Play is what we need: How cities responded when playgrounds were closed

When COVID-19 restrictions closed playgrounds and green spaces in our neighbourhood, my antsy kids got creative. My littlest—who’s always loved monkey bars and scaling to the tippity-top of every play structure—started climbing up stop sign posts and balancing one-legged on fire hydrants.

And when a temporary radar speed sign was placed on a nearby street, they got out their bikes and took turns racing it to see who could go the fastest (the record was 30km/h). Eventually, fields and parks reopened, and we waved—from afar—to other parents and kids happy to once again have ample place to run, jump, and swing.   

And from the amount of people out walking, bike riding, and playing—we weren’t the only ones breathing a sigh of relief at being able to get outside to move our bodies.

Nature parks busier than ever

The pandemic we’ve all been stumbling through for the past 16 months has pushed people into the great outdoors in record numbers, and highlighted the importance of nature, national and provincial parks, and play spaces for kids’ healthy development and people’s mental health.

In April of this year, a national survey conducted by Park People—an organization dedicated to recognizing the power of parks to build strong communities, healthy environments, and resilient cities—found that 82 percent of the Canadians surveyed indicated they were using parks more during the pandemic and that they also expected their current use to continue or increase. And a whopping 94 percent of cities indicated an increased use of their parks during the past year.

Unequal access

In a piece published in the Washington Post, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and the author of “Balanced and Barefoot,” wrote that play opportunities for children must be prioritized: “Play, especially outdoors, is exactly what children need (more than ever) in order to connect and heal through this collective trauma together.”

But, despite their importance to mental and physical health, green spaces and play areas are not equally convenient or available to everyone, and some provinces have yo-yoed for months between parks being open and closed.

An uproar from pandemic-weary parents and kids was heard across Ontario when the government closed playgrounds (and quickly reopened them) during the province’s third wave. And, throughout the months of lockdown, residents of densely populated urban areas have been vying for physically distanced space in coveted city parks.

Renewed focus on the outdoors

With urban dwellers calling for additional access to outdoor spaces, cities and governments have sought inspiration from initiatives already in place before the pandemic and created new programs and environments in non-traditional spaces.

“COVID-19 highlights the need to look at play areas differently,” Seattle Parks and Recreation director of planning and development Andy Sheffer told Architectural Digest. “We’re realizing how integral parks are to a livable city… [They] need to be accessible to all populations and I think people are starting to get that now.”

Cities undergoing a renaissance

Towns and community groups have turned outdoor urban and commercial spaces into vehicle-free corridors, and created pop-up parks where residents can relax outdoors and children can get out their wiggles. Some child-friendly urban installations during COVID have proven so popular that they’re being re-conceived as permanent solutions to ensure equitable play spaces—where everyone can enjoy the benefits of unstructured outdoor play.

Many of the initiatives were implemented because of public demand and parents and educators calling for change. If your city needs a nudge, check out the examples below where we’ve rounded up some of the creative ways that cities around the world are prioritizing health and movement, and championing outdoor play in urban spaces.  

Car-free spaces for free play

To help facilitate more outside playtime for its children, Leeds, U.K., is inviting residents to host a play street, where roads are closed to cars for a few hours so that kids and their families can play safely. Leeds is taking part in the #SummerOfPlay campaign recently launched by Save the Children to highlight the importance of play as the country’s children emerge from coronavirus restrictions.

A similar program is popular on streets in New York City, where for seven weeks every summer supervised and fun spaces allow children ages 6-16 to play safely. Gatineau, Que., saw an enthusiastic response to its “free play streets,” and in Burlington, Ont., neighbours are coming together in community play through a local streets initiative that encourages safe and active play, social interaction, and opens up public play space where parks and private yards may be limited.

The 2020 review “How Play Streets supports the development of physical literacy in children” [PDF] by the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University and commissioned by Play Australia found that play streets support physical fitness and movement skills and the development of physical literacy in children through fun and unstructured free play. In addition to physical health benefits, the play streets environment was frequently found to support and improve mental health and well-being.

Reimagining parkways and parking lots

As part of a pilot project during summer 2020, the National Capital Commission closed three Gatineau parkways to motorized traffic, providing more space for residents to exercise outdoors while respecting physical distancing guidelines.

In the centre of a large park near downtown Montreal, an unused parking lot was revamped in September 2020 and is now the location of the “Jardin du Petit Monde à bicyclette,” where children can bring their own bikes or borrow one on-site to learn good biking habits as well as road safety rules.

The Montreal installation is a type of traffic garden that can be found around the world and in configurations that vary from permanent construction or temporary equipment that can be installed for a few hours. These “gardens” use underutilized roads, parking lots, and asphalt spaces to create active small-scale roads for kids and their bikes and scooters.

Transforming infrastructure

In Calgary, a community group, local school children, and University of Calgary landscape architecture students helped transform a dirt and concrete patch under an overpass into the recently opened multi-generational Flyover Park.

Scattering small play elements such as slides alongside staircases and greening alleyways weaves play opportunities throughout communities and demonstrates how play spaces can be made anywhere. The Commission District of the City of Miami activated dead-end streets into safe, fun spaces for children to play, and in Outremont, Que., a section of road was closed to increase the space dedicated to pedestrians, cyclists, and children.

Playful sidewalks

Active sidewalks help families incorporate play into everyday moments. Hopscotch along the bee-themed path outside Lexington Avenue Community Farm in Rochester, N.Y., run the illuminated play and exercise track in Detroit, or squat, jump, or write down what brings you joy at Happy Lane in front of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center.

Pop-up play

In Hanoi, Vietnam, the Un-Habitat helped facilitate mobile pop-up playgrounds. Using recycled and natural materials in unused car parks, the sites promoted physical activities and social connections in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

And, in response to the pandemic, Markham, Ont., implemented several initiatives to help residents stay active. Besides creating cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly routes with Open Streets Markham, the city is also offering a Pop-up Park Program that includes a variety of classic outdoor camp games and physical literacy activities modified to adhere to physical distancing protocols. “Developing these [movement] skills help kids gain confidence and motivates them to lead healthier active lives as they grow up,” says the city’s website. Brilliant!

Designing play-friendly cities

Tirana, Albania, completely transformed its public spaces, and has gone from no playgrounds five years ago to now having 54 across the city. “We reconceived city planning altogether,” says deputy mayor Anuela Ristani in a video provided by the city. “We revisited every idle space so that in every neighbourhood there would be a patch of green and a free play area.”

Ristani also shared advice on creating play-friendly cities: listening to kids, parents, caregivers, and teachers; budgeting in a democratic way; and designing “15-minute cities” so that everyone can access public spaces and parks in 15 minutes by bike or foot. 

Investing in residents’ mental and physical health by prioritizing outdoor spaces, including children in decision-making, and putting people, parks, and play at the heart of our cities will help cities “come back” even better than before.

As Tirana’s deputy mayor says: “It’s not just for kids. We’re all happier if we play.”


Read more about the power of play:

How to connect with your neighbours through play

How to curb your pandemic blues: Choose to move every day

Pop-up playground group tours Canada

How to have a summer filled with independent play

Why some doctors are now prescribing outdoor time in nature

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