Don’t use playground equipment in winter, NWT daycares told
Childcare providers in the Northwest Territories are being told to keep children away from outdoor playground equipment all winter to “lessen the likelihood of injuries.”
Writing to operators of daycares and day homes last week, the NWT government said children’s bulky winter clothing and frozen or snowy ground make the use of slides, climbers and monkey bars risky.
In response, the NWT Early Childhood Association – which represents operators – said the territory’s request was “detrimental to children’s development.”
“I have operated a day home in Yellowknife for eight years and in Canada for 18 years. I have never gotten a letter like this, ever,” said day home operator Yvette Cooper.
Annabel Etheridge, who founded Yellowknife’s Rooted in Nature forest school, said she was “appalled.”
A November 24 letter from Shelley Kapraelian, the GNWT’s director of early learning and child care, told operators to “refrain from using playground equipment for the duration of the winter season.”
While that statement appeared to refer to all equipment, Kapraelian’s letter becomes more specific, later stating that “fixed playground equipment like climbers, slides, and monkey bars rely on proper surfacing materials such as sand, rubber surfacing, wood chips etc to protect children when using them.”
The letter continued: “When the ground is frozen and/or snow-covered, the capacity of these materials to protect children from injury is limited. Children are also required to be dressed in outdoor clothing such as snowpants, scarves, and mittens that limit their typical capacity to use this equipment safely.
“While it is not possible to eliminate risk of injury in any outdoor activity, discontinuing the use of outdoor play equipment during the winter months when the ground is frozen will contribute to greater safety of children overall.”
Responding in a letter of its own on Monday, the NWT Early Childhood Association quoted a range of research that it said demonstrated “the importance of risky play to holistic child development.”
“From the letter we get the sense that … ECE believes that the practitioners in the sector are unable to keep children safe,” wrote Patricia Davison, the association’s chair.
“If this is the case we offer the solution of training in risk benefit analysis. Risk benefit analysis is a process that examines the potential play experience to determine if the action occurs, what the chance and level of injury may be.”
Cooper said she understood ECE’s desire to approach the subject from a safety perspective, but she believes that needed to come with training to facilitate risky play, not what she termed a “thou shalt not” email.
“It goes against all research about the importance of risky play for developing competent, effective people,” said Cooper.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the ability to play and take risks is essential for a child’s development. For ECE, the licensing body, to not take that into account is disconcerting.
“It’s a very paternalistic and commanding edict. It’s not great on a lot of levels.”
Etheridge, whose forest school is billed as “a year-round nature immersion program,” said by email that ECE was, in her view, “bubble-wrapping the essence of childhood” in its approach.
Etheridge questioned whether the restriction was appropriate for many northern children who grow up with a heightened awareness, she said, of the way snow changes the friction of a surface.
“I have heard children in my previous kindergarten classes comment on it with excitement, saying things such as ‘There’s snow on the slide! We can go so fast!’ or ‘I’m off limits up here, I have to walk slower because it’s slippery,'” Etheridge wrote.
“Let’s move forward in the 21st century and see our children for the capable risk-takers they are, allowing them to decide if and how they would like to use their playground equipment, no matter the season.”
Lara Savinainen-Mountain has a two-year-old attending a Yellowknife day home and another in after-school care.
She described to Cabin Radio growing up in Ontario in an era when she said safety concerns meant “slides, swings, balls, skipping ropes and other playground equipment were taken away,” leaving children “in uninspiring playgrounds, often bored, sitting around on pavement.”
Savinainen-Mountain said her home life on a farm had saved her from that outcome, and she hoped ECE would reverse course.
“There are many indications of negative effects in kids being overly protected, increasing the likelihood of anxiety while young and as they enter adulthood,” she said.
“I hope this decision will be reversed and I will continue to encourage my children to play within their physical abilities, hopefully fostering their own self-awareness, self-esteem and love of the outdoors.”
‘Difficult to keep children off equipment’
Regulations in the NWT require that childcare providers offer outdoor play to children in their care each day. Anything “potentially hazardous” in that outdoor space must be fenced off, regulations quoted by Davison state.
She asked ECE: “As the playground equipment is deemed a safety hazard during the winter, does this mean the expectation is that the equipment inside the fenced play space will also need to be fenced off?”
Davison said that as winter in many NWT communities can last for eight to 10 months, ECE’s approach “means playground equipment would only be available for about two to three months.”
“For many licensed programs,” she wrote, “this means closing their play yards, as it would be difficult to keep children off equipment in their fenced yards and stay within regulation.”
Erin Mohr, a spokesperson for ECE, told Cabin Radio by email that the letter “was to remind operators of licensed early learning and child care programs about the possible added risk that winter conditions pose to outdoor play, especially when play involves fixed playground equipment such as climbers, slides, and monkey bars.”
Mohr wrote: “We all have a role to play to ensure we keep our children safe. The requirement to refrain from using fixed playground equipment has been communicated with that in mind.
“Play is an important part of learning and development for children and ECE encourages and requires daily outdoor play in licensed programs, regardless of the season.”
Even if the letter applies only to larger fixed equipment that carries greater risk, Cooper said, there are still questions.
“That doesn’t really address how the two biggest daycares in Yellowknife are supposed to deal with outside time,” she said, referring to the Centre for Northern Families and Yellowknife Day Care Association, where such equipment exists.
“They’re telling us a three-year-old can’t used fixed equipment but magically that changes when a four-year-old goes to school.
“I hope they take the response to this as an opportunity to do better.”