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Canada’s Ocean Playground – re-imagining Nova Scotia as a play-friendly province

Thank you for Dr. Hilary Caldwell, Dr. Sara Kirk, Mike Arthus and Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen from the Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University, for providing this post.

This blog post was originally published in SaltWire.

Nova Scotia is Canada’s Ocean Playground. Our ocean playground is one of the many reasons Nova Scotians, and Canadians, love this coastal province. Imagine if the whole province was a “playground” — full of formal and informal spaces and places for children and adults to play every day. When children play, they learn social and cognitive skills that help them to grow up strong and healthy.

What would it take for Nova Scotia to be a play-friendly province? The Canadian Public Health Association describes a play-friendly community as one that considers children’s well-being and play in its design. It prioritizes play in all the spaces where children spend time, like streets and neighbourhoods, not just designated spaces like playgrounds and skate parks. Without these safe, accessible, inviting spaces, where will the children play?

It’s exciting to imagine what a play-friendly province might look like. No province has done it before. We recently reviewed all of the available Nova Scotia municipal physical activity and active transportation strategies to look for play-friendly actions. We found that, while nearly all communities included some play-friendly actions, there is room for improvement.

To improve playability in any community, we need to focus our efforts in four areas. First, children and youth need a seat at the decision-making table. This is their right, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in Canada in 1991. About half of Nova Scotia communities asked young people for their input when developing their physical activity strategies. We need children to co-create these play spaces, because when they do, magic happens.

Second, we need safe and active routes around the province for all road users of all ages. Our communities need paths, trails and sidewalks that connect to child-friendly places, like parks, schools and libraries so children can move around actively, independently and safely. About half of the physical activity strategies mentioned actions related to active commute programming at schools. Traffic-calming near schools, like lower speed limits and more speed bumps, should be non-negotiable. Let’s commit to reducing the numbers of cars around schools with a provincial strategy to support active routes to school.

Third, play-friendly communities need safe open-play spaces that make free play possible in everyday environments. Not every neighbourhood has a park, but every neighbourhood has a street or other public space that can be transformed into a play space. The current government investments for new and affordable housing should also fund accessible green play spaces near new housing. Half of the strategies also included actions to update everyday public spaces to be inclusive of child play, like using local facilities such as churches or community halls for play space, particularly in small communities that may not have a recreation centre.

The last focus is designing play spaces that are exciting and fun for children. This includes making play spaces accessible to all abilities. If a play space isn’t accessible for all, it’s not play-friendly. We saw actions related to developing wheelchair/stroller-friendly trails and building inclusive playgrounds. Almost all physical activity strategies included actions to offer play spaces with loose parts or pop-up adventure activities, like after-school drop-in programs, snowshoe “try-it” days, and community play boxes. We need more play spaces that are challenging and thrilling for kids of all ages — like skate parks or pump tracks.

We found that actions related to equity, diversity, and inclusion were prominent in physical activity strategies, but really lacking in active transportation strategies. Lots of strategies included actions related to reducing or eliminating barriers to participation in recreation, such as reduced or free fees, equipment loan programs (e.g., bikes, kayaks, loose parts), transportation services, provision of child care, offering culturally relevant programs, and increasing the accessibility of facilities and communities (e.g., sidewalks, trails). A community will never be play-friendly unless there are opportunities for everyone to play, everywhere.

When we build play into everyday environments, we support everyone to get outside, engage with their communities and be active. In Canada’s Ocean Playground, we can, and should build play into our every day and every space, for everybody’s sake.

Photo credit: Elyse Turton