Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cool play spaces needed

As society becomes more plugged in, it is more and more important to get ourselves, and especially our kids, outside to play. Play is important for children in terms of cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. We know in Canada that children are not getting enough daily physical activity, and we as a nation are not doing nearly enough to combat this problem.  The author, Richard Louv, has even coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder:’ health and well-being problems resulting from a lack of contact with the outdoors – a subject that I will cover in a forthcoming post. This lack of play in the outdoors is a multi-faceted problem that will require solutions at various levels of social organization (the same could be said for diet). However, I’d like to focus on one of those potential solutions – a thought (obviously not unique) that came about during a recent trip to Sweden.

I was at a conference in Stockholm last summer and toured around Sweden a little bit afterwards. One of our last stops was in Sweden’s third-largest city, Malmö – just across the bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark. When searching for one of Malmö’s most famous buildings, the Turning Torso, we came across the coolest skate/climbing park I have ever seen.

Of course, being a climber myself, I had to try out the man-made boulders with realistic rock-like features and climbing-gym holds. Each of the large boulders (there were three) were surrounded by a layer of pebbles about half a foot deep - to absorb the impact of a fall. Climbers and non-climbers alike were trying their hand at different routes to the top.

The skate park was huge with a variety of features ranging from bowls, to rails, steps, gaps, and boxes. There was something for all skill types (certainly not dominated by experts only) and included skateboarders, rollerbladders and cyclists. I couldn’t stop watching the activity – from the very young (about 5 years of age) to the middle-aged (I thought I saw some 40-year olds trying to keep up). I later found out that this is considered by some to be one of the best skate parks in the world.

Famous Skate Park, Malmö, Sweden
This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: Malmö

All of this was free, in view of some incredible scenery (the Turning Torso and harbor front), and in a safe, very low vehicular traffic zone. The idea of this park is what we need everywhere – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a skate or climbing park – but something that is of high quality, in an interesting and safe area, will pique children’s curiosity and get them playing. Children can be exposed to different types of play that they wouldn’t normally be able to afford (rock climbing for example).

I realize money is an issue, and likely the reason Sweden can afford to build world class free skate parks may have to do with their welfare taxation system. However, much of a park’s quality and usefulness can come from where it is located. In Hull (a city in Quebec, Canada), for example, a much simpler skate/climbing park was built. It is unfortunately located on a very busy, uninteresting street. This is perhaps why I see only a few children at any one time using it, and never young children (I know it’s not a great comparison when the photo was taken in early spring..nonetheless). Additionally, play spaces can be constructed out of natural materials located nearby and strategic placement of indigenous plants.       

A natural playground. Photo credit: Playscapes 
Safety of play is another issue. Parents fret about children doing things like skateboarding, biking, rock climbing (my mother still does), playing balance beam, etc. Perhaps for good reason, as unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among children in Canada. On the other hand, in 2005, falls accounted for only 0.3 deaths in 100,000 children (a very small rate).  Falls (including playground falls) and being struck by/against someone/something accounted for a large percentage of hospitalizations due to unintentional accidents (approx 54%). These numbers, however, also include accidents that do not happen in a park or place space, and actually do not occur all that frequently (179 hospitalizations in 100,000 children). It is important to keep these numbers in perspective. Riding in a car is far more dangerous than playing in the park (in terms of number of deaths). And there are certain things parents can do to protect their children – such as providing the necessary protective equipment, as well as supervision (depending on the child’s age).          

On top of other things that we should be doing to increase physical activity, communities should be providing high quality outdoor play spaces that are free, easily accessible, interesting, and safe (mostly from vehicular traffic, but also in the design, in-so-far as is possible). ALL children need to have the opportunity to explore and play in the outdoors!

Healthy Active Living & Obesity Research, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario; ParticipACTION (2010). Active Healthy Kids Canada. Healthy Habits Start Earlier Than You Think. The Active Healthy Kids Canada
Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Active Healthy Kids Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada (2009). Child and Youth Injury in Review. Spotlight on Consumer Product Safety Injury and Maltreatment Section

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