Too soon to turn off the summer-fun tap


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Among the iconic sounds of summer are the squeals and shouts of kids playing in public pools and spray pads. That’s what fun sounds like.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2022 (220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Among the iconic sounds of summer are the squeals and shouts of kids playing in public pools and spray pads. That’s what fun sounds like.

Such joyful noise was silenced throughout Winnipeg this week as the city began turning off the taps at outdoor public facilities earlier than in past years. Consequently, many kids who showed up at their neighbourhood pool eager for a day of water excitement with their friends could only stand outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the empty pool or pad and wonder: why did they close it when there’s still lots of summer to go?

If you’re a big person, it might not seem like a big deal. But for kids, it surely seems wrong to close pools and spray pads while the weather is still hot and school doesn’t resume until Sept. 7. Then again, no one asked the kids.

It’s all about money, according to the city officials who decided 19 of the city’s 79 wading pools wouldn’t open at all this summer, and the water facilities that did open would close sooner than in summers past. Perhaps the budget for pools and spray pads was targeted because they’re used mostly by kids, who are easy to pick on.

It’s worth noting the city didn’t close its golf courses this week.

Of all summers, this may have been the worst to short-change Winnipeg’s young people on the happiness and social encounters that abound in pools.

The pandemic and the resulting isolation, especially related to the suspension of in-person school classes, has afflicted many young people with increased loneliness and anxiety about leaving the house and encountering other people, according to repeated studies about the mental-health effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

For 29 months, kids have been told to be fearful of an invisible virus and wary of other people, so many of them remain just that: fearful and wary.

Lots of adults experienced similar consequences from the pandemic, but children and teens are impacted in unique ways because it came during crucial times of their emotional and social development.

The Manitoba Pediatric Society was sufficiently concerned to co-write a letter with the Canadian Paediatric Society detailing how the social isolation of the pandemic caused mental-health issues among young people. It called the harm to the well-being of kids a public health emergency as dangerous as the coronavirus itself.

“We have learned that certain decisions and measures pose a far greater risk to children and youth than the virus itself,” the letter states.

“Adults are suffering from pandemic fatigue, which will eventually pass. Yet for too many children and youth, the effects will not be transient. Many will be dealing with the fallout from public health measures for years.”

Before the pandemic, young people developed social skills by attending school, which offered opportunities to mingle with people by joining clubs, teams and circles of friends. The shift by Manitoba schools to online learning pushed them into unhealthy levels of isolation and living their lives largely online. Pediatricians are seeing the negative consequences.

“Online learning is harmful. Social isolation and prolonged in-person school closures have precipitated increases in unhealthy behaviours — such as excessive screen time, reduced physical activity and substance use,” says the letter from the pediatric societies.

This is the context in which Winnipeg’s outdoor pools and spray pads provided an important remedy to social isolation and physical inactivity — or, at least, they did until they closed prematurely.

A public pool or spray pad is like an oasis during summer, particularly for kids from lower-income families who make do without such luxuries as air conditioning, access to family cottages or stints at summer camps. As well as places to escape the heat, they’re also ideal places for kids from all economic brackets to turn off their ubiquitous screens and have in-person fun with the peers who are so important to healthy childhoods.

Want a reminder of the importance of the pools of summer? Check your memory. Even if it’s been decades since our childhood summers, we likely still remember the smell of chlorinated water, the feel of hot concrete pool deck beneath our bare feet, the freedom of floating weightlessly, the fun of competing with friends to see who could swim the furthest or stay submerged the longest, and summoning the courage to go off the diving board for the first time.

Good parents go to great lengths to give their offspring a childhood that is carefree. But the pandemic has ensured the past two and a half years have not been carefree for anyone.

Public pools offer kids a chance to escape the adult-sized cares they don’t deserve to have, and experience the type of playful socialization the pandemic squelched. The cost of shutting them so early is greater than the financial bottom line.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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