Tipping the Scales Toward Child Friendly Cities

Editor’s note – Thanks to Ian Smith (no relation) for this guest post on Child Friendly Edmonton. Smith is passionate about including children in city life. As Coordinator of Edmonton’s Child Friendly Cities initiative, he is in a unique position to experience their meaningful contributions first hand. So much so that he is convinced that municipal planners, policy makers and citizens at large have much to gain from listening to young people’s perspectives and ideas. Ian would like to acknowledge and recognize that parts of this article including some phrasing, ideas and concepts are based on Mara Mintzer’s 2017 TEDx talk How Kids Can Help Design Cities and that the ideas have been adapted to reflect how they apply to Child Friendly Edmonton. 

Nearly 25 years ago, UNICEF and UN – Habitat launched the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. As of 2018, 30 million children in 38 countries were being reached by this growing global movement. Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, UK released Making London Child-Friendly: Designing Places and Streets for Children and Young People, a milestone for the movement as it welcomed a leading world city to its ranks.

Major philanthropic organizations like the Bernard Van Leer Foundation are also lending support to engaging children’s perspectives on city living through their multi-year Urban95 project and other strategies. Just last month, Urban95 hosted an online twitter forum on livable, child friendly cities.

Other helpful and reliable sources of information on making cities more child friendly are: Rethinking Childhood; Cities for Play; Child in the City; and, CityLab. And now for Edmonton….

Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow

Edmonton, Canada is one of North America’s youngest cities but to 150,000 of its children citizens, it can still feel out of scale, out of reach and out of touch. Since 2006, Child Friendly Edmonton has been cheerfully obsessed with educating Edmontonians about the opportunities of working with children to come up with city-design solutions. We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

Common sense suggests we need to include all users and welcome children’s ideas as important sources of information and experience that contribute to the development of our cities? If we’re building a park to be largely used by kids, then shouldn’t kids have a say in the park’s design? Shouldn’t this premise hold for a mental health campaign, or policy on child care, or safety on transit or public washrooms? The list goes on. These are questions child friendly advocates grapple with every day as they prioritize decisions and assess impacts on children.

In Edmonton, we try to think about people of all ages and circumstances before we put another shovel in the ground, or sign off on another strategy. But too often, outside those laughter-filled rooms in our homes and schools, the city feels dismissive of our smallest citizens.

Quintessentially Canadian Street Play

Imagine you are an architect or a contractor constructing a new building in your city. If you do not consider the needs of children, what could some of the implications be? What should a city in 2020 or 2050 look like to be safe, playful, connected and ultimately livable for an urban childhood? Who better to ask about this than children themselves?

Many people wonder how it’s possible for children to actually grasp these big city issues and complex problems such as the affordable housing crisis, the development of a transportation master plan, the role of mass public transportation or, prioritizing density housing solutions? And even if they had ideas, wouldn’t they be childish, or unfeasible to implement? Questions such as these require consideration because excluding children’s participation in civic issues can result in bigger design problems. It’s not just about designing parks, it’s about the values we embrace in our collective city building efforts.

Child friendly advocates like Mara Mintzer and myself aren’t suggesting that all ideas from children should be implemented. It’s about the principle of including children. Some ideas from children – a fully electric transit bus fleet, no fees for recreation and leisure centres, no bullying or adventure playgrounds in every neighborhood – may not be immediately feasible, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. We need to seriously consider and use these ideas as visioning and concepts for the type of city we want to create.

Downtown Fun – Keeping Warm and Toasty

On various occasions I’m reminded of the concepts that Mara Mintzer brings up and reflect on them in our context. Kids think differently than adults, and that’s a huge value we don’t appreciate enough. Adults think about constraints: how much time a project will take, how much money it will cost and what potential risks it presents. In other words, how can we avoid risk and build for safety? This is obviously important, we need experts providing technical feasibility and advice. Kids are experts in their own lives. When kids dream up a space they very often include fun, playfulness and activities in their designs. This is not always what adults prioritize for public spaces. However, research shows that fun, play and movement are exactly what we need – adults and children together – to stay healthy.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset

in their city planning.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset in their city planning. Without even being aware of it, it just happens. They design for everyone, from their elderly friend with a walker, to their multicultural friend who is struggling to learn English, to the marginalized individual they see resting at the transit stop. Children design for people not for cars, politicians, advocacy groups, egos, or corporations. The last and perhaps most compelling discovery I have made is that a city which is friendly to children is a city friendly to all.

