Category Archives: Outdoor Play and Recreation

Will the Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass Increase Your Visits to National Parks and Heritage Sites in 2017?

Two weeks ago I received my free Parks Canada season admission pass in the mail. It is the first time I have ever had such a pass and I will admit that the main reason I got one was because it was free. In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, admission to Parks Canada national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas is free for 2017. It is interesting to me how the free pass and the publicity about it (e.g., news stories of the website being overwhelmed with requests for passes; friends posting pictures with their passes on social media) prompted me to shift my thinking about my Parks Canada visitation habits.


We live more than 2 hours from the closest Parks Canada national park or historic site. When I do get to visit, it is usually once or maybe twice during the summer months and I tend to visit as part of a vacation to Prince Edward Island. As a result, I have never considered getting a park pass (general rule of them is you need to visit 7 days for a pass to be worthwhile). However, granted the opportunity to get one for free, I found myself interested in making use of this opportunity. The pass is appropriately labelled as a “Discovery Pass” and this is most likely how I will use it – as a chance to “discover” parks. Since receiving my pass and brochure, I’ve been reading about some parks – both within and outside my province – for the first time and making plans to try to visit at least 4 this summer.

Declining Park Use

In Canada, there was been a decline of park visitors. In 1988/1989, parks saw 0.46 visits per capita and in 2008/2009 this had decreased to 0.36 visits per capita (Shultis & More, 2011). A look at Parks Canada’s most recent data suggests that park visitor statistics have remained stable through to 2014 when there was an increase in per capita visits in 2014/2015 to 0.38 and in 2015/2016 there were 0.40 visits per capita. These increases are encouraging, but Parks Canada has recognized that it is “faced with the challenge of remaining relevant to Canadians, particularly in some of Canada’s largest cities. Changing demographics, which contribute to shifting leisure and tourism patterns, have had an impact on visitation to Parks Canada heritage places” (Parks Canada, 2016, p. 16). Parks Canada, similar to other agencies in North America that provide park services, seems to understand that its viability may depend on becoming relevant to groups who have historically not made greater use of Parks Canada’s programs and services (Scott & Mowen, 2010).

Encouraging Canadians to Visit Parks

Park fees. Sometimes cost is identified as a barrier to participation in activities and experiences, and this can be especially true if you are unsure what the experience will be like. What benefits might you get from visiting a park? Will a park experience will meet your needs – for adventure, for solitude, for learning something new? By making admission to Parks Canada national parks and heritage sites free, this barrier to exploring an opportunity has been eliminated.

The current government has further committed to making a trip to the park more affordable for families beyond 2017. Beginning in 2018, admission will be free for children under 18 (Trudeau, n.d.). That cost reduction may be relatively insignificant (~$10 for a family with 2 children under 18) when factoring in the cost of travelling to a national park, the cost of equipment needed to have a camping experience, or the cost of feeding the family while visiting or camping. To me, dropping the cost sends a message about the importance of engaging children in nature and developing their interest in the outdoors and in the protection and conservation of our natural environment. It also seems to be a response to Parks Canada’s (2016) awareness that youth are under-represented among those who visit their parks and heritage sites.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact the elimination of a fee for children under 18 along with the development of more technology-based interpretive programs (Parks Canada, 2016) will have. Will more school groups or summer camp programs near national parks consider visiting now knowing that there will be no cost for their young participants and activities may better hold youth’s interest? Is it possible that a $10 savings for a family with two children will reduce cost as a perceived barrier? Will there be greater usage by larger families with three or four children? It will be interesting to see the statistics on visitor use for 2017 and beyond for this age group.

Engaging immigrant families. Parks Canada (2016) notes that 1 in 5 Canadians is foreign born. The report also explains that new Canadians are under-represented in Parks Canada’s visitor base. In an effort to engage immigrant families’ engagement with parks, starting in 2018, new Canadian citizens will also receive free admission for one year. Parks Canada also plans to “undertake focussed awareness, promotion and media initiatives particularly in the key metropolitan areas of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver where large segments of new Canadians live” (p. 40).

Knowledge and skill development. The minister responsible for parks has also been mandated to “ensure that more low- and middle-income families have an opportunity to experience Canada’s outdoors” (para. 26) through an expanded Learn to Camp program. This particular priority appears to recognize that in addition to reducing fees to decrease barriers to park use, lower-income families need support in developing the knowledge and skills to engage in enjoyable park experiences (Zanon, Doucouliagos, Hall,& Lockstone-Binney, 2013).

