Raktim Mitra, the study’s lead author, said more than 60 per cent of children and youth in the GTHA who answered the survey reported they are playing less outdoors than before the state of emergency started and playgrounds and parks were declared off-limits.
Mitra, an associate professor of urban planning at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says that number is significantly higher than in the rest of Canada where the average is about 48 per cent, and he says the region’s urban density has something to do with it.
“Our study shows that in neighbourhoods that have a very high dwelling density, there are fewer children in those neighbourhoods who are spending time outdoors, but we also saw that it changes when there is access to parks in those neighbourhoods,” Mitra told CBC Toronto.
“So, in cities like Toronto, who are trying to densify their inner urban neighbourhoods … the results that we got emphasize again and again the importance of parks and open space for children’s as well as adults’ health and well-being.”
At the height of the pandemic when the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly, public health guidelines were primarily aimed keeping people apart from each other as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus, mostly with stay-at-home orders and physical distancing.
Ontario closed all outdoor recreational facilities, including playgrounds, sports fields and off-leash dog parks in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But Mitra believes it’s time to strike a balance between ensuring physical distancing as well as ensuring the health and wellbeing of children and adults.
“For children, being outdoors and spending time outdoors has a lot of health benefits,” he said.
“It’s good for their physical health, it’s good for their mental health during these difficult times; and it also helps them develop a better immune system.
“At this time when the pandemic situation is not as widespread as before, maybe this is something to take into account,” Mitra added.
Playgrounds are still closed during Stage 2 of the Ontario government’s reopening process. Premier Doug Ford has said he hopes playgrounds will be able to reopen once the province enters Stage 3, but there’s no word yet on when that will be. Until they do reopen, Mitra is encouraging parents to take their children outside.
“Our findings kind of tell us that an important homework for our families and children during this summer could be to make an extra effort to go out and spend some time with their children so that they are maintaining good health,” Mitra told CBC News.
He says families need to make use of the outdoor space that is available to them to get kids the exercise they need: front and back yards and neighbourhood streets, for example.
A number of parents who spoke with CBC News said they want the playgrounds open, but they also understand why health officials are being cautious.
Caylin Trudell said she’s glad to see that things are finally opening up and is hopeful the playgrounds will be added soon.
“I think it might be a little bit too long for the playgrounds. I think it would be really great for kids to run around and burn some energy,” Trudell told CBC News.
Sophie Gotshal said proper sanitization and limiting the number of people who can enter at the same time, some playgrounds could probably open up now.
“Kids are doing well, kids aren’t really getting the virus that much, and it would be so great, considering that so many things are opened already, just to be able to let the kids play a little bit, especially since they’ve missed out on so much already,” she said.
Daniel Gallucci said his kids are champing at the bit to hit the playground.
“Ideally, when you see that the wading pools and other things are starting to open up, you hope that at some point you will be able to access the parks,” he said.