Today, outdoor play doesn’t come easily to families. Kids aren’t as active—only 9% of Canadian kids aged 5 to 17 get the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity they need each day (2012-13 CHMS). What’s more is 75% of kids spend more than two hours a day watching television and looking at screens (2012-13 CHMS). With so much time spent sitting indoors, it’s no wonder Canadians of all ages feel less connected to each other, their communities and the great outdoors.
That’s why Vivo launched the Play Ambassadors program. Our goal is to bring free play back to neighbourhood parks, recreation centres, backyards and beyond. Over two summers, our trained playworkers spent hundreds of hours in community parks across Calgary, inspiring more than 2,600 participants to engage in play.
"We really appreciate everything you have done for us. This program is great for newcomers. It has provided an opportunity for us to meet people in the community. At school, my daughters only made friends with classmates but now they have made friends with neighbours! I will tell others about the importance of play and help spread the fun!"
My background: I have worked at Vivo as a Play Ambassador for just over six months, and I have worked in the preschool department for about three months. I am currently in Grade 12, applying to university in the fall.
What I love about being a Play Ambassador: I love heading out into the community and working with the kids.
What I’ve learned: Being a Play Ambassador has been great! I have learned so much about what makes up play and how it is beneficial to everyone. Some of my top learning moments would be: learning how to encourage free play and learning when to take a step back and let the kids take over creative control.
Wish for the future: I hope that next summer, and even throughout the winter, we can encourage more kids to be active and hopefully increase the amount of kids—and adults—coming out to play!
My background: I have worked at Vivo since the summer of 2013, first with Summer Camps and then as a Play Ambassador. I graduated in 2017 from the University of Calgary with a BSc in electrical engineering.
What I love about being a Play Ambassador: It's been amazing to travel to different spaces around the city and meet different people and help them take some time out of their days to play and have fun. It's great to experience what it was like to play as a kid, and it's rewarding to give other people that experience as well.
What I’ve learned: Being a Play ambassador has taught me to be able to take myself a little less seriously. I've learned that the best way to interest people in what you do is to be passionate about it and have fun doing it. I also learned how to juggle and am slowly getting better at hula hooping!
Wish for the future: I wish that everybody could join in on an activity with the Play Ambassadors at least once in their life. People need a reminder that it's OK to stop for a while and play and have fun, and I hope the Play Ambassadors continue to bring that reminder to people!
My background: I have worked at Vivo for four years in many roles and have been part of the Play Ambassador team for three years now. I am currently a student at the University of Calgary taking a bachelor's degree in community rehabilitation and disability studies, and after plan to take my BEd to become a teacher.
What I love about being a Play Ambassador: My favourite moments are when I see people start to make connections—when they suddenly make a new friend or think of a new idea or figure something out.
What I’ve learned: Being a Play Ambassador has given me a different perspective on play and has changed how I run programs—I find that they are more playful now! I've also used a lot of the Play Ambassador ideas in my practicum placements.
Wish for the future: I hope that in the future, we are able to live in a world where play is a natural part of life. For the moment, I hope that we can have a farther reach. I want us to be able to bring play into everyone's lives, since play is important for everybody.
Our trained Play Ambassadors work to facilitate free play in community spaces, inviting community members to play and build connections in the process.
Play Ambassadors enhance the environment by using both traditional sporting equipment and loose parts, along with music and lots of energy!
Play Ambassadors encourage the entire family to play, inspiring adults to step outside of their comfort zones and allowing children to take the lead.
In everything we do—from Play Ambassador training to program times and locations—we evaluate and evolve, making changes to maximize our impact.
"My children jumped up and down in their scooter seats when they saw Vivo Play Ambassadors by our home and begged to go play! My groceries have never been put away so quickly," shares Tilia Hagan. "They love all the different stations and how the [Play Ambassadors] join in on the play as well. Something for everyone!"
In 2013, inspired by other successful models like the Play Rangers in Scotland, Vivo launched the Play Ambassadors program to increase unstructured play at its recreation centre in north central Calgary.
Two years later, after observing the increase in unstructured play within rec centre walls and receiving numerous requests from community organizations to expand the program, Vivo decided to bring the Play Ambassadors outdoors. Thanks to funding from the Lawson Foundation, Vivo expanded the Play Ambassadors program to eight community spaces over two summers in neighbourhoods across Calgary.
