Playspaces for Vulnerable Children and Youth in Canada

Thanks to Parachute Canada for this post.

Injury is the leading cause of death among children and youth in Canada, and playgrounds and other play spaces are among the areas where injuries to children and youth frequently happen. An estimated 2,500 children age 14 and younger are hospitalized every year in Canada for serious playground injuries.

Living in a low-income neighbourhood means a child has an even higher risk of being hospitalized due
to a playground injury because they have a greater chance of being exposed to hazards and less access to protective equipment or devices.

At the same time, unstructured play is known to be an active form of learning for children and a critical component of healthy development, including learning about objects and social relationships, and developing physical and problem-solving skills.

Bearing in mind the importance of play to children’s development and the disparities between high and low-income neighbourhoods, efforts are underway to better address the needs of children while they play.

Play Spaces for Vulnerable Children and Youth in Canada, under The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Active and Safe Injury Prevention Initiative, is a project being jointly conducted by Parachute, The BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit and The Canadian Parks and Recreation Association.

Focusing on vulnerable children and youth in Canada, including those from urban, rural, remote and Northern communities, First Nations on-reserve and Inuit communities, the project aims to:

  • Describe what we know about current outdoor play spaces for vulnerable populations in Canada
  • Develop an online training tool for inspecting outdoor play spaces for safety issues
  • Share information on outdoor play space safety with those who are responsible for maintaining and inspecting play spaces in their areas.

The project takes as its starting point the recognition that children and youth play in a variety of settings – both those that are specifically designed for children to play in and are called ‘playgrounds,’ and those that are not specifically designed for children to play in, but are spaces in which children see the possibility for play, including natural green spaces.

Currently near completion of phase one, information gathering, the project highlights the critical role of play in a child’s development. Playground designs need to consider children’s behaviour in the real world, while being mindful to mitigate potential hazards. Children will use equipment in all possible ways, regardless of design intention. For example, rungs at the entrance of slides are used for tumbling;
children slide on top of tubes instead of inside them. Well-designed playgrounds encourage a child to take risks within a semi-controlled environment that protects them from a hazard they may be unable to

There is therefore a balance to be struck in playground design between challenge and hazard. Design standards developed by organizations such as The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) can help achieve this balance. The goal of the CSA’s standards is to help manufacturers design child-scaled and hazard-free equipment and to aid installers and operators to position and maintain the equipment to reduce the frequency and severity of injuries. Behind each measure prescribed is a rationale based on injury analysis, anthropometric research (regarding the size of children’s body parts) and the study of children’s play behaviours. The standards recommend a number of safety measures, audits, inspection and maintenance routines that should help keep well-designed play spaces as safe as possible at all times.

Since falls are the most frequent cause of injury in young children, special attention is given in the standards to the surfaces on which they fall. A significantly higher proportion of Canadian playground play structures in poorer neighbourhoods were found to be below the standards of the CSA’s than
play structures in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Forthcoming steps in The Play Spaces for Vulnerable Children and Youth in Canada project will  provide communities with the tools and resources they need to maintain the safety of their playgrounds and play spaces. An online training tool will be developed and made accessible to train community members as outdoor play spaces inspectors in communities with vulnerable children and youth. As well, First Nations and Inuit partners will be consulted and engaged with to conduct a parallel process to develop a culturally sensitive training tool and resource.

The Play Spaces for Vulnerable Children and Youth in Canada aims to heighten awareness of the need for safe outdoor play spaces for vulnerable children and youth in Canada. All communities can ensure that their children are able to play in a safe and constructive environment by adopting the maintenance and inspection guidelines provided by organizations like the Canadian Standard’s Association.

Funding for this project has been made possible through a contribution from the Public Health Agency of Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Public Health Agency of Canada.