Risky Rainbow Play

I thought I would be the type of parent who would take my kid on public transport frequently. That by her almost 3 years of age, she would have ridden the bus at least once or twice. Would know what the yellow rope was for, would know to say thank you upon exiting. Would be familiar with the screeching brakes of the SkyTrain or the incessant beeps of Compass cards tapping in and out.

COVID kept my daughter off the bus these past couple years and it wasn’t until today that she got her wish of riding one. She’s been singing “The Wheels on the Bus” since God knows how long and now she could finally be one of the people going “up and down.” She gripped the bars of her stroller like she was riding the wooden roller coaster at the PNE and kept asking as her head scanned the occupied blue seats, “Why are there so many people?”

Our destination was the newly opened park at Smithe and Richards streets downtown: sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7 in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Squamish languages, meaning “Rainbow” park. The City of Vancouver’s website says this is the first park to be gifted a name by the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7, meaning ‘rainbow’, was chosen for this place because the land where the park now sits was once forested with large trees and had many sources of water, including a marsh where the sun and mist would form rainbows.

I see the “rainbow” element integrated into the design of the playground through the multi-textured walkways that wrap around and over the park, with wheelchair accessible routes too. These walkways imitate rainbows that arch over the kids playing below. I was standing on one while I took this pic of my daughter bouncing on one of the two trampolines. The Indigenous public art banners waving in the wind echo this rainbow effect, adding height and colour to an already variegated landscape.

There are a lot of cookie cutter playgrounds in Vancouver (and probably any city) but this is not one of them. Its varying heights, structures, and integration into the streetscape caught my attention right away. Here is a park that promotes risky play, that considers parents as much as the kids, that offers a little something for everyone.

In researching risky play (which I am a fan of though it can scare me!), I came across this video that traces the history of “adventure playgrounds” that were originally known as “junk playgrounds” that began in Denmark in the aftermath of WWII. It’s fascinating.

The video gives 6 criteria that typically categorize an adventure playground:

  • heights
  • speed
  • tools
  • dangerous elements
  • rough-and-tumble play
  • the ability to disappear or become lost

While there were no tools or dangerous elements like hammers, nails, or loose bricks for kids to manipulate, this “Rainbow” park definitely contains the other criteria. You can tell it was equally designed for parents and caregivers by putting in a nearby coffee shop (Kafka’s) and wooden seating around the edges (with backrests!) that indicates parents stay on the perimeter while the centre area is for the kids (something the video discusses as well). That being said, the park is so inviting it’s hard for adults to stay on the edges, as evidenced by the daddy-daughter photo below (my family).

Freeform sculptures (some with footholds, others not) invite creative climbing and sliding. And you can only reach the top of these staggeringly high towers by climbing from the bottom all the way to the top. Sure, an adult could go up it but our bodies don’t fit through those holes as easily! Our daughter wasn’t interested in climbing these but she loved the lower slide, the roller slide, and the trampolines. Different structures appeal to different age groups, and to me, that’s a mark of a good playground when a variety of ages can enjoy it. And let’s not underestimate the simple power of a good hill to climb or ramp to run down. I saw children playing tag along the walkways and others in the spray pool cooling off.

If you’re in the Vancouver area and looking for other examples of adventure playgrounds, I’d recommend Terra Nova Rural Park in Richmond (the closest I can think of to the adventure playground model) and Douglas Park in Vancouver.

Do you have a favourite risky playground where you live or where you’ve visited? Would love to know of other examples!

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