As a day out having fun with the kids, going to the park sounds rather dull and old-fashioned. It’s something Mary Poppins was supposed to do with the Banks children, before they went jumping in pavement pictures instead.
But Mary Poppins didn’t have High Park to go to.
Sandwiched between Bloor Street and the Queensway in the West End of Toronto, High Park’s 399 acres include forests, a couple of creeks, the ecologically significant black oak savanna, the Grenadier restaurant, and Grenadier pond, which looks to me like a very small lake. The park is also the largest green space entirely encompassed by the City of Toronto (Rouge Park is bigger, but it isn’t entirely inside any one city).
Forget the little green patch with a swing set down the street! Here is a park you can really get lost in.
Slides and Emus and Shakespeare, oh my!
There’s a playground just to your right once you’ve entered the Bloor gates and passed the Black Oak café. It has swings, slides, and sand, and it’s most emphatically not the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground. There is also a playground on the west side of the creek, along the west border of the park before you get to Grenadier Pond. It too has swings and sand and it is also not the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground. Instead, follow any one of several roads and trails that take you almost to the southeastern-most corner of the park, right next to Parkside Drive, and look for the wooden castle turrets. That’s the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, completed in 1999 and rebuilt in 2012 after an arsonist burned down the original castle.
For those too old for swings and slides, there are also various sports facilities (especially tennis) up near the Bloor Street entrance, and those with a license can fish in Grenadier pond. If you want to get a feel for the place before you go hiking off into the trees, there’s a half-hour trackless train tour available during the warm weather.
There is also the zoo. Don’t think of vast cages and elaborate habitats housing lions and tigers and bears. The High Park Zoo is a series of pens and shelters arrayed along one side of a road. Nothing terribly dangerous or exotic is found here, but there are bison, wild sheep, llamas, and — my personal favourite — Emus.
Does all this make for a good day out? Well, even if the answer is already plainly yes, there’s still more to get into.
Kids with an interest in local history can attend tours and special events at Colborne Lodge. Originally the home of Jemima and John Howard — the couple who founded the park in the 1870s — Colborne Lodge was built in 1837, and it’s now an official Toronto historical site and museum as well as the host of summer and March Break camps. You can even book the venue for a birthday party.
Near the Grenadier Restaurant is the High Park Amphitheatre, host to Shakespeare in the park every summer. This summer, amphitheatre patrons can choose between Titus Andronicus and As You Like It.
A Walk in the Park
The first time I visited High Park, I didn’t go to Colborne Lodge, or the zoo, or to a play. I sat on a bench on a Sunday afternoon with at least a dozen other people crowded around and stared into a plastic storage crate containing leaves and twigs — and a cecropia caterpillar bigger than any of my fingers. We were all here for one of the park’s walking tours, which occur every other Sunday during the spring, summer, and fall. Each walk has a different topic (moths and butterflies, in my case) and is generally intended for a fairly wide age range.
You can find various tree species in High Park.
If none of the tour topics appeals to you, you can always conduct your own High Park walk. The place is so vast that the wildlife is quite healthy and diverse. Jon Hayes, the Family Programs Co-ordinator at the High Park Nature Centre, told me that Blandings turtles (an Ontario species at risk), redback salamanders, and the ironically scarce common moorhen have all been sighted in the park. More regular residents include various raptors, swans, foxes, deer, several species of duck, and three or four types of heron. Apparently, there used to be flying squirrels in High Park, before the habitat changed to not longer suit them.
In addition to the park website, trees in High Park are listed at the Canadian Trees Tour site as well.
This talk of wildlife brings me to a building tucked away near the park’s eastern edge, where I found myself wishing I was 12 again.
Like some clueless explorer searching for a little green El Dorado, I got a bit lost the first time I went looking for the High Park Nature Centre. Later, once I’d actually found the place, I was told that the spot had been used for lawn bowling before it was given over to the cause of youthful outdoor adventuring around 1999.
“We’re trying to promote awareness, and understanding, and respect for nature in High Park.” Jon Hayes explained. “All of our programs are based on exploration and also stewardship. A lot of our work involves planting native species in the black oak savanna, which is an endangered ecosystem. We also remove invasive species.”
