Pandemic Play: Child-Centred Policy in a Global Crisis
Marlene Power, MSc, Louise de Lannoy, PhD, Mariana Brussoni, PhD, Mark Tremblay, PhD

Limiting access to the outdoors and opportunities for children and adults to engage in outdoor play is not evidence-based and is not in the best interest of the Canadian public. Outdoor play and following COVID-19 restrictions are not mutually exclusive.

Children need PLAY like plants need water and light. Through play, they learn, build social connections, make sense of the world, express emotion, release pent up energy, move their bodies, and tap into their imagination. Outdoor play, in particular, offers critical opportunities for learning, development and well-being that aren’t generally available through indoor play. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the benefits of outdoor play are particularly important. As we outlined in our statement on outdoor play during the COVID-19 pandemic, general access to open outdoor spaces while adhering to public health guidance (e.g., physical distancing, avoid touch communal surfaces, careful and regular hand-washing) is important to help Canadians maintain their physical and mental health and is one of the best ways Canadians can increase their defence against COVID-19. However, a consequence of measures implemented to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, is that access to outdoor spaces for play have been restricted, and in some cases entirely banned.

The rationale for closing public play structures and fitness equipment is clear and evidence-based: use of communal surfaces that are potentially contaminated can lead to the spread of the virus. These types of structures also do not encourage physical distancing.

However, while public health needs to be at the forefront of all decision making, limiting access to the outdoors and opportunities for children to engage in outdoor play (while adhering to physical distancing measures) is not evidence-based and is not in the best interest of the Canadian public. The decision of by-law officers to ticket a father with his child with autism kicking a soccer ball in an open field with no other human in sight, or a lone dog-walker walking through a park (Table 1), seems counterintuitive to the guidelines for physical distancing, and the repeated advice that senior public health officials across Canada have placed on getting outside with your family to promote and preserve physical and mental health.

In addition, social inequality, exacerbated by unemployment, constrained living conditions, and further social isolation are leaving many vulnerable families and children even further marginalized and potentially exposed to increased risks such as poverty, hunger, abuse, neglect, addictions, and domestic violence in addition to mental, emotional, and physical distress. ALL families and children are deserving of the developmental, physical, social, and emotional benefits that time spent outdoors and outdoor play has to offer – while carefully following public health guidance. Arguably, in a time of physical distancing, online learning, and increased stress, when COVID-19 has stopped us in our tracks, parents and children alike need outdoor spaces to play more than ever and fortunately in Canada, we have lots of outdoor space.

Call to Action

Policy decisions on access to outdoor space need to balance the important priority of limiting the spread of infection with the equally important need to help Canadians maintain their health and a healthy immune system. Restrictions have begun to lift on outdoor access, however, there remains concern that access to the outdoors may again be restricted in the event of a second wave of infection.  We therefore recommend the following measures be conserved:

Public green spaces should remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic and innovative approaches and opportunities to be outdoors while engaging in physical distancing and avoiding communal surfaces should be explored, with the following limitations:

  • Open green spaces may be visited with members of the family/home, visiting green spaces during off-peak hours is encouraged particularly on nice days, and all individuals should wash hands immediately after getting home
  • Individuals should distance themselves from others by 2 meters (the width of a car)
  • Travel is discouraged, spending time outdoors should occur near the home if possible

Table 1. Examples of Policies Across Canada that Allow or Restrict Access to Outdoor Spaces During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Updated as of June 24, 2020)

Province or Territory Policies Allowing Access to Outdoor Spaces Policies Restricting Access to Outdoor Spaces
Canada-wide National parks closed until June 1st, with gradual reopening of select parks. Overnight camping closed until June 22nd.
British Columbia Vancouver: Stanley park has gone car-free to encourage physical activity while engaging in physical distancing. The majority of regional parks in Metro Vancouver remain open. Provincial parks  closed until May 14th; overnight camping closed until June 1st.
Alberta Alberta Recreation and Parks Association: ARPA is in continued conversation with the Alberta government to ensure continued safe access to parks, trails, open spaces, and nature. Provincial parks are open to those accessing parks by foot, bicycle, or horse (no vehicle access until mid-May). Overnight camping at Provincial parks closed until June 1st.
Calgary: Select traffic lanes have been blocked off to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal parks remain open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Edmonton: Bike lanes on select streets have been converted to shared space to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal parks remain open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Saskatchewan Provincial parks closed until May 4th; overnight camping closed until June 1st.
Manitoba Provincial parks closed until May 4th
Winnipeg: Select streets have been closed to car traffic to support local outdoor enjoyment while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal parks remain open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Ontario Rideau Valley: Trails remain open at select locations with physical distancing guidelines in effect. Provincial parks closed until May 11th; limited backcountry camping closed until June 1st, all other overnight camping closed until the week of June 22nd with limited services.
Ottawa: Car access on select streets has been restricted to local traffic only to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. City parks use has expanded beyond walk-through only to include activities such as letting young children run (effective May 6th).
Toronto: Select streets have been closed to car traffic to support physical activity while engaging in physical distancing. Toronto municipal parks remain accessible with physical distancing guidelines in effect. Toronto: The proposal to make Yonge Street car-free to facilitate safe active transportation was struck down.
Oakville: Outdoor recreation areas closed until May 16th with heavy ticketing for those in violation.
Quebec Montreal: Select streets have been restricted to local traffic only to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal parks remain open. Quebec national parks closed until May 20th with limited reopening. Overnight camping closed until June 1st with progressive reopening.
New Brunswick Provincial parks closed until April 24th, overnight camping reopened June 19th
Nova Scotia Provincial Parks closed until May 1st, overnight camping closed until June 19th.
Prince Edward Island Provincial park trails have remained open, without services (until June 5th). Campgrounds closed until June 26th, (open for provincial residents only) with limited services.
Newfoundland and Labrador Municipal parks opened as of May 11th (playground equipment closed) Campgrounds closed until June 8th with limited services. Tent camping remains closed until further notice.
Yukon Territorial park trails remained open, without access to picnic areas, outhouses. Territorial park services and campgrounds closed until June 4th.
North West Territories Provincial park walking trails have remained open, without services. Territorial Park campgrounds closed until June 12th (reopening for territorial residents only).
Nunavut Territorial parks and municipal playgrounds closed until June 15th with limited services.
The situation surrounding COVID-19 is constantly evolving. Please visit your local municipal and provincial websites for details on park and conservation area closures. We welcome suggestions and additional updates/examples for this table. Please contact us at: info@outdoorplaycanada.ca.