Adapting to the changing needs of potential visitors. The core mandate of Parks Canada is related to ecology and heritage with activities focused on protection, conservation, and education. In recent years the focus seems to have shifted to revenue generation and recreational tourism. In 2012, Parks Canada faced nearly $30 million in budget cuts which the elimination of 600 staff positions including history/heritage staff, archaeologists, naturalists, curators, and conservation (Galloway, 2012; Syms, 2012). This shift has been concerning to some. As Watson (2016) explained, “the primary purpose of our National Parks is not to get people out camping, it’s to educate them about the natural and cultural values of those parts of Canada.”

But it does seem that Parks Canada is trying to do both. It is seeking to increase the usage of parks by helping people to develop the knowledge and skill to get out and camp and enjoy national parks. It is recognizing there are demands for more diverse accommodations. For example, Fundy National Park in New Brunswick offers campsites, cabins, yurts, and oTENTik (which, Parks Canada explains is a “spacious blend of tent and rustic cabin equipped with beds and furniture on a raised floor”). Parks Canada has recognized the need to offer amenities that other tourism sites are offering and that potential visitors are demanding (e.g., Wi-Fi). Once Canadians become park visitors, then there are opportunities for educating them about ecology and heritage.


As a researcher and as a Canadian, I am curious about what the impact of this initiative in celebration of Canada’s 150 birthday will be. In theory, the free pass should reduce a couple of the perceived barriers to visiting Parks Canada’s parks and heritage sites by lessening the cost and therefore the risk of trying something new. The increased buzz about parks may generate greater interest and curiosity. Canadians may want to participate in the initiative as a way of being patriotic or expressing/ participating in part of the Canadian identity. Hopefully parks and heritage sites are not so busy this year that it has a negative impact on the experiences of visitors!


Galloway, G. (2012, July 12). Buget cuts imperil Canada’s national parks. The Globe and Mail. Available at:

Parks Canada (2016). 2016-2017 Report on plans and priorities. Available at:

Scott, D., & Mowen, A. J. (2010). Alleviating park visitation constraints through agency facilitation strategies. Journal of Leisure Research, 42(4), 535-550.

Shultis, J., & More, T. (2011). American and Canadian national park agency responses to declining visitation. Journal of Leisure Research, 43(1), 110-132.

Syms, E. L. (2012, November 20). Harper government slashes Parks Canada; Trashes Canadian Heritage/History. Available at:

Trudeau, J. (n.d.). Minister of Environment and Climate Change mandate letter. Retrieved from

Zanon, D., Doucouliagos, C., Hall, J., & Lockstone-Binney, L. (2013). Constraints to park visitation: A meta-analysis of North American studies. Leisure Sciences, 35(5), 475-493.







Hopscotch on the Sidewalk in your Neighborhood: An Endangered Species?

Hopscotch – one of the games I played with kids in the neighborhood, my sister, or even on my own on the sidewalk in front of my house. I went through phases with it when I loved it and would spend a lot of my time on that sidewalk and then the interest would wane. Sometimes the phase lasted as long as the days before it rained and the chalked game washed away.

What a great physical activity this was. It got me outside. I had the chance to practice balance (hopping on one foot wasn’t my forte in the beginning) and learned to throw a rock with the precise arm power behind it for the distance it needed to travel. It didn’t require my parents to drive me anywhere at a particular time. I didn’t need others to be able to play or practice, but when others were available it was a great social game. And, it was cheap!

Outdoor play and games like hopscotch could be endangered species.

Fear that Neighborhoods are Unsafe

Documentaries have been produced describing the changes in children’s play and how children are as free to play outside in the way I did in my neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s (for examples, see, Where do the Children Play?; Lost Adventures of Childhood). One key theme tends to be related to parents’ anxiety about and fear for their children’s safety. This anxiety/fear influences their decisions to allow their children to play freely outside in their backyard, on the sidewalks in front of their house, or in neighborhood parks or playgrounds.

In addition to documentaries that have explored this issue, there is also considerable research on parents’ concern for children’s safety. Most of the research captures the perspectives of mothers. Perhaps this is not surprising given research also shows mothers tend to be the key agent responsible for organizing family life including creating opportunities for their children to participate in physical activity and other leisure pursuits. Canadian researchers found that mothers’ perceptions of the quality of neighborhood parks influenced their decisions to allow or restrict their children’s use (Tucker, Gilliland, & Irwin, 2007; Tucker et al., 2009). Some mothers were willing to and did drive outside their neighborhood to go to a park they perceived as being safer or having better quality equipment than the one nearest home. Concerns about the safety of the environment around the family home (e.g., traffic, stranger danger) caused mothers to limit children’s independent play outdoors or how far from home they could go when, for example, riding their bikes (Bevan & Reilly, 2011; Jago et al., 2009). In a study focused on girls, mothers identified lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood as a barrier to their daughters’ physical activity (Gordon-Larsen et al., 2004).