Just to be clear, when he says “our work,” he’s not just referring to the Nature Centre staff, but to the hundreds of kids involved in their programs each year. Most of these programs are for school groups or the summer nature camp programs (for ages 0 to 16) that run for a few weeks and require registration. But for a one-time family outing, there are also the Family Nature Walks on a handful of summer weekends each month (see the schedule for the walks and the walking tours here).
Thinking of the age range the centre caters to (the newest club, Nature Baby, is for children under 2 — with an adult), I asked Hayes what a six-year-old might do in High Park.
“What doesn’t a six-year-old do in High Park?” he replied.
Hayes went on to explain that six is the bug-hunting age, and the programs aimed at the under-eight crowd tend to involve a lot of insect catching, study, and release expeditions. Activities for other ages include not only park care (and the requisite training) but also species identification and orienteering. Like Colborne Lodge, they’ll also host a kids’ birthday party, but you’d better book quite a ways ahead. Spaces fill up quickly.
The Way of the Worm
Away down south, almost at the bottom of the park, sits a plain little yellow building with plants growing on the roof. Actually, the plant matter extends farther down then that, because the High Park Children’s Garden headquarters and teaching kitchen is a straw-bale construction. Never fear. It’s sturdy enough and comfortably warm in the winter.
Outside the kitchen is the Children’s Garden — home of organic and sometimes heirloom vegetables, tended by dozens-going-on-a-hundred of little hands every year.
Like the Nature Centre, the Children’s Garden is connected to several school programs and holiday camps, but it also offers free, drop-in-on-a-whim activities every Thursday, from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM in July and August. Children over the age of 12 are encouraged to participate as assistants, while those under 12 (with an adult accompaniment) will have a chance to take part in crafts, games, storytelling, and of course garden maintenance (which may include weeding, watering, pest-picking, composting, harvesting, or just “hanging out with the worms”).
Worms are a big deal at the Children’s Garden, and not just because they’re essential for the soil. Keely Forth — environmental community recreation programmer for the children’s eco programs — stressed to me how essential it was to acclimatize children to hands-on interactions with the squirmier aspects of nature. The earlier and the more frequent the interactions, the better.
Forth told me about children she’d met through the eco programs who were so out of touch with the origins of their food that they drew “corn cobs sticking out of the ground,” fully formed, when asked to imagine how corn grew. She also told me about the group of downtown kindergarten girls and their near-worm experience in the garden:
“I’ve got seven or eight five-year-old girls and they’re all in their cute little dresses, so we’re looking at the worms and they’re all totally squeamish. ‘So, who would like to hold a worm?’ Because we’d like to make sure that everybody gets a chance to hold one — if they want — by the end. And they’re all like, ‘No. Ew. Blah.’ And then finally, I’m saying, ‘How about you just pet it?’ And so one little brave soul sort of pet it, and then a few others were willing to. So that first little brave one, who was petting one, finally would hold one. By the end of less than ten minutes, we went from the ‘ew, I’m not gonna touch that, no way’ squealing to handfuls. And it’s like a competition of who can get more, going up to their moms and saying, ‘Look, mom! See how many worms I have!’ Barrier gone. No problem.”
Demolishing the barriers between people and nature seems to be a powerful ideal behind the eco programs, which are now expanding to include cooking alongside agriculture. There are also winter hiking programs, special workshops during the winter holidays, and an eco camp during March Break. If you’re wondering about birthday parties, the answer is yes.
It goes without saying that you can enjoy a great day out with the kids without the help of any formal program, organization, or performance. Besides the zoo, the gardens, the theatre, the Nature Centre, and the playground, High Park also has offers green house and a dogs’ off-leash area. More importantly, there are those trails winding, looping, and leading you on through the green and shadow-dappled shade.
Near the end of our talk, Jon Hayes gave me a hint about the hidden riches in store for those who visit the park:
“You could explore High Park for years. Every time I go out and explore High Park, I see something I’ve never seen before. And I’ve been doing this for six years.”