Elizabeth Street Playground, 1913 (Arthur Goss, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 68)

School’s out for the summer, but on this warm Sunday evening in late June, the schoolyard behind Brookmill Boulevard Junior Public School has come alive to the rhythm of traditional Chinese music and the cracks of a cricket bat. In one corner, a dozen or so Chinese seniors—the first arriving on bicycle, the rest by foot—have transformed the patch of rough pavement into an outdoor dance floor, choreographing their outstretched limbs to a sequence of slow songs from a boombox set on repeat. Nearby, a group of young and middle-aged Sri Lankan men play an improvised game of cricket on a field made for baseball.

Here in the north end of Scarborough, the participants appear unbothered by the fact that the backboards in the playground are still missing their rims, despite basketball virtually becoming a national sport overnight, or that the baseball diamond they’re playing on has a gravel infield that’s on the verge of being reclaimed by nature. Sure, neutering basketball equipment over a few noise complaints feels draconian and unfair, and no doubt operating budgets for parks and rec have not kept up with growth, and there are new concerns on the horizon about the city’s ability to pay for parks in the future if Bill 108 passes. But out here, the spirit of play transcends the material conditions and local politics of the city.

Play has always been political. Toronto’s first playgrounds, championed by progressive reformers and activists in the early 1900s, were erected in poor, slum-like neighbourhoods. The concerns of the day were unruly immigrant children playing in the streets and scrap yards who were surely destined for a life of crime and delinquency. These early playgrounds, staffed by onsite supervisors, were hugely popular among children, but viewed through a sociological lens, they were also a subtle form of cultural assimilation.

More recently in 2008, when Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti took down the hoops on a basketball court in Strathburn Park because they were attracting “drug dealers,” some local residents were quick to make it an issue of Canadian identity. “I don’t see why we have to have basketball nets in our neighbourhood for kids from Etobicoke. I’ve been trying to get the damn things down for 28 years. Our kids play hockey, they don’t play basketball,” one resident told the Etobicoke Guardian at the time.

To say that there is a right way to play is to miss the whole point of playing. In any given corner of our diverse city, games are being played that might seem foreign to some but innately familiar to others—games from back home, or at least some Canadianized versions of them. The fact that they’re played at all is a beautiful thing.

In his 1974 landmark report, A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians, the then Minister of National Health and Welfare, Marc Lalonde, called for “mass physical recreation” as part of a broad set of actions to improve what we now call the social determinants of health.

Today, just two in ten adults, and one in ten children and youth are active enough to meet Canadian physical activity guidelines, while screen time is rising at an alarming rate. It is abundantly clear that we are far from achieving Lalonde’s vision of mass recreation. Now, perhaps more than ever, it shouldn’t matter that it’s basketball or hockey, cricket, burby or Double Dutch—and even if the field sucks and registration for our favourite program is full—we all need to just go out and play. Play anything.


Special thanks to Mark Valino, a Toronto-based filmmaker/cinematographer/editor/visual artist, for the dominoes video.