Town holds “Natural Playgrounds” workshop

Adam Bienenstock, in purple shirt at right, assists in modelling a Close Encounter of the Sand Kind. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

Mayor, Council, staff get their hands dirty


Pelham Town Council held a special committee meeting Monday evening a week ago, forgoing council chambers and a conventional agenda for a hands-on workshop at Fire Hall #1. The meeting was concerned only one item: a presentation from Adam Bienenstock, of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. Bienenstock’s company designs and builds natural playgrounds, which are areas designated for children to play but without the typical plastic and steel construction. Bienenstock is also a prolific speaker, and has travelled widely educating people on the theory behind natural playgrounds, and education was his primary purpose during his evening in Pelham.

After Mayor Augustyn had formally initiated the proceedings, a formality required because it was technically still a council meeting, Bienenstock took the front of the room and began his slideshow with a picture of an old upturned tree surrounded by sand.

“This was in a park in Amsterdam,” Bienenstock said. “And I promise you that there were lots of kids playing on it. When the the weird bald dude with the camera showed up, they all disappeared.” The crowd, which was mostly made up of Town staff, laughed.

Bienenstock contrasted the tree with what he described as the general approach to playground development.

“We keep on reducing every time that we’re worried about something, and we end up with less and less.” He pointed to the screen, where a cartoon satirizing this hyper-cautious mentality was displayed. An empty lawn with a single tree was depicted, and the drawing was captioned, “Great park design, but what’s with the tree? That’s a maintenance issue. Plus, someone could hit their head on it.”

Bienenstock lamented that children now spend increasingly fewer hours in nature.

“There’s signage all over now, prohibiting the entry into forests,” he said, scanning the room. “When you were kids, how many of you were told to come back home when the streetlights come on or it was dinner time?”

Nearly everyone raised their hands.

“I was told, ‘Don’t come back,’” joked Augustyn.

Bienenstock said that studies have shown that the average roaming distance of children has shrunk considerably over time, with the average eight-year-old now venturing just 150 to 300 yards from home. He cited other studies that have researched the implications of this diminishment in out-of-doors time, including work by his own father.

“My dad studies the effect of certain bacteria on PTSD,” Bienenstock said. “When I was a kid, my dad had a rule against washing our hands before dinner, so that we could build up our immune systems. He was weird in a lot of ways. He was a nudist. I once brought home a Mennonite girlfriend, and he didn’t see anything wrong with meeting her without clothes on.”

“I’m not minuting that,” said Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato, who was taking notes of the meeting.

“Anyway,” continued Bienenstock. “This is not a therapy session.” He clicked forward and displayed a picture of an old log that had been installed in a natural playground. “What do you see when you look at this,” he asked the crowd.

“Riding a horse,” said Sharon Cook, a resident present on behalf of the Accessibility Committee.

“Sharp edges,” said the Town’s insurance broker.

“A dragon,” someone else said.

“The point is that everyone interprets it differently,” said Bienenstock. “And that’s what we want, to give kids the opportunity to have their imaginations work.”

Bienenstock criticized plastic and metal playground installations as overly sterile. He said that research shows that attempting to remove all risk from play results in kids injuring themselves more severely over the course of a lifetime.

“We need to look at risks and assess them,” he said. “What are bad injuries, and what are learning injuries.”

Bienenstock said that the natural playgrounds his company designs must still meet Canadian Standards Association safety regulations.

“We’ve only had one injury on our playgrounds,” he said. “And it was a father who was trying to stand underneath his daughter as she climbed on a log. His name was Simon, and I know that because his wife was yelling at him, ‘SIMON, LEAVE HER ALONE.’ His daughter wobbled a little, and he dove for her, and smashed his forehead on the log. His wife came running over and said that everything was fine, she saw what had happened, and her husband was an idiot. While her dad had hurt himself, the daughter climbed right to the top.”

Bienenstock talked extensively about the textured learning environment that natural playgrounds allow kids to have. When his company installs an old tree at a playground, which will often be a tree felled in the community, the bark will be left on it. At one park in Toronto, kids were took to pulling the bark from the log and used it to develop a bartering system.

“One piece of bark was worth one, but then some kid said that a big piece was worth ten, and the civilization imploded. We got a call to bring in a load of bark—the adults wanted more currency to stop the kids from beating each other,” said Bienenstock with a smile, seemingly pleased with his role in the quantitative easing of bark.

