Transforming playgrounds into serious fun | Ontario Agricultural College

Transforming playgrounds into serious fun

Posted on Thursday, January 6th, 2022

Written by Tahlia Dyer

Kids playing at a playground designed by Earthscape Play.

Featuring Bruce Martin, MLA 2009, and Tatiana Zakharova, MLA 2019

There’s a playground renaissance in North America, says Tatiana Zakharova, a playground designer with Earthscape Play, which creates, designs and builds brilliant, fun and award-winning playgrounds around the world. 

“It’s thrilling to be part of a Canadian company that pioneered design and creation of unique wood playgrounds – growing exponentially outward from local Ontario work to worldwide projects,” says Tatiana. 

The company has grown over the past decade on the strength of its detailed design processes, complexity of spaces, richness of materials and research on play.

Tatiana works directly with a wide range of clients, including municipalities, real estate developers, schools, daycares and destination playground projects with multiple stakeholders.

Head shot of Tatiana Zakharova.

She pursued her MLA at the University of Guelph to design outdoor spaces for children, with a particular interest in their development and how social and economic inequalities can impact children. 

“It all started with the exploration of school grounds and how we can think about policy and make spaces that address matters of equality and social justice for all children.” 

Having landed her dream job with Earthscape Play, she is currently pursuing her PhD in the Faculty of Education at Western University. 

“Play to me is a question of possibilities,” says Tatiana. “There is an opportunity for a multitude of experiences in the playgrounds that we are creating, so when we work on design, we need the openness to surround us to think deeply about experiences of play.” 

Besides designing playgrounds, she works to understand and enhance play value and experiences. She was involved in developing the post occupancy evaluation (POE) program at Earthscape, a practice for reviewing how a project is being utilized and whether it meets the original objectives.

“In evaluating built playgrounds through the POE program, we hope to determine what kind of play, group and individual experiences are happening on our playgrounds.,” says Tatiana. “We also look at more technical aspects such as watching the interactions with materials used on the playground: woods, metal, ropes, nets, etc. We also allow the program to be flexible so we can respond to different experiences we are observing.” 

Bruce Martin, design engineer, says the company aims to make everything it can from wood.

Head shot of Bruce Martin.

“We use many forms of wood including lumber, timber, logs, plywood and glulam [glued laminated timber],” he says. “We continue to focus on using wood for sustainability. It’s such a nice material to touch, it has a softness to it and a wonderful temperature-moderating quality that makes it far more comfortable to interact with year-round compared to other materials.”

He adds that wood has a low carbon footprint and low embodied energy, meaning it takes less energy than other materials to fabricate goods. Natural materials are key attributes of the company’s playgrounds. 

Bruce works on the technical side of the business and helps bring Earthscape’s whimsical bespoke designs to life.

“I translate concept designs into buildable playground elements,” he says. “I’m part of a team that completes the detailed design, fabrication drawings and installation drawings for our unique playground structures.”

With a background in engineering, he decided to pursue his MLA because of his passion for design and aptitude for creative problem-solving. His credentials also opened the door to a position at a landscape architecture and planning consulting firm, where he enjoyed working for a number of years.

“I value the knowledge and perspective that the MLA gave me,” says Bruce. “Coming from a technical engineering background, the master’s program provided a more holistic view of problems, looking at them from a people and environmental perspective as well.”  

The company aligned with his background and values, and he says the position was a lucky find.

“Earthscape allowed me to combine my two passions. It was a marriage of two pieces of my background that fit perfectly together.” 

At Earthscape, he and the engineering team work hard to ensure that the final detailed design allows their products to meet the company’s standards as well as those of the playground industry. It can be a challenge figuring out how to meet all the constraints while working with wood and staying true to the beauty of the original concepts. 

“Our team takes the concept design, merges it with our standards and materials available, and refines the design to meet industry requirements,” says Bruce. “We engineer each element to ensure it’s safe and can sustain the loads of playground users and the local environment for many years to come.”

Among its recent projects, the company’s Earthscape Collections – a curated collection of predesigned play structures – allows for more cost-efficient, handcrafted wooden playground structures with high play value. Bruce says standardizing products allows the company to offer them to a broader market. 

“Our aim is to build more unique play environments in more places across North America. Everything is handcrafted and built to order by a skilled group of people who are bringing these wooden towers and play sculptures to life, and it’s all happening in Wallenstein, Ontario.” 

Earthscape Play has built more than 300 playgrounds. With the increasing need for outdoor play spaces and a move toward more sustainable materials, these play experiences are more important than ever, says Tatiana.

She says play is a much deeper experience than just a means of growth and development.

“We are a company that both creates play spaces and spends time thinking deeply about the stories that inspire and will continue to live in these spaces. Our involvement with play doesn’t stop at design and fabrication, we are interested in the future of these spaces.”

This article was originally published in the LIBRANNI 2022 / Vol. 4

To find out more about Earthscape Play, visit

Read more LIBRANNI articles: 
Bridging the digital divide
New turf for the Guelph Turfgrass Institute.

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