All work and no play

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Image courtesy of photosfromhongkong.com

One in four parents of disabled children haven’t taken their child to a park in the last three months, according to a recent survey. Anna Cummins wonders whether there is a disastrous gap in the availability of ‘inclusive’ play facilities in Hong Kong

Hong Kong can be a difficult place to grow up in. There’s pressure to ace exams, master three languages and learn to play enough instruments to form a solo orchestra. And while a child’s right to play is ingrained in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, the average time local kids spend playing outside each day has now fallen to a paltry 12 minutes – far below the recommended one hour, and around 1.3 hours less than in the 1970s. 

Only in the last few weeks, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern over Hong Kong’s commitment to children’s issues, leading to renewed calls for a dedicated Children’s Commission to be set up. The UN specifically expressed concern over how little time children in Hong Kong spend relaxing and playing.

If it’s not easy being a child here, it’s certainly not easy being a disabled one. And this already bleak backdrop makes it all the more alarming that a study released by UNICEF and Playright earlier in October found one in four parents of physically or intellectually disabled children in Hong Kong hadn’t taken their child to a playground at all in the last three months. Almost half of the parents asked felt that local playgrounds were not suitable for their disabled child. 

Professor John Bacon-Shone, director of the Social Sciences Research Centre at Hong Kong University, conducted part of the research underpinning the study. “I think most people would only think of [inclusive playgrounds] in terms of physical disabilities and access, but it’s not only about that. We had people with speaking, listening, intellectual disabilities, autism… it’s a different profile from what people normally think about.” 

The study showed that parents of disabled children found that parks were not meeting their children’s needs for ‘social, physical or sensory stimulation’ – in short, Hong Kong parks are too boring. Additionally, the majority of parents accepted travelling for 30 minutes, just to reach a park with suitable facilities – and many of them travelled for longer. This high journey time eats into the time children can actually spend playing.


Accessible play Simple features can improve the lives of disabled children

Kathy Wong, the director of the Playright Children’s Play Association, emphasises that public playgrounds are very important. “Not everyone can afford to pay to go to an indoor gym; parents rely on these playgrounds to provide outdoor play,” she says.  

“The LCSD has over 690 playgrounds and around 36 of them have so-called ‘inclusive’ facilities,” points out Irene Chan, chief executive of UNICEF Hong Kong. “But most of them are talking about accessibility; whether a wheelchair can go there, or if there are disabled toilets, rather than the games.”

While the LCSD operates the majority of playgrounds, there is a variety of operators, including the Housing Authority, Home Affairs Department and private residential estates. But the same problems are found across the board. These include an overall lack of equipment, leading to queues that many disabled children cannot cope with, as well as a lack of ‘cosy places’, which help fuel imaginative play and vital social interactions. Adjustable or accessible features, such as multi-height basketball hoops or two-levelled monkey bars, are not readily available. In addition, there is a lