The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Play was a casualty of the pandemic. Here's what kids really need as lockdowns are lifted

With play dates cancelled and some playgrounds closed, scholar and author Tim Gill says he's worried children's play has been an overlooked casualty of COVID-19.

Active children are a sign of a healthy human habitat: scholar

A child uses a swingset during socially distanced recess in Louisville, Kentucky. Tim Gill says children's play is one of the overlooked casualties of COVID-19. ( Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The average parent is likely concerned about how well their kids have learned during the pandemic — after all, some Canadian students might've gone through a full year of virtual school. But what about how well kids have played?

Tim Gill, an independent scholar who focuses on childhood and playing, said closed playgrounds and cancelled play dates are some of the overlooked casualties of COVID-19.

Tim Gill is the author of 'Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities'. (Martin Godwin)

"The pandemic, I think, has brought into focus kind of what happens when children are literally starved of the chance to spend time with their friends, to hang out, to socialize," he told The Sunday Magazine guest host David Common.

Gill is the author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities. His book explores how seeing cities and urban spaces through the eyes of children strengthens the case for transportation policies that work for people of all ages.

He spoke to Common about the importance of active children in a healthy human habitat.

We worry so much about education. I'm thinking about one of my kids; my daughter today learning remotely and our ongoing battle about whether to turn the camera on or not. Do you worry that we have overlooked play?

Definitely. 

We adults haven't paid a great deal of attention to [play] — what is, in fact, an amazing sort of learning and adaptive process that helps to equip children for all sorts of challenges in life, as well as being tremendously rewarding, engaging and fun. 

So I'm hoping that maybe one of the few good things that come out of [the pandemic] is a greater awareness of the need to make space and time in children's lives for them simply to play and be themselves.

If you see children of different ages with and without their parents being active and visible in streets ... that's a sign of the health of that human habitat.- Tim Gill

I think about my own childhood. I listen to my mum talking about how she would get up in the morning, stay outside and … have independence essentially for the entire day, and then come home when hungry and only when hungry. Is the pandemic the thing that has changed all of this, or just the latest … erosion of kids' freedoms?

You're absolutely right that the pandemic is a sort of [sped-up] version of what's been happening in children's lives really over the last two or three generations; a kind of gradual, creeping lockdown. 

The causes are more complicated, but I think it's just as significant and it actually can't go on. It's not healthy for children. It's also not healthy for society, I think, to have a world in which we never see children out of doors — or if we do, we think it's a sign that somebody somewhere has been negligent. That's really, I think, a worrying cultural trend.

Children are a kind of indicator species for human habitats…. If you see children of different ages with and without their parents being active and visible in streets — not just in a few little playgrounds, but active and moving around their neighbourhood — that's a sign of the health of that human habitat.

So take me through some other cities in the world. If it's not playgrounds or it's not just playgrounds, what do we need in our cities to enable this for kids?

Tim Gill's book explores how seeing cities and urban spaces through the eyes of children strengthens the case for transportation policies that work for people of all ages. (RIBA Books)

In the book, I hold up the city of Freiburg in Germany and specifically one district, which is called Vauban. It's about 5,000 or 6,000 people … [and] the crucial thing about Vauban is that it's, in effect, car-free. So the whole of the space between the buildings is available for public use; for play, for socializing, gardening, civic activities.

It's more of a challenge in North America for sure because, firstly, you had so much space that for a lot of the time when your cities were growing, they've just done what you expect, they've sprawled. But now, more and more cities are realizing that that that's an unsustainable approach, that it holds huge long-term problems. 

So I think in the long term, I am one of those people who's arguing that cities everywhere that have that problem of sprawl need to figure out how to be more compact — get that sweet spot where, you know, facilities, spaces, people are kind of close enough to be easily accessible. 

But I think the other thing that you need to see is measures that just make it easier for kids to walk and cycle. So taming traffic, narrowing roads, looking at safety features, and also making the case for children's kind of right to have the freedom to get around the neighbours … because actually children themselves are very articulate about what they like and don't like in neighbourhoods. And traffic is one of their biggest worries.

I want to talk about what happens when you do open up space for play. I think the instinct is to stick a swing there, stick a slide there. Is that what kids need?

I think when we watch children at play — I mean, what's one of the most wonderful, playful places that we take our kids? It's the beach, right? And yet, if you look at a beach, what is it? It's sand and water and that's kind of it. 

There's something about the sort of possibilities of the particular type of sand, and the water coming in and out, and the waves, and other people, that create sort of endless potential for fun. 

If adults take the time to think back to their own childhoods and the places they used to spend time in [and] their favourite places to play, it's almost universal that the memories are places of adventure, of possibility.- Tim Gill

You're arguing to leave the canvas a bit more blank? To leave it up to kids and their imaginations on what to do?

Yes, and I'm also arguing, I think, for a greater sort of richness of nature — of the kind of everyday nature that you find in a vacant lot or a ravine that just invites possibilities and invites exploration. 

I'm not saying we just sort of completely deregulate children's lives and let them throw themselves off the nearest cliff. Actually, one thing you learn about kids from watching them play [is] they're not stupid. They're very alive to lots of threats and dangers, and they learn pretty [quickly] as well. 

Part of what helps kids learn to keep themselves safe is, you know, coming up against real challenges and learning from their own efforts, and maybe the occasional bump and scrape, because we can all remember from our own childhoods when that bump or scrape taught us a valuable lesson about how to keep ourselves from harm.

If adults take the time to think back to their own childhoods and the places they used to spend time in [and] their favourite places to play, it's almost universal that the memories are places of adventure, of possibility. Places where we could really get a sense of ourselves as active people who had some control over our own destinies. 


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Interview produced by Peter Mitton. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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