"The best classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky."
Over the past five years, Vivo has worked closely with Mount Royal University to ensure a robust and validated research methodology. A team of professors and students once again partnered with us to provide evidence and measurement for the Play Ambassadors project and we couldn't be more excited about the findings!
The Play Ambassadors have demonstrated that while people may have an innate desire to play, they are much more likely to participate in unstructured outdoor play when there is a role model or facilitator present.
More people visited community parks and participated in play of all types when a Play Ambassador was present. We also saw continued growth in participation as community members became more familiar with the Play Ambassador program.
2015 data comes from a baseline of systematic observations of parks in north-central Calgary without the Play Ambassador present.
In the summer of 2017, we began systematic observations across all locations to compare how many people engaged in outdoor play with and without Play Ambassadors present. The result? Four times more people were observed playing when Play Ambassadors were present!
The Play Ambassadors helped foster genuine relationships and community connections. By the end of the project period, more than 51% of participants were repeat attendees!
The increase in number of repeat participants in Coventry and Panorama was particularly significant given that these parks were two of the most well attended locations overall.
The Play Ambassadors program was instrumental in establishing new relationships among participants and valuable partnerships between like-minded organizations. We truly are better together! Here are some of the most notable collaborations that helped advance the mission of the Play Ambassadors.
In September 2017, The City of Calgary hosted the 20th International Play Association Triennial World Conference. The City of Calgary brought together Vivo and many other organizations to form YYC Plays to plan the conference and develop a legacy for this event—the Calgary Play Charter. Generously funded by the Lawson Foundation, the charter serves as a unifying document outlining why play is important and how, in working together, we can create a community that supports and encourages comprehensive play opportunities for all Calgary children. On September 15, 2017 leaders from 36 Calgary and area organizations joined Mayor Nenshi, MP Kent Hehr and MLA Robyn Luff to sign the play charter.
Run by The City of Calgary, the mobile adventure playground (MAP) brings play to children across the city during special events and other activities. Vivo supported MAP staff training and the two teams shared the mobile play space at many events and had an opportunity to share knowledge on key learnings and best practices.
A partnership between Vivo, First 2000 Days Network, and Calgary Parks saw the development of Calgary's first Loose Parts pilot program. Co-branded Loose Parts Storage Bins were installed at six parks across the city including Play Ambassador sites. The program has since received interest from many other neighbourhoods and numerous community associations have begun applying for funding to receive bins of their own.
Telus Spark staff joined Vivo’s Play Ambassadors in the summer of 2017 to provide different types of play experiences in the community. This included shadowing Vivo staff, and completing and providing feedback on the Play Ambassador training.
Community and resident associations from around the city have been an integral part of bringing the Play Ambassadors outdoors. These relationships in the community were essential to building awareness and the strong participation and growth in all six neighbourhoods across the city.
Ihouma Emeronye moved from Nigeria to Calgary in 2014 and found living in a new neighborhood in a new country made her feel isolated. When the Play Ambassadors popped up during the summer months in Panorama, her children loved it and met many other kids living in the neighbourhood. The kids grew so close that they soon began hanging out on their own time - riding bikes and going over to each other’s houses. Best of all, as the kids connected, so did the parents. Now these neighbours know each other better!
"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."
Play is a FUN social activity that helps children and their families build and grow connections to their communities, neighbours and outdoor spaces.Play is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.
Play also helps engage people of all ages in the physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative activities needed to live happy, healthy and more active lives.
In a follow up survey, one family who visited Haysboro Community Park shared how the Play Ambassadors program is encouraging families in their neighbourhood to play more:
"I love the loose parts bin and how it is always here. Kids are playing in new ways, wearing parachutes as dresses." The family also expressed that the community as a whole had started encouraging outdoor play and "people are loving it!"
• Systematic Observation Methodology
Promising Play Practices:
• Lawson Foundation Outdoor Play Strategy
• Earth Day Outdoor Play and Learning Program
• City of Calgary Play Resources
• Dalhousie University Loose Parts and Physical Activity Publication
• Child and Nature Alliance Canada
• Alberta Council for Environmental Education
And to all the amazing Play Ambassadors: Thank you! We could not have done it without you!