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This summer, play is more important than ever

Thank you to Josh Fullan, Director of Maximum City, a national engagement and education firm, for providing this post.

In the second spring of what feels like an interminable coronavirus pandemic, nobody would blame kids and parents for surrendering to a just-gotta-get-to-summer feeling. Hope is hard to come by in the third wave of a plague that is like a climbing wall whose only direction is up. Summer holds the promise of more time outdoors, freedom from online schooling or work and, perhaps most importantly, lots of play.

Play is often seen as a separation from normal life, a temporary abolition of the boring, ordinary world. Or it is seen as something trivial and short-lived, a kind of low culture not to be taken too seriously. But sustained and intentional play time might be exactly what is required to restore the health and happiness of many Canadians, and particularly children and youth, as we emerge from the pandemic.

In the summer of 2021, play is needed to bring back the world, not escape from it.

In a wide-ranging national study of children and youth’s pandemic experiences and attitudes by Maximum City, play emerged as the behaviour with the most powerful positive association across all study areas. Specifically, kids and teens who maintained or increased their play time[1] during the fall of 2020 had better school experiences, higher subjective well-being, and lower declines in other healthy movement behaviours compared to those who reported a decline in play.[2] Play was the activity that starkly separated those who struggled with multiple aspects of their pandemic experience from those who did fine or even thrived.

For teenagers and grade schoolers who kept up their play time, play appears to have delivered a quintuple bottom line that included lower declines in physical activity and time outdoors, less time on screens, improved positive emotions, lower stress and better perseverance, and more collaboration and engagement in school. For many Canadians of all ages, these are precisely the things that they have struggled with during COVID-19. If play can protect us from the pandemic’s host of secondary emotional and physical health impacts, maybe we all need to start taking it more seriously (or lightly).

This is why our organization is launching a Summer of Play campaign that includes opportunities for children and youth to share and rank their favourite summer play activities. A summer of play is what kids and teens need, and it is arguably what they have earned in light of how much they continue to sacrifice for a virus that mostly spares them. A summer of play would provide a not-too-distant horizon to look forward to—something we all need for well-being—and help to restore the mental, emotional and physical health of our kids.

Obviously, it is not enough to simply say, however loudly, “Go forth and play.” COVID-19 impacts Canadians unequally, and this holds true with play. Children and youth who live in apartments, are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), come from lower-income households, or live with someone who is high-risk, all report more severe declines in their play time compared to their peers and counterpart groups. We also know that, after private yards, kids report spending most of their outdoor time on streets and sidewalks, which need to become safer places for interaction and activity, including play.

As we work to right size and rebalance healthy behaviours and emotions this summer, equitable access to play in quality shared spaces, close to where families live, is a critical ingredient.

The recognition of the right to play of every child, and the promotion of equal opportunities to play, are responsibilities the Canadian government accepted more than thirty years ago.[3] These responsibilities have been mostly sidestepped during the unrelenting urgency of COVID-19. All levels of government putting their combined weight behind a summer of play would go a long way to meeting the commitment, and help mitigate the long tail health and well-being impacts of the pandemic on a generation of kids.

Those of us who spend any amount of time around children have been witness to how they light up when given the chance to play freely. Just this weekend, in the time it took Ontario’s government to close playgrounds then re-open them in retreat from the blast furnace of outrage from caregivers and admonishment from health experts, my daughter mastered a newly assembled climbing structure in our backyard. Upon reaching the summit after dozens of failed and fearful attempts, she radiated self-confidence. Play is learning and autonomy, physical activity and joy. It is a way to let loose, release superabundant energy, and conquer your fears. All play means something.[4] This summer, it means more than ever.

Want to learn more? Read a related article by Josh Fullan in the Globe and Mail here.

[1] Maximum City, 2021. COVID-19 child and youth study: the role of play and outdoor space. Toronto, ON:

[2] For the purposes of the study, play was broadly defined and open to interpretation, and included indoor and outdoor play.

[3] UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

[4] J. Huizinga, 1955. Home Ludens. Beacon Press, Boston.