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ALEX SMITH: Canada must step up its game on active play among children

Aug. 5 is National PlayDay. Alex Smith's daughters create backyard home in Halifax with "loose parts" — everyday objects repurposed for play.
Aug. 5 is National PlayDay. Alex Smith's daughters create backyard home in Halifax with "loose parts" — everyday objects repurposed for play.


Aug. 5 is National PlayDay — a celebration of wonder, curiosity, discovery and adventure. 

It’s all about what kids do best. Intuitively, they know that play is a renewable source of joy and fun, but of course its impact is far broader. In fact, play is one of the defining elements of our humanity.  

Research confirms that play exerts a profound influence throughout childhood, shaping how we learn, how we express ourselves and how we assess risk and opportunity. Studies from a variety of disciplines reveal that play nurtures children’s physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual development. It is a foundational activity that helps kids interact with and make sense of the world around them.  

Play resonates with kids everywhere. Child-directed play has a universal appeal. The creation of kid-only space and time unencumbered by adults is a heady expression of freedom. 

The “right to play” is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The general comments document on Article 31 provides additional details that speak to the connection between play and well-being and affirms its critical role and relevance in an increasingly complex world.  

The Canadian chapter of the International Play Association (IPA) rebooted Canada’s National PlayDay in 2018. It is modelled on the U.K. experience, where an annual event has been held for over 30 years. A small community advocacy project in late-1980s London got the ball rolling. 

The motivation for event organizers was to draw attention to and counter reported central government cuts that would significantly alter children’s play at the local level.  

PlayDay has since become the largest public celebration of play in the U.K. and an important real-world voice informing and challenging public policy-makers. In its busiest years, participation has exceeded 800 communities annually while inspiring hundreds of thousands of children and families.  

We have a long way to go before we reach the U.K.’s heights. IPA Canada has posted modest numbers since the 2018 National PlayDay relaunch, similar to those registered in the early years of the U.K. event.  

IPA Canada’s goals are to increase play’s visibility, create greater awareness of the pressing need to get kids playing outdoors and further encourage parents and communities to be strong agents of play.  

There is good rationale to seek change. In Canada, “active play” gets an F in the 2020 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. In practice, this means that only 21 per cent of five- to 11-year-olds engage in active play for more than 1.5 hours per day on average. Two years earlier, active play was given a D. We are moving in the wrong direction.  

Canada is not alone. Higher-income countries are witnessing a declining incidence of outdoor play and a decrease in independent mobility for kids. These are notable societal shifts that are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In depriving kids of friendships and the ability to play with peers for prolonged periods, the pandemic throws the power of play into stark relief. 

In April, the world paused and cheered at touching images of Spanish children playing in the streets as they emerged from six weeks of lockdown isolation. In times of crisis, play helps children cope with anxiety and develop resilience.  

There is no time like now to lend a hand, have some fun and work toward creating the conditions that will help play flourish. Parents and caregivers can:  

  • explore the neighbourhood to discover playful spaces 

  • draw on childhood memories of favourite play places and activities for inspiration 

  • invite friends to play at home or at a local park 

  • in busy households, schedule time for play with kids and/or for independent play 

  • explore play ideas and resources online  

Many accomplished groups and organizations are associated with children’s play in Canada. It truly takes a village to make a difference.  

National advocates include The Lawson Foundation, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, Outdoor Play Canada, Earthscape and the International Play Association. The Dalhousie-led PLEY project, Mount Saint Vincent University’s Early Childhood Collaborative Research Centre and the design-build team at Cobequid Consulting are representative of local play proponents.  

Nova Scotia, get your play on!  

For more information on National PlayDay including a resource guide, visit IPA Canada recommends checking with local authorities to confirm public health guidelines governing events.  

Alex Smith of Halifax is the founder of the award-winning blog PlayGroundology and vice-president of IPA Canada.  

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