That line of thinking reveals something important that has for too long been a blind spot. If we aren’t including children in our planning, who else are we excluding from the process? We can’t possibly know the needs and wants of other people without asking. That goes for kids as well.

So, adults, let’s stop thinking of our children as future citizens, and instead start valuing them for the citizens and leaders they are right now. Go and read the Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow the result of a consultation on Edmonton’s draft City Plan that included feedback from over 1600 children. Our children are designing more sustainable cities that will make us happier and healthier. Children are designing the cities we all want to live in.

Meeting of the Minds on the Steps of City Hall

Our goal is to enable Edmonton’s children to feel like they have a role in the city and do not have to wait until they’re 18, voting age, for their opinions to be heard and considered. We want to help create the environment and circumstances where they’ll feel connected, invested and engaged in a community that feels joyful and optimistic – a place designed for them that incorporates their needs and perspectives.

We would like to thank all those who are long standing champions as well as new and future child friendly city advocates who embrace this approach. To learn more about what municipalities and other regions across the world are doing, visit UNICEF Child Friendly Cities. A thank you and recognition go out to Mara Mintzer and the team at Growing Up Boulder. You can learn more about the Growing Up Boulder (GUB) experience here.

Play is an important component of every child friendly city.

“For kids, play is not an outcome based pursuit. It is spontaneous and without any specific purpose beyond play itself. As adults we all have a responsibility to help children experience the joy of play. Let’s embrace risk and resilience and support the renaissance of play.” – Open Letter to Mayors and Councillors – PlayGroundology

Click through for additional information on Child Friendly Edmonton.

What strategies are being developed and implemented in your town or city to make it more child friendly?

Happy 10th Birthday PlayGroundology

Ten years ago today, PlayGroundology published its first post – Manhattan’s Bronze Guy. It’s a look at sculptor Tom Otterness’ installation piece, Playground, what was then a new space for kids in an NYC residential area. We’re still going strong 428 posts later.

Playground by Tom Otterness aka Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

A big shout out out and thanks to readers and PlayGroundology friends for all your help along the way. So many of you have shown such generosity. Some of you share your stories, others provide technical help and tips, others still encourage me to keep writing and to get out and play. Then there are the tour guides who proudly show me how their organizations and communities are making a contribution to kids and play.

It’s a wonderful ride full of discovery and adventure. I’m looking forward to another 10 years to ‘just play’ and to experience how much play rocks….

2019 Media Perspectives on Play – An Even Dozen

Reporting on children and play is becoming more of a thing. First and foremost, this is wonderful for kids. It means greater public prominence given to play related issues and successes. News publications, broadcasters and online media sources are reporting on the needs, trends, shortfalls and benefits of play. Here’s a dozen stories from the past year selected from Australia, Canada, The Republic of Ireland, UK and USA.

Thanks to the journalists who are helping to shine a light on all the work that is left to be done and for lending a voice that informs parents, policy makers, planners, educators and others who make critical decisions that impact children’s play.

The GuardianBy mollycoddling our children, we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers. By Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky – January 2019.

“…free play in which kids work out their own rules of engagement, take small risks, and learn to master small dangers (such as having a snowball fight) turns out to be crucial for the development of adult social and even physical competence.”

CBC – The Current Anna Maria Tremonti with guests Paul McKay, Mariana Brussoni, Tracy Vaillalncourt. Why experts say schools shouldn’t shy away from a little physicality during recess – February 2019.

“Educators have been reimagining recess lately from introducing more of it to inviting a bit more recklessness into it. In Quebec, a handful of schools are introducing sanctioned roughhousing zones on snowy school yards. It’s a spot where the kids can get a bit my hands on.”

The GuardianToo poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground. By Harriet Grant – March 2019.

“Dinah Bornat, an architect and expert on child-friendly design who advises planners, local authorities and the mayor of London, called the development “segregation” and said she has raised it with senior planners at the Greater London Authority.”

The London Free Press School board’s safety crackdown triggers playground ‘play-in’ protest. By Heather Rivers – April 2019.

