Vanessa Farquharson is Director of Communications and Campaigns for Earth Day Canada – a charity that inspires and supports people across Canada to connect with nature and build resilient communities. Here she talks about the culture and policy around street play in Canada and the role of Earth Play in defending and promoting it…..
Growing up in the ‘80s in Toronto, Canada, I spent a lot of time playing outside but rarely did the action take place on the street. On the sidewalks and in driveways, sure – even nearby laneways were used for hopscotch and skateboarding – but the streets themselves were mostly off-limits. It may have been because a by-law had recently come into effect prohibiting road hockey.
If you’ve seen Wayne’s World, you’ll know what this is (simply put: hockey with a ball instead of a puck; everyone yells “Car!” whenever a vehicle is approaching, moves aside, then resumes playing). The by-law was worded specifically against sports involving a net or other equipment – including basketball – but it influenced the decline in all kinds of street play, both reflecting and promoting the increasingly held belief that children should play in safe spaces such as parks, backyards or in the home.
At the same time, playgrounds were being dismantled and rebuilt to be “safer.” I remember one of my favourite slides – a steep, twirling, 12-foot-high structure made of sheet metal – getting torn down and replaced with a plastic, gently sloping slide about half the height.
Finally, some 30 years later, there is a growing movement against all these risk-averse measures, and Earth Day Canada has jumped into the fray on a number of fronts. Our new EarthPLAY program provides unstructured, outdoor free play for children and youth across Canada – at schools and child-care institutions; in local parks and green spaces; and in neighbourhood streets.
A core branch of EarthPLAY is StreetPLAY, a program that represents our efforts to bring play back to residential streets across Canada, starting with a pilot project in Toronto, where our offices are based. This project comes in the wake of a landmark vote at City Hall: Last spring, the provincial Minister of Children and Youth Services, Michael Coteau, asked the city in an open letter (and on Twitter) to lift its ban on ball and hockey playing in local streets.
He argued that it was a ban so rarely enforced – indeed, plenty of locals could cite recent instances when police officers would stop their cruisers, walk over and ask to join the game – that it made no sense to keep it in place. Overwhelmingly, council voted in June, 2016, to lift the ban, and support research and testing of new street play permit options.
Our StreetPLAY Pilot Project will see us working with the city’s permitting office, local councilors, residents’ associations and play co-ops throughout this year to establish a local permitting process for regularly scheduled street closures (full or partial). We’ll also be conducting a study with Toronto’s Ryerson University into the benefits and effectiveness of street play.
One of the unique challenges when it comes to street play in Canada is, of course, the weather – during winter, the roads are covered in slush, and kids will prefer to go tobogganing or build snowmen in local parks (and there is greater danger in terms of cars skidding or not being able to stop quickly).
What’s reassuring, though, is that there is a growing dialogue across the country regarding the need to get children away from screens, into the outdoors, and engaged in more community-based and risky play. Parents who come to our POP-UP Adventure Playgrounds, which are focused on unstructured play with loose parts, will talk and talk about how amazing it is to see their kids engaged for hours with a messy assortment of cardboard boxes, milk crates and kitchen utensils – and how they’d never be this entertained by the slide and monkey bars in their local schoolyard.
Our EarthPLAY team pays close attention to this dialogue, whether it’s coming from parents on Facebook, city hall council meetings or the media, and we are confident that now is the time to be proactive about changing how our kids play and, when it comes to cities especially, making street play more accessible. For our pilot project, we’re looking to two examples for inspiration:
Last April, a pilot project launched in Beloeil, Quebec, called Dans ma rue, on joue, allowing kids to play between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in residential streets designated as safe by the city. Then, in November, Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Simon Jolin-Barrette, with the support of the YMCAs in this province, tabled a bill at the National Assembly to encourage local municipalities to adopt bylaws that will better frame how children get to play in residential streets. Because this pilot took place in a much smaller city, it may not be replicable here in Toronto, but is a solid, Canadian point of comparison.
And we are very interested in the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) successful program Play Streets, developed in 2013 as part of the city’s Public Space Management Program. To date, over 200 play streets have been held across that city. They have a handbook for local residents, a five-step application process, direction on how to inform neighbours and properly barricade streets, and signage provided by the city – plus, the city is very similar in terms of population and traffic to Toronto.
Our immediate next step will be a series of meetings with representatives at the city to determine specifics around what type of permit process might work best. We are also planning to devote April 20th (during Earth Week) to promoting our StreetPLAY program, and part of this will involve a huge road hockey game with local sports celebrities, politicians and advocates for street play in attendance.
I wouldn’t say street play is a very common sight in downtown Toronto, however in the warmer months I’ve seen kids on my street (in the west end, which is a slightly quieter) bring their hockey net onto the road and play a quick game before it gets dark. Last summer, I even noticed some chalk drawings spill from the sidewalk into the middle of the road and couldn’t help but smile. Attitudes are changing here, at city hall and amongst average citizens, and I’m hoping that by the time my three-year-old son is a teenager, he’ll be playing on the street with his friends every day.
Stay in touch with Playing Out and hear more about the growing street play movement in the UK and internationally. You can get involved with conversations on our national Facebook group, sign up to our mailing list and get in touch by email.