canadian Parks Summit in Canmore. This incredible piece of equipment and Christian’s story of determination to lead his own adventures inspired me to try and bring him and the bike to NB.

Josh, a Para-Olympian,  you see on the second bike from the left in the photo above had never heard of the bike before, much less had he been able to explore the trails at the park at his doorstep. Before we got underway with the photo shoot he’d volunteered to help us with, we gave him some time to ‘play’ and get used to the bike. I took him out on the trails and inevitably there were a couple of trees across the path. I managed to lift one enough for him to get out under, but couldn’t budge the other.

Josh was immediately trying to figure out how to backup and I could see a bit of disappointment on his face – this was supposed to be an milestone where he’d have freedom of choice  – and then I clued in and said “just go over it”… Josh  -“Really???… Me – “you bet!”. After that it was a full on sprint for me to even consider keeping up and I’m sure his smile was wider than the handlebars for the rest of the day.

Thank you to the CPC and my NB team for affording me the privilege of meeting park leaders from across the country. It’s given me some of the proudest moments of my life and now we’re getting to inspire a new generation of park lovers, one self-guided adventure at a time!

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