He described the bark as a feature that fulfilled the “loose part” necessity in the playground, so that kids can manipulate the environment and engage all five senses.

After Bienenstock finished, the second half of the meeting was allotted for the attendees to construct their own mini-models of a natural playground. The audience split themselves into three groups, each of which assembled around a table to begin the construction of a mock playground. Bienenstock and his assistant, Jon Halayko, had arranged tarps on the tables covered with wet sand. Each group was given a small wedge to begin, along with a piece of rope.

“The pathway leading from the ground level to the top of the wedge should be as long as the rope,” said Bienenstock. “That way, the inclination will be no more than five degrees, and the path will still be easily accessible.”

Everyone seemed to be having a great time digging in to the dirt and rolling up their sleeves. Town CAO Darren Ottaway, for one, took some of the little plastic people provided and arranged them all around his table’s model, which he was building along with several councillors and the Town’s insurance broker.

“I’ve just never grown up,” Ottaway said, laughing.

“Is there going to be a storm pond?” asked Town Director of Recreation Vickie vanRavenswaay.

Someone pointed towards a corner of the table, where a small pond had been modelled. “Ah,” she said, looking to the insurance agent. “Are you getting nervous?”

“It only takes two inches of water to drown,” said Nancy Bozzato.

Halayko looked on at the three tables’ progress with interest. Before joining Bienenstock’s firm, three years ago, he worked at YMCAs and in the wellness department of an oil firm in Calgary.

“At the oil company we had a limited wellness budget,” he said, explaining that it was trying to retain as many employees as possible (before the price of oil dropped) and to improve mental health.

“And of all the things that we did, the most repeat visits were from those who we’d just taken outside. So that’s my answer to most things: just take people outside.”

Vickie vanRavenswaay said that she’d heard Bienenstock present before, and thought that inviting him to Pelham would be a good opportunity to educate council, staff, and residents about other possibilities for parks.

“It’s something different from the conventional approach,” she said. “And there are a lot of potential parks going in near new developments. There will be public consultation on it before anything happens, so who knows. Some parents don’t like their kids to get dirty. It will be interesting to see.”

The three tables had by then finished on their designs, using plants, rocks, tunnels, rope, and sticks to make impressively detailed models. Bienenstock briefly looked over each one and explained the sorts of amendments that would need to be made to make the model more feasible. Then, finally, he returned to the front of the room and asked the crowd to list the reasons that would prevent such a natural playground from being built.

“Too dangerous,” said Councillor Richard Rybiak, “or vandalism.”

“Too expensive,” said someone else.

“No parking,” said Ottaway.

“Not enough lighting,” said Cook.

“NIMBYism,” said Councillor Gary Accursi.

“Or BANANA,” said Augustyn.

“What’s that?” said Bienenstock.

“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone,” said Augustyn.

“That’s a good phrase,” said Bienenstock. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

“These are all very common objections,” he continued, and proceeded to take on each, one at a time. He argued that statistics showed that playground injuries were extremely low, far below most organized sports, somewhere on the list between fishing and sailing. According to Bienenstock, research also indicates that natural playgrounds are less susceptible to vandalism, since man-made structures receive the most abuse.

Similarly counterintuitively, Bienenstock said that highly-lit parks are often less safe than those with substantial canopy cover.

He said that funds for natural playgrounds could often come from corporations with charitable wings, including TD Friends of the Environment. NIMBYism could be counteracted by special public consultations, ones that would ideally be held in the park or proposed playground site. Bienenstock suggested that the NIMBYism would be diffused by the informality of the events, which could include a food truck and roaming facilitators.

“Often at those public meetings, the angriest people are the ones that control the microphone,” said Bienenstock.

“We should put a food truck in Fenwick,” said Augustyn, apparently referring to East Fenwick planning meetings, at which residents have been forceful in their objections.

“The NIMBY discussion hits a little close to home,” said Rybiak. Bienenstock smiled.

As Bienenstock reached the end of his presentation, some of the attendees sidled out, apologizing for leaving early.

“That’s all right,” Bienenstock said. “I’ve gone a bit over time.” Bienenstock’s presentation was received by Council, and will be considered when designs for future parks are discussed.

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