“Recently, there have been a lot of safety rules that are unfair — like not being allowed to pick up snow with your hands or feet. Now, we’re not allowed to play on the climber anymore,” said Julie Ryan’s daughter, Lily, 14. 

The New York TimesMaking Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous. By Richard Schiffman – May 2019.

“The Yard, for kids 6 through 13, lacks the usual monkey bars, slides and swings. It is, however, well-stocked with dismembered store mannequins, wooden packing crates, tires, mattresses, an old piano and assorted other detritus of the modern world.”

The Irish TimesWhat happens when you ask children to design their own playground? By Sara Keating – June 2019

“Ask a child about their perfect playground and their answers may surprise you. Swings and roundabouts and slides are not as important as freedom: to experiment, take risks, become invisible, invent the landscape as they move through it.”

The Globe and MailDesigning for fun – How to make a better playground. By Alex Bozikovic – July 2019.

“Play is an essential part of children’s psychological development and so is risk. Learning to assess risk and to get back up when we fall is part of growing up”

The Toronto StarReclaim the streets for play. By the Editorial Board – August 2019.

“But with street play, kids activity isn’t curtailed by the hours available at the arena or on the soccer field. They simply step outside their homes and play for as long as they want with kids in their own neighbourhood.”

FatherlyEat, Play, Love: The Science of Play and its Impact on Childhood Development. By Virginia Pelley. September 2019.

“Parents should want kids to play. A lot. But before they can start encouraging play behaviors, they need to understand what they are. What does play look like? It starts with eye contact — we’re talking weeks out of the womb — and catalyzes quickly from there.”

ABC NewsLetting kids play with discarded objects is great for their bodies and minds, and not as risky as you might think. By Dr. Shirley Wyver – October 2019.

“Teachers are often concerned they will be seen as neglecting their duty of care if they allow children to take risks, so they restrict play that they know is beneficial for children.”

BBC News‘Global epidemic’ of childhood inactivity. By James Gallagher – November 2019.

“The World Health Organization says children’s health is being damaged as well as their brain development and social skills. It says failing to take the recommended hour a day of exercise is a universal problem in rich and poor countries.”

BBC ScotlandThe children learning to love being outdoors. By David Alliston – December 2019

“The philosophy of getting pre-school children out and about and playing in the mud and rain is fairly common in Scandinavia and Germany – and it is catching on in Scotland.”

If you have a favourite media story on play that you would like to share, please post it here as a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Playback

Our youngest, Lila-Jeanne – PlayGroundology started just after she was born

Our three youngest kids are a never ending source of inspiration. Their ability to play with no goal in mind, to get lost in changing beats and laughter’s rolling sound really highlights the vitality of independent play, the richness of embracing its giddy reel.

Over the course of PlayGroundology’s nearly ten years, I have frequently fantasized about being an embedded photographer/videographer for a few days with the neighbourhood gang. Although I have thousands of photos and hundreds of minutes of video of kids at play, none truly capture the child perspective of their universe.

With PlayGroundology poised to celebrate its tenth anniversary in a couple of weeks, I wanted to say thanks to my kids for showing me what it’s all about day in, day out. They play with abandon, with joy, intensity, exuberance and the unspoken belief that the parade of discovery, adventure and fun will never end.

I hope you will enjoy these unedited, kid-led parade moments that they have so generously shared.

 

That’s our little guy in the yellow and blue tie-die shirt paddling around Salamander Playground in Montreal, Canada nearly ten years ago – more here.

 

One of our girls centrifugaling around on one of the last roundabouts in Nova Scotia at Dempsey Corner Orchard – more here.

 

Up and down the hill with whirling paper streaming in the sky.

 

One small step up. One huge leap for risk assessment…

 

Tagging along for adventure.

 

Seasonal shennaingans

 

Creative destruction…

 

Play training.

 

Our nature getaway – Kejimkujik National Park.

 

More play moments coming soon….

 

 

For Each Kid a Story

The Halifax South Common is popping, erupting in play. A ‘loose parts’ emporium is scattered in pods across a grassy canvas on what has been public land since at least the 18th century.  On this July day, kids arrive in family groups, with day camps and in gaggles of child care centre pre-schoolers. Before it’s over, 200 kids are dispersed throughout the pop-up zone intent on touching, testing, trying, telling – infusing this public play extravaganza with their joy, energy, words, motion and ideas.

