Drôle House Blog

Positive and Negative Space - Landscape Play

This past August was a month of construction projects during our yearly holiday away from the city at my parents' property in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The whole family helped prep formwork and pour concrete, framed and sheathed a building addition, built a treehouse, and installed solar panels like it was NBD.

To the grown-up builders among us, construction is as close to creative, challenging and risky play as adulthood allows. Assembling seemingly unrelated pieces to create, test and reassemble, climbing too high and feeling the thrill of fear, problem solving, collaborating, all the while testing the physical limits of our bodies. I went to bed exhausted, dreaming about banging in roofing nails in two precise and satisfying blows (if only!). It was the adult version of loose parts play that I wrote about here

At the same time we were building, I felt the urge to take something away. Clear out a space, carve something out of the dense wilderness around us to balance the work. I wanted to explore the idea of using voids for play in a way that would be impermanent (i.e. so I couldn't screw it up). I decided to attempt this dance between positive and negative space with two small landscape projects.

The first was a simple maze cut out of a disused baseball field.

By cutting something away, the field was transformed from a static lookout to the ocean, to a dynamic mini-landscape to charge into and explore. The kids couldn't help but run in, leap and hide behind the taller thickets. A maze invites movement and exploration. It is a small, temporal project with great impact. No construction, just void.

The second landscape was what I call a forest tunnel. The woods are mostly too dense to penetrate on foot. I carved a tunnel, not for walking through, but as an unexpected view to connect one landscape to the next.


 It's a tube of space cut at child height, and only visible in one particular spot on either side. One side frames a road- and way home- and the other frames a view to the water. From any other angle, the forest tunnel is just the same old forest. Unexpected views like this one can be an invitation to find a way to the other side. Surprise and delight.

Reflecting on the summer of building and taking away, I realized we all seek positive and negative spaces whether we know it or not. We accumulate and purge, seek enclosure and expanse, build spaces to be together and spaces to be alone. They are the two sides of the same coin. However, in that negative space - inside that void - holds the greatest potential for play. 

It's a concept worth exploring more: how to discover and create negative spaces in the places we live, the space where play is born.

Where are the voids in your home?


Postcard 8

{Postcard 8} - "Is there another way to use my long driveway for storage?" - submitted by Aaron

{Postcard 8} - "Is there another way to use my long driveway for storage?" - submitted by Aaron

This design challenge hails from Halifax. Aaron demolished his 12'x22' delapidated garage this summer, but noticed how awesomely large his yard could be for his kids if he didn't rebuild it in the same place. He wonders if there is a way to rebuild something for storage and privacy while benefiting from a larger yard.

This design challenge includes:

  • an already demolished garage
  • an underused, 11 foot wide, ridiculously long driveway that is a pain to shovel in the winter
  • the need to maintain the access through the backyard for oil tank refilling
  • the need to store a snowblower, winter tires, bikes and a plethora of kid and yard equipment

Aaron is not concerned about keeping the garage for future resale, he'd rather have a bigger backyard and more accessible storage for the next decade.

Suggested solution:

In this schematic design, two smaller structures - joined by a gate - replace the garage. One is an 8'x8' shed, situated right adjacent to the wall of the house, between the side door and the first floor window. An overhang can be included in the shed's hipped roof to serve as a shelter for the side entrance (bonus!), as well as partially cover the walkway. Access doors to the shed can be on any of the three sides, depending on what needs storing. The second structure is a beefed-up fence to create privacy from neighbours and provide amble storage for yard tools and toys.

There are many benefits to re-imagining exterior storage space. 

Benefits include:

  1. By locating the shed further along the driveway, there is still room for two cars but cuts down on a 150 sqft worth of winter shoveling. Score!
  2. Two smaller structures (built at the same time over over a couple of summers perhaps), the square footage falls under 100 sqft (or 10sqm) which takes his build legally outside of building permit territory.
  3. Aaron and his family can properly enjoy the large tree in the corner where the garage used to be...a place to build a treehouse or patio perhaps?

What has your garage done for you lately?


Scrappy Toys

Have you heard about loose parts play? If you've ever been to a playground like Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, then you've seen how intensely kids play when they have the freedom to create their own spaces with wood, shovels and dirt. Messy? Oh yes. Risky? Debatable. Fun? Undeniably. Having loose parts in a school playground would basically be a (traditional) principal's nightmare!

Perspectives on outdoor play are changing. There is a re-emerging field of research called playwork, which links free outdoor play, child development and creativity. You may have seen glimpses of it in The Land movie, or read about it on Playgroundology, or even here and here.  One facet of playwork is based on the theory of loose parts, described by architect Simon Nicholson in the seventies. He believed that creativity was intrinsic to each child and wanted to developed ways to make play spaces more engaging for children. My kinda guy! Nicholson wrote:

"In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it" - Simon Nicholson (click here to read it yourself)

Scrappy toys like these fit well into playwork. They combine re-use of scrap building materials, outdoor play, risk (danger + play I will get to another time), gross and fine motor skill mastery, and result in engrossing creative play. It works for a range of ages because the complexity of the creations develop along with the child. At first, kids cobble things together without much planning. Maybe your kid ends up nailing a million nails into one end of a plank (ta da!) - just for the fun of banging - and maybe next time nailing is easier and another skill can be tested, and so the creation evolves. It takes time without parents hovering over kids to see a creation unfold, perhaps into WWII war ships like the passionate builder of some of the models here, or discard ideas completely and start anew. My in-laws were at the head of the pack in the seventies letting their kids do this (many of these boats were made by my spouse at age 9). No surprise there as they were educators and highly creative people themselves.

