27 October 2021

Playground fence petition puts safety first for ACT kids

| James Coleman
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Playground

A playground and a pond in Dunlop, with little between them. Photo: Region Media.

It’s a conundrum faced by nearly every parent at some point. You’re on your own, feeding the baby and that’s the moment another child chooses to run off. What do you do?

A petition is urging the ACT Government to eliminate this problem by creating a standard that would see a small number of public playgrounds encircled by a fence at least one metre high.

Posted by retired early childhood teacher Matthew Armstrong and sponsored by Canberra Liberals MLA Giulia Jones, the petition notes that ACT Labor promised to inject $5.4 million into local playgrounds if re-elected. Of this, $400,000 would be for fencing.

READ ALSO How children with special needs are locked out by open playgrounds

The petition carries a strong emphasis on children with autism, with both Mr Armstrong and Ms Jones having extensive involvement with autistic children. Two of Ms Jones’ six children have autism.

Many of the ACT’s playgrounds are constructed near roads and ponds and, statistically, children with autism are three times more likely to die from drowning while 65 per cent of the incidents with a child with autism involved a close call with traffic.

Mr Armstrong and Ms Jones argue the $400,000 is not being spent effectively or with proper consultation with families of children with autism.

But nature play expert and Belconnen parent of two, Nicole Sadlier, would like to broaden the focus.

“Not taking anything away from those families with autistic children, but I find that there is a much broader issue,” Ms Sadlier says.

READ ALSO Pasta et Al: a Canberra food blog connecting with tradition and encouraging families into the kitchen

She says that many young families find the lack of fencing a real barrier to getting out and about.

“Many are just not going out because they are so concerned about what to do if they’re feeding the baby and the toddler starts running. Which one do I save first?”

Ms Sadlier has been a member of Bluearth for six years, helping deliver community programs across the ACT, funded by ACT Health and dedicated to getting families outdoor and active.

As part of her work, she has come to know Canberra’s array of playgrounds, even sitting on the community co-design boards for many.

She was sent the online petition by a friend and immediately saw a cause to get behind.

“We know kids aren’t as active as they have been in previous generations, and that’s a real problem across the world. I really want to look out for how they can be more active and how families can be active together.”

Child plays in mud

Nature play encourages children to use their imaginations. Photo: Nicole Sadlier.

Ms Sadlier and her partner arrived in Canberra years ago with their first child and had to adjust to both motherhood and new surroundings at the same time.

She discovered her child loved the outdoors, so she started a ‘sticks and stones’ nature group that largely let children and their imaginations run free outdoors with three rules: “don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt others, and don’t damage property.”

“Other than that, they could do what they want really. They got really wet, really muddy, carried rocks around, and just did what kids love to do in that outdoor space.”

She says the play area was fully fenced so that the parents could chat with one another, free of fear.

READ ALSO ACT Health needs Federal funding injection to save lives, says Payne

The petition has received close to 400 signatures so far, and Ms Sadlier sees a strong cohort of people who want to see more fenced playgrounds in the ACT.

She says it isn’t a call for fences on every playground but rather the fencing of a good-quality playground in each region so families in that region have somewhere to go.

“And once they’ve been to one and become accustomed to what their children do, they might feel more comfortable to go to an unfenced playground. It’s a really good starting point for those who have that barrier.”

Ms Sadlier says it’s naive to think that the issue could be solved simply by telling parents to pay closer attention to their children.

“Kids are very quick. Before you know it, they can be making good pace off into the distance.”

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Pre the Boundless playground, I had a singleton & twins within 3 years. One of our twins has a disability & it was impossible to take all three children or even just the twins to a park in Canberra without another adult to assist – this made the isolation of having twins, including one with a disability even greater. The anxiety associated with taking my children to an unfenced playground was immense. It felt like we were being deliberately excluded from enjoying an activity available to others.

ChrisinTurner1:15 pm 24 Oct 21

The fencing is needed to protect children from cars that are travelling too fast for urban areas. Join Safe Steets to School in Canberra https://www.facebook.com/Safe-Streets-to-School-Canberra-105079138635859

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