Touching, testing, trying telling…

There is an abandon, some wildness if you wish. Standard conventions are no longer applicable. The assortment of recycled and donated items are the versatile props in an ever-changing drama featuring kids in starring roles as they reveal ingenuity, imagination and inventiveness. It’s play-a-palooza where deep curiosity extends time’s elastic stretch.

 Waiting for the Wildness

Kids and loose parts together are like bits and pieces of exponential merriment. A charged expectancy permeates these encounters and, perhaps counter intuitively, a steady hum of lightness ensues. The air is electric with possibility yet there is no pressure to perform. As the kids play out, rich thematic patterns emerge.

  • Wonder and discovery, play’s elemental touchstones, are rampant, discernible in facial expressions, in the inflection of voices, in smiles and laughter.
  • Cooperative play is an unspoken default cutting across gender and age as kids build up, tear down, design, transport and otherwise demonstrate that when fun is paramount no crowd is too diverse, or too large.
  • Movement and exploration, balancing, climbing, running, rolling – getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’ and so on with an accent on fun. With each step, skip, jump an incredible journey – fall here, hide there, disappear, dare.
  • Creativity, design and build, a smorgasbord of DIY forts, towers, cubby holes, dens, catapults, swings, teepees cobbled together with only the materials on hand and each one displaying distinctive character.

The unbridled joy, the immediacy of creation and the early stirrings of kids exercising agency are such a privilege to experience. They keep me coming back for more of this hopeful simplicity. Now I have heard some people characterizing loose parts as a nostalgia trip, a reach back to a romanticized golden age of play in some idyllic, kidtopian past. This doesn’t reflect my experience.

For Each Kid a Story

In the here and now, loose parts are becoming increasingly popular as a comparatively low-cost means of engaging kids in creative, physically active play. They are being integrated with positive results in child care settings, schools and municipal recreation spaces. As for nostalgia, there were no large scale, open ended, public play events back in the 60s when I was a kid. They just didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the 70s that the first wave of academic interest in loose parts came on the scene.  We had plenty of fun just the same and benefited from significantly more independence and greater mobility than today’s kids experience.

This particular July loose parts iteration is thanks to Dalhousie University’s Summer of PLEY, a giving back to the community following the Physical Literacy in the Early Years research study in child care centres. Event volunteers gathered recently on the Dal campus to share their reflections on the experience. It was affirming to hear how others had processed that day of play. There was much commonality. Listening to the project leads and other volunteers is what led to these musings.

And now for something completely different…

Each of the 200 or more kids who dropped in at the Halifax South Common that fine summer day lived their own story. The narratives varied giving more or less weight to different elements touching on creation, cooperation, adventure, fun, friendship and discovery. The kids were fully engaged, éveillés – awake.

With a growing body of literature that points to the efficacy and benefits of loose parts play, it’s time to press for it to become a more widespread part of the play canon in both institutional (municipal, school, etc.) and community settings.

Hard at Play

Bravo to the Dalhousie University team led by Michelle Stone. They brought together the largest selection and volume of loose parts ever collected in Nova Scotia, enabled a huge group of volunteers to participate in the planning and roll out of the event and exposed young graduate students to hands-on magic. Thanks for inviting me along.

All hail loose parts! Last word to the kids….

 

Shhhh…. Aarhus Secret Club Adventures

Ed.’s note – Earlier this fall, PlayGroundology got a note from Kenn Munk about a temporary play space in Aarhus, Denmark. ‘The Wildness’ opened over the fall school break and was free for all who wanted to attend. The project, part of a ‘secret club‘ for kids that has been in existence for the past 10 years, was supported by Aarhus’ Børnekulturhuset, or Children’s Culture House. What follows is Kenn’s lightly edited description of ‘The Wildness’.

 

Setting sail for adventure in Aarhus’ Vildskaben

The playground was inspired by the original 1940s junk playgrounds in Denmark and Great Britain, but with a few twists added. In a secret club, we treat play as an art form, so our take on the junk/adventure playground would be a bit different – we never want to paint a picture that has already been painted, to stick to the art analogy. Our adventure playground was called ‘The Wildness’. (Vildskaben in Danish – with the added bonus that ‘skaben‘ can be interpreted as ‘creation’).