The next time you have a few scrap two-by-fours around from a home reno, try it out. A few hammers, lots and lots of nails of different sizes - and submitting to the fear of a bashed thumb- is all it takes. If it's not for you or your kids, donate your materials to Pop-Up Adventure Play or your nearest Habitat re-store.

Happy building!


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Postcard 7

{How to separate sitting space from play space for kids?} - Submitted by James

{How to separate sitting space from play space for kids?} - Submitted by James

James' backyard, like most backyards, has two personalities. The grown-up needs for entertaining, hanging out and gardening can conflict with kids' independent play and the inevitable scattering of toys. James wants to enjoy his backyard, have more privacy from neighbours but still maintain a kids' play zone. 

This outdoor design challenge includes:

  • a zig-zag shaped backyard with lots of concrete
  • three active boys who love sports and need some hard surfaces to play
  • the need to maintain the access through the backyard to the basement apartment for tenant
  • allowing intimate dining and kids play to happen side by side

The first suggestion would be to take up all necessary concrete and replace with grass or vegetation to help define the visual separation of the adult zone (green zone) and kids zone (hard surfaces for playing sports). Using the garage as an anchor point, you can build a moveable partition wall that first slides out on a track and includes a rotating half (with multi-directional wheel at the base) that can be folded in both directions to create "rooms". Each side of the wall can be clad with different materials and have multiple functions. 

Configurations for the room can include enclosed dining, a room and screen for outdoor movies (adult side) as well as playing/climbing wall, drawing or writing surfaces, and a cabana/fort (kids side). The cladding materials can be subtle and interchangeable, or quite sturdy to endure boisterous play.  When the partition wall is tucked back into it's 'closed' position, the kids can have the run of the place.  

What functions would you add to an moveable outdoor room?



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{DREAM} - Laneways reimagined

DREAM is a series of posts about ideas that are a little OUT THERE, to inspire a re-imagining of the built environment around us. If we can't dream it, how ever can we do it?

Have you heard of David Suzuki's Laneway Project? It's led by an urban design and planning organization that aims to tap the potential of Toronto's underused laneways. They estimate that there are 2400 publicly owned laneways covering more than 250km of linear public space throughout the city. In partnership with residents and businesses, they use murals, green paving and community events to get people thinking and using these out of sight, out of mind spaces differently.

It begs the question: if residential streets are for driving and parking cars owned by residents, why are laneways used the same way? Isn't it redundant? With every square foot at a premium in Toronto, garages can be repurposed as flex space and buffer the public and private spaces of a neighbourhood. Let's go wild for a minute and dream about what car-free laneways could be.

First, let's rip up all the asphalt. Yes, just go with it.

Plant native grasses and wildflowers. Let them grow wild. Wait.

Carve out mowed paths, labyrinths, clearings. Explore. Breathe it in.

The laneway is a greenway now. A park. A garden. 

The opaque faces of garage doors open up to reveal covered porches and family rooms, workshops and makerspaces, studios, even outdoor kitchens.

The laneway is now a safer place to inhabit, socialize, to play and to grow. 

Host summertime movie nights in a clearing.

Pour a rink for wintertime skating.

Carve out vegetable plots with access to this new sunlight.

Invite in gleaners from Not Far From The Tree to harvest and share the bounty from sweet cheery, pear, apple and apricot trees, raspberry and serviceberry bushes.

Host a traditional tomato canning party and exchange the bounty.

Can you see a flock of chickens in there somewhere?

What would you dream up?

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Postcard 4

{Postcard 4}- "How can I build flexible, multi-use play blocks in my backyard" Submitted by Karine

{Postcard 4}- "How can I build flexible, multi-use play blocks in my backyard" Submitted by Karine

Karine's challenge includes:

  • designing multi function, durable exterior stools for sitting and playing on
  • that can also be used to define an area of the backyard
  • be moveable and stackable by children

The idea here is to make a multi-functional garden box stool that could be a more useful and durable alternative to the traditional crate. Material choices such as light weight half inch recycled plastic panels, marine plywood or engineered wood are definitely more durable and stronger than pine. The panels can be cut to five equal sixteen inch squares and attached into a cube with L brackets screwed to the inside. Offsetting all the edges, though limiting the strength of the box, does allow for easy grasping and stacking for kids, better drying for durability, and has the bonus feature of more easily being turned into a lantern. The garden boxes can be any colour, used as stools or stepping stones, made into walls and forts, be stacked as high as bar tables for outdoor parties, and by adding a battery or solar powered light fixture inside each, can glow from within.