One of the challenges is that parents’ fear and anxiety can produce a vicious cycle of fear. When there is a perception that a neighborhood is unsafe, it is less likely that children will be out and about. There is less social interaction among members of the neighborhood among both children and adults. With less interaction, fears of stranger danger can increase. Parents may then be more likely to transport their children around the neighborhood (e.g., to school, to the park or playground, to a friend’s house). This creates more traffic in the neighborhood which increases road safety fears (Mullen, 2003).

Unfortunately, some children live in neighborhoods where there is physical disorder (e.g., graffiti, beer bottles on the street) and social disorder (e.g., people drinking in public, people selling drugs) can influence both parents’ and children’ perception of a neighborhood’s safety.

Outcomes of Children’s Decreased Neighborhood Outdoor Play

There are some unfortunate outcomes of children not being free to play outdoors or move around their neighborhood. First, many researchers argue and have produced evidence that outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. If simple outdoor activities become extinct, the levels of children’s physical activity could continue to decrease because outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. Second, without activities like road hockey, bicycling, kick the can, capture the flag, and even hopscotch, there could be lost opportunities, as Paul Barter suggests, for developing self-confidence and problem solving skills. Third, with adult rules and strict boundaries, opportunities for exploration, creativity, and innovation may be lost.

Preserving Outdoor Play

Can anything be done to preserve the hopscotch experience or increase the independent mobility of children during their leisure time within their neighborhoods? One study suggests that mothers who interacted with neighbors and felt part of the community were more likely to support the independent mobility of their children. So perhaps knowing one’s neighbors and having one’s neighbors know your children could help parents feel more comfortable with providing their children with more freedom.

Many communities and neighborhoods have installed “traffic calming” measures (e.g., speed humps; speed radars; narrowing streets) to reduce speed and/or volume of traffic where appropriate. I live on a long, straight street with lots of children in my neighborhood. After several reports and complaints to police about driver speed by members of the neighborhood, speed humps were installed at three points on my long street. This has forced drivers to slow down and, from a practical perspective, encourages a relatively slow speed driving the entire street because of the strategically placed humps. Advocating for traffic calming devices may be an action parents (and even neighbors without children) can take to reduce the risk to children playing in the neighborhood.


Some cities are also putting bike lanes on busier streets to provide a space for bikers on the road and to provide a very physical indicator to drivers that they need to share the road with cyclists. Bike lanes can, at the very least, reduce the perception of road hazards and some communities that have made bike lanes part of the road infrastructure notice less vehicle/bicycle conflict (Chen et al., 2012). Changing the infrastructure proves more effective than educating drivers and children about how to behave safely and harmoniously on the road together. Something else to advocate for.

bike lane

The more complicated issues to deal with related to perceived neighborhood safety and children’s outdoor play are those falling under physical and social disorder. Police action in such neighborhoods would be important as would working to make the neighborhood as aesthetically pleasing as possible (e.g., removing graffiti when it appears). However, this takes considerable commitment from members of the neighborhood and the municipal government. A first step may be recognizing that physical and social disorder does affect children’s outdoor play and working to advocate for children’s opportunity to be and feel safe engaging in outdoor play.


Bevan, A. L., & Reilly, S. M. (2011). Mothers’ efforts to promote healthy nutrition and physical activity for their preschool children. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 26, 395–403.

Chen, L., Chen, C., Ewing, R., McKnight, C. E., Srinivasan, R., & Roe, M. (2012). Safetycountermeasures and crash reduction in New York City—Experience and lessons learned. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 50, 312-322.

Gordon-Larsen, P., Griffiths, P., Bentley, M. E., Ward, D. S., Kelsey, K., Shields, K., et al. (2004). Barriers to physical activity: qualitative data on caregiver-daughter perceptions and practices. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27, 218–223.

Jago, R., Thompson, J. L., Page, A. S., Brockman, R., Cartwright, K., & Fox, K. R. (2009). Licence to be active: Parental concerns and 10–11-year-old children’s ability to be independently physically active. Journal of Public Health, 31, 472-477.

Molnar, B. E., Gortmaker, S. L., Bull, F. C, & Buka, S. L. (2004). Unsafe to play? Neighborhood disorder and lack of safety predict reduced physical activity among urban children and adolescents. American Journal of Health Promotion, 18(5), 378-386.

Tucker, P., Gilliland, J., & Irwin, J. D. (2007). Splashpads, swings, and shade: Parents’ preferences for neighbourhood parks. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 98(3), 198-202.

Tucker, T., Irwin, J. D., Gilliland, J., He, M., Larsen, K., Hess, P. (2009). Environmental influences on physical activity levels in youth. Health & Place, 15, 357–363

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