In our work, we often subtly hint at a story that participants then can take in any direction they want. Annabelle Nielsen and I see ourselves as artists. We are self-employed and the ‘secret club’ is our full time job. In this project, we combined the practicalities of telling people about the risks and hazards of the play space with inviting them into a magical place using a grey-clad masked guard. 

The guard told them the basics they needed to know and also helped them decide on their mystic sign. This sign would be their name in Vildskaben. They would paint it on the fence around the playground. It was the first thing they did. Once the signs were created and they had familiarized themselves with some tools and materials, they could do whatever they wanted.

Signs and symbols

With all its dangers and wonders, campfire smell, old furniture and half-rotten pallets and logs, we (the adults) had envisioned The Wildness as ‘a shanty-town of magic users’. It was the story we were hinting at. We never told the participants about this vision, but they picked it up naturally from the visual clues, like the mystic symbols, and the actual magic of the camera obscura we had made from a small hut hidden in the back.

We learned how important it was to spend time on roofs and that people are perfectly capable of not getting hurt.

 

Pick a hammer

Once inside, the kids could pick up tools and supplies from the tool shed. Building materials were also around this area. At the tool shed, there was also additional information about how everyone was allowed to change what others had built, unless it had been marked with a black cross. A black cross meant that the builder had plans to return and continue building. The ‘black cross’ idea was abandoned as the playground equivalent of an edit war was more interesting. The tool shed was also the place were they could claim prizes from hidden tickets they would find around the area.

Creation all sorts

The grounds used to belong to the scouts, and when we went through the piles of wood, we found treasure upon treasure – oddly shaped pieces of wood and even a small cast-iron oven was found under the wood pile. The place overflowed with serendipity. We often take inspiration from psychogeography and hauntology and the grounds very much inspired the project. This wasn’t place-making, this was working with the cues the place gave us such as the found oven.

Families really took to ‘The Wildness’ and it was free for anyone to use.  Some kids and families came back two or three times over the week. We only saw people whip out their phones to take pictures.

‘The Wildness’

Some of the materials were already there. The rest we scavenged from the streets. We often work with found materials, not just for environmental reasons, but mostly because these things come with a history that will inform what you will be doing with them. It’s strange that old furniture, building materials and such are seen as a problem rather than as a resource.

We made it clear that destruction was allowed, kids enjoyed prying off boards from the fence. The destructive aspect of making was very, very important to us. There was no need for insurance.

We didn’t need insurance, the guard made people take responsibility for their own lives by making them sign a form – this was right before he asked them to throw wet blobs of toilet paper at a target…

Beware the guard

The space is now closed and is slated to be turned into a park. We hope to be able to let it all grow over and fall apart for a few months and then briefly re-open in spring.

Kenn Munk and one of the kids at ‘The Wildness’

Art and play are frequent companions. Another great Danish example is Copenhagen’s Amager Ark.

Do you have a favourite play experience or play setting you’d like to share? Get in touch with PlayGroundology through the Contact page. We’d love to hear from you.

 

Making Way for World Children’s Day

World Children’s Day commemorates the joys of childhood as well as the responsibilities of families, communities and governments to safeguard children’s rights including their mental, physical, social and economic well-being.

New York City – 1959. Sourced from The New York Daily News.

First established in 1954 as Universal Children’s Day, it is celebrated annually on November 20 “to promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare.”

Also on November 20th 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. And on the same date 30 years later during the 44th session of the General Assembly, then UN adopted, opened for signature, ratification and accession the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 1989, the General Assembly was profoundly concerned that:

the situation of children in many parts of the world remains critical as a result of inadequate social conditions, natural disasters, armed conflicts, exploitation, illiteracy, hunger and disability…

The Convention has been ratified by most countries with the significant exception of the United States. Current status of signatories and parties to the Convention is available here on the UN site including a list of declarations and reservations.

Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong  – 1989 – Sourced from CNN

Article 31 of the Convention states that:

…every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

Play is an integral component of any holistic celebration of childhood. The opportunity for kids to play independently in a secure environment is central to their well-being and their discovery of the world around them. For an in depth treatment of play considerations associated with Article 31, please consult General Comment 17 to the Committee on the Rights of the Child by the International Play Association.

