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, 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 was clear and evidence-based: these types of structures do not encourage physical distancing, and use of communal surfaces that are potentially contaminated could lead to spread of the virus, though more recent evidence suggests that sunlight may inactive the virus within 6-14 minutes.

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 on outdoor access have largely been lifted, 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 September 16, 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.
British Columbia Vancouver: Stanley Park became car-free on April 8th to encourage physical activity. The majority of Regional Parks in Metro Vancouver remained open. Provincial Parks closed until May 14th.
Victoria: Active transportation routes expanded as of May 14th
Alberta Alberta Recreation and Parks Association: ARPA in continued conversation with the Alberta government to ensure continued safe access to parks, trails, open spaces, and nature. Provincial Parks  remained open to those accessing parks by foot, bicycle, or horse (no vehicle access until mid-May).
Calgary: Select traffic lanes blocked off to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal Parks remained open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Edmonton: Bike lanes on select streets converted to shared space to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal Parks remained open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Saskatchewan Regina: Wascana Lake loop turned into a one-way path to promote active transportation while adhering to physical distancing guidelines Provincial Parks closed until May 4th.
Saskatoon: All parks and trails remained open.
Manitoba Provincial Parks closed until May 4th
Winnipeg: Select streets closed to car traffic to support local outdoor enjoyment while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal Parks remained open with physical distancing guidelines in effect.
Ontario Rideau Valley: Trails remained open at select locations with physical distancing guidelines in effect. Provincial Parks closed until May 11th.
Ottawa: Car access on select streets restricted to local traffic only to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. City Parks use expanded beyond walk-through only to include activities such as letting young children run (effective May 6th).
Toronto: Select streets closed to car traffic to support physical activity while engaging in physical distancing. Toronto Municipal Parks 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 restricted to local traffic only to support active transportation while engaging in physical distancing. Municipal Parks remained open. Quebec National Parks closed until May 20th with limited reopening.
New Brunswick Moncton: All parks and trails remained open with one-way routes on park paths instituted to facilitate physical distancing. Provincial Parks closed until April 24th.
Nova Scotia Halifax: Motion to increase active transportation routes passed on April 29th. Halifax: All Municipal Parks closed until May 1st.
Provincial Parks closed until May 1st.
Prince Edward Island Provincial Park trails remained open, without services (until June 5th). Campgrounds closed until July 8th.
Newfoundland and Labrador St John’s: Decision to widen select streets made on May 5th to promote active transportation. Municipal Parks closed until May 11th.
Yukon Territorial Park trails remained open, without access to picnic areas, outhouses. Territorial Park services closed until June 4th.
North West Territories Territorial Park walking trails remained open, without services. Territorial Park campgrounds closed until June 12th.
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.