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, at least initially, was that access to outdoor spaces for play were 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 were largely lifted towards the end of the first wave, however were again restricted in some cities amidst the second and third wave of infection. If we are to face similar health crises in the future, new strategies are necessary to preserve safe access to the outdoors for all. We therefore recommend the following measures be conserved:
Public green spaces should remain open 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