Communities in various parts of the world are celebrating this day with play related activities and programs. In Alberta, Canada a full day has been set aside for the Calgary Play Summit with a goal of Transforming Calgary into the City of Play.

Calgary has been on a roll for a few years with events, policy development and programming. In 2017, the City hosted the International Play Association (IPA) Triennial Conference. The Calgary Play Charter was signed to coincide with the conference bringing together “leaders from 36 Calgary and area organizations joined Mayor Nenshi, the Canadian Ministry for Sport and Persons with Disability, and MLA Robyn Luff in a celebration of play, community and partnership to sign this play charter.” More recently, the City took a leadership role in developing a guide to champion Mobile Adventure Playgrounds.

There is much more going on for, with and by children. Kids are the change that adults can’t contain as referenced in the UNICEF video below. How can we encourage our communities and governments to engage?

All the best from Nova Scotia on #WorldChildrensDay

 

Requiem for Fallen Trees

Kids in trees are the natural order of things like bears in dens, or billy goats gruff on rocky outcrops. Trees are a roosting spot like no other free from the ground’s plodding predictability. The cool rustle of green’s shifting shades is a come hither and climb invitation. Hands and feet seek purchases pressing hard and making imprints against ridged, textured bark. From on high eyes pop and vistas roll away into the farther distance.

Aerially inclined

This summer and fall it’s tree-a-go-go in the backyard PlayLAB. Aerial is the unrivaled attraction and trees become the default play zone. It seems like the climbable trees all have their own complement of kids with disembodied voices and eyes squinting through leaves. It’s a wonderful state of affairs until the unrelenting winds and thrashing rain of Hurricane Dorian fells three trees, friends really, members of the neighbourhood gang.

Moving up

In one afternoon’s blow years of familiarity and fun are vanquished. No longer will super heroes, engineers, builders and highwire artists make the trees central elements of ever changing stories. No longer will shimmering whispers in the boughs precede a rainy wind’s arrival. The reduction in enticing billowing green means fewer birds to nest, less morning song.

Super Heroes Secret Lair

It is more difficult to experiment now. Hammocks, zip lines, looped ropes, pulleys and bridges will struggle to see the light of day in the backyard PlayLAB. And what of the drop down grin ‘n gasp when a tree dweller lands with a cushioned bump on the ground giving a start to an unsuspecting friend passing by underneath. These surprise gotcha moments are gone as are the hiding places for myriad games.

DIY Hammock

Many aerial adventures are preserved in images and memories. Parts of the tree have been repurposed. Twigs and kindling fuel fire. Stouter branches are walking sticks for Cub Scouts. For now, the trunks are testaments to the fragility of great strength and the resilience of children in accepting changed circumstances.

Before the snap

There is one tree left in the PlayLAB. It is in frequent use. I believe the kids have a better appreciation for its presence, for its possibilities.

Thanks trees, we miss you….

More treealicious reading here.

The last climb

 

 

Camping on the Campaign Trail

Canada is smack dab in the middle of a national election campaign. PlayGroundology‘s international friends may have twigged that something was awry north of the 49th with the flurry of TIME magazine-led media coverage reporting on some past transgressions of the current Prime Minister prior to him holding political office.

This post has to do with a particular campaign promise made this past Thursday nearly a week after TIME broke the news that made a surprised world sit up and take notice. Let me disclose at this point that:

  • I am a Canadian citizen;
  • I do not have a membership in any political party;
  • I am among the ranks of undecided voters – 11% of the electorate at the most recent reckoning;
  • the camping campaign pledge will not be a clincher or a deal breaker for me whoever I wind up casting my ballot for on October 21.

That’s right, you read correctly there is a campaign pledge related to providing young people the experience of camping in a national or provincial  park.

 

As part of a nature conservation package, the Liberal Party announced:

  • We will give every child the chance to learn how to camp by the time they reach grade eight, expanding the successful Learn to Camp program;
  • This will make it possible for 400,000 kids each year to learn the skills to enjoy camping; and;
  • We will give 75,000 less privileged children and their families an up to four night trip to one of Canada’s National or Provincial Parks:
  • This includes camping accommodations and a travel bursary of up to $2,000 so that families can more easily afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to more national parks like Banff, Gros Morne, Forillon and the Cape Breton Highlands.

