May 7, 2021

Opinion: Let The Children Play

By Catherine Birken, Eyal Cohen and Meta van den Heuvel

Originally published online by Healthy Debate at

Public health experts have been calling for a lifting of restrictions on outdoor activities since Ontario reversed its decision to close children’s playgrounds April 17. But given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, what should we prioritize for outdoor openings?

Last spring, the initial focus on reopening was on the “playgrounds” typically used by adults – marinas, golf courses and tennis courts. Now, there are calls for opening these activities again. While pandemic-weary adults deserve opportunities to safely spend time outdoors, it is shameful that minimal focus has been placed on promoting outdoor physical activity for those most at risk by indoor confinement – our children and youth.

There is definitive scientific evidence that physical activity and outdoor play protects children from chronic health conditions, promotes learning and is effective at preventing and treating mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Studies during this pandemic, in Canada and across the world, have confirmed that implementation of public health policies meant to protect us from COVID-19 infection have resulted in reduced physical activity and outdoor time and increased screen time for all children. Children and youth are experiencing social isolation and serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

These effects are most pronounced among children from marginalized communities and children living in poverty. Many have little or no access to safe outdoor spaces. Many have received misguided communication to stay indoors, stoking fears about outdoor COVID-19 exposure. They have suffered from draconian approaches to public health policy such as taping up playgrounds, removing basketball nets and prohibiting children and youth to play or meet together outside.

Prioritizing the health and well-being of children and youth must include an evidence-based public health strategy that encourages safe outdoor activities where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low. Other countries with similar rates of COVID-19 infections have prioritized the rights of children to safely play outdoors in structured and unstructured sports and activities with their peers during the pandemic. 

Children will be the last group to be immunized – this cannot be an excuse to delay the removal of unnecessary restrictions for them. We know that outdoor transmission of COVID is very low, and the risk can be reduced by wearing masks and keeping distance. 

Now, well into spring, with schools shuttered indefinitely, it is high time to focus on children and their health needs. We need to immediately re-open outdoor public spaces and allow children and youth to play with their peers in parks, playgrounds, schoolyards, sports fields, skate parks, city beaches, pools and camping spaces.

We need to restart outdoor organized sports for children and youth without further delay. Municipalities should organize outdoor community summer camps in all neighbourhoods with the same energy and focus that they are putting in to prepare curbside patios. Provincial and local public health leaders, parks and recreation staff, physical activity and sports organizations, camping associations, and parents, caregivers and children need to work together to implement safe practices for these vital child health-sustaining outdoor activities.

Our children have suffered during the pandemic. An active recovery for children needs to start now.