Predictably, the small ‘c’ conservative media outlets and columnists pilloried the idea. One of the Sun Media chain’s well known writers opined:

“This is at one and the same time one of the most patronizing and one of the most naive policies ever proposed during a Canadian election.”   Lorne Gunter

John Ivison, a colleague of Gunter’s on the national media stage, had this to say in The National Post:

But handing over public money to fund camping holidays for low-income and new Canadian families takes nannyism to heights not even the Trudeau Liberals have reached hitherto.

Well, I did mention that we are in the midst of election sweepstakes. The fevered, adversarial campaigns are susceptible to hyperbole in the opinion sections and amongst the chattering classes.  Television news from Canada’s two major stations – CBC and CTV – provided more balanced coverage with a focus on the available facts as did Québec’s La Presse.

Canadians do love to spend time in the outdoors to embrace a number of activities including camping as the Statistics Canada graphic below illustrates.  Our public parks are sought after with vacationers from around the world coming here to get a taste of Canada’s nature experience. This summer we met families who traveled from Europe throughout the three weeks we camped in Quebec and New Brunswick. Why not ‘less privileged children’ and their families too?

 

There’s a global movement working to reconnect kids with the natural world. Given the documented benefits of outdoor play and the growing body of research linking time spent in natural environments to positive health outcomes, this is something that we as a society should continue to focus and push forward on.

i

As for the costing of this campaign pledge I have no expertise there. There is no arguing though that we need recruits to lead change on the environmental frontlines. Perhaps this type of program will provide an aspirational window that could turn into an organic eco-action incubator.

Our kids have been camping since they were infants. If there is still such a thing as leisure, or pleasure camping when they are adults, I am quite confident that they will be there enjoying and caring for the natural world. Making access to this kind of experience more widespread seems to be a laudable policy objective particularly when we need every hand on deck to save us from ourselves.

i

This past weekend, people traveled from across the country to spend the weekend in the woods outside of Ottawa and take part in the Canada’s first Outdoor Play Summit. Educators, health care, recreation and design professionals, urban planners and others are looking to connect more kids with the natural world. Organizations like the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada and Earthday Canada are working to  make this happen. Perhaps there is a role for them and longstanding groups like Scouts Canada and the Canadian chapter of the International Play Association should this policy ever see the light of day.

PlayGroundology friends – what do you think, would this idea make your policy deliberations if you were leading the discussions? As for myself, I would potentially see this idea as a much better investment than tax cuts or any other kind of breaks for the 1%.

With Mobility there is Freedom and Adventure

Letting our children loose to explore their neighbourhoods, to get from home to school and back, or to play with friends just ain’t what it used to be. For over 40 years, kids’ independent mobility has been in a state of progressive decline. Visualize a series of ever decreasing concentric circles that in the most extreme instances become so constricted that children do not leave their homes without an adult in tow. Empowering – no. Fun – not much.

The fear of stranger danger, of motor vehicle traffic and of being judged as an irresponsible, or even worse, a neglectful parent are key reasons cited by parents and caregivers for restricting mobility. These fears are even more pronounced in relation to girls.


We have much greater concerns and anxieties about our               daughters than we do about our sons                                                    Guy Faulkner, UBC


i
Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility, a new documentary produced by Dr. Guy Faulkner¹ a professor at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Kinesiology, is an optimistic narrative advocating for greater freedoms than is currently the norm. The film premiered last week in Vancouver and concluded with a panel discussion that has been captured as a podcast.

Three families share the journeys that lead to their children being empowered to get around more independently. Their stories are interspersed with research-based insights from three members of the UBC community – Dr. Faulkner, Dr. Mariana Brussoni and PhD candidate, Negin Riazi. Family members and researchers speak from their own experiences and expertise to build the case for increased independence.


When you give them the independence what you’re saying is I believe in you – you can do this. That’s a really great positive message for your child to hear                                                                   Transit Girl Mother


i

One of the most striking measurements documenting the free fall of children’s independent mobility is the reduced numbers of kids going to school under their own steam. Two of the three family stories in the film focus on kids getting to school by transit and by walking school bus without parental support.

The day after the documentary’s premiere, I have an engaging conversation with a buoyant Riazi. Her energy levels are still high following the successful screening and lively panel discussion. She hopes the documentary will be a useful tool that will help kids to get a better shake in the mobility sweepstakes. She notes that while the challenges of the mobility – physical activity – outdoor play – mental health continuum are more prevalent in higher income countries the issues are also resonating on a global level due in part to ever expanding urbanization.

Riazi believes that with a collaborative push enlisting parents, schools and neighbourhoods we can improve on the current state of affairs and get the kids moving – independently that is. There is much at stake ranging from confidence building and risk-based decision making to enabling outdoors play and increasing the deplorably low levels of physical activity in kids.


What always seems to come up is the parental perception about the environment – how they feel about traffic, stranger danger      and these are always recurring…                                                             Negin Riazi, UBC


The double whammy fear of loss and public censure can be paralyzing even in its imagining. Never mind how irrational the thought process may be, the gut wrenching is familiar to many of us as parents and caregivers. When our son first started riding off into the proverbial sunset at about 10-years-old, I was a basket case running through terrible scenarios and tying myself up in knots if he didn’t reappear back home at exactly the agreed upon time. I started to chill relatively quickly but there is always a little niggling voice squirreled away in some dark recess whispering away, talking up those unfounded fears.

Now if I get spooked that something could be going wrong with one of the kids, I think back to my own childhood. At 11-years-old, two-wheelers were our trusty touring ticket to a two square mile area of suburban Toronto. This was an area  that experienced high traffic volumes and included a mix of residential, commercial and riverine land use. A few years later, I was given free rein to travel solo in daylight hours on the Paris métro system. These were not extraordinary privileges. My peers had similar independence and freedoms.

Our youngest – self-portrait

The worst scrapes I encountered left no permanent scars. At six-years-old, I remember the terror of being lost. I missed my turning coming home for lunch from school. The snowbanks were piled so high that every street looked identical and I unknowingly passed our street and continued two more blocks before turning down a street that didn’t look at all familiar. I was rescued by the mailman who took me home and reunited a bleating boy with his mom. After a hug, getting my tears dried and a warm lunch I was good to go. I need to keep this in mind as our girls come on stream for increased independence. The youngest is just on the cusp….

As the documentary unfolds the families chart their progress toward independent kid mobility. They are convinced of its merits on a number of fronts. The researchers set the scene. With a soft and empathetic touch they call into question unfounded parental fears and offer encouragement based on research.


It’s important for parents to know that play is a safe activity. There is the opportunity to provide them those chances to get out, to play, to take risks because the likelihood of something serious happening is incredibly low.                                                      Mariana Brussoni, UBC


About three-quarters of the way through the documentary, the viewer is introduced to Philip Martin, founder and chair of Waterloo, Ontario’s Cycling into the Future. A retired teacher, Martin works with with grades 5 and 6 kids to ensure they have a strong foundation in the safety rules for biking and can make minor repairs. Brilliant – a big boost to independent mobility. Do you remember your first two wheeler? Mine was a red CCM. When I bike now, aside from the uphill huffing and puffing, it’s an exhilarating experience that never fails to transport me back to childhood. All hail the bike and those who are working to make our urban spaces more bike friendly.

There is no template, no one size fits all when bestowing this gift of independence. Needs, maturity levels and comfort with decision-making vary with each child. Kids have a variety of transportation choices – skateboards, inline skates, scooters, bikes of all sorts and public transit. Insights from the experts combined with real world stories make this documentary a solid example of what the academic world refers to as knowledge translation – moving research into the hands of people who can put it to practical use.

There are also unintended bonus consequences to increasing independent mobility for kids. It enables them to experience alternatives to car culture through active transportation and transit. Getting woke to this choice will align well for those youth and young people who are grappling with how they will influence policy, decision-making and action around climate change. It can also make them prepared, on the travel side at least, to participate in climate strike actions…

If you or someone you know is curious about independent mobility or is struggling with how to integrate it into family life, this documentary could serve as a valuable touchstone. Pull up a seat and get comfortable. Each of the three family stories are relatable and profile a variety of different considerations that can help inform parental choices and decisions.

 

 


Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility
Available on YouTube
Running Time – 26:25
Producer – Guy Faulkner
Director – Donna Gall
Completion Date – April 2019


1. An earlier mobility study involving Faulkner was the subject of a popular 2015 PlayGroundology post – Goin’ Mobile – Keep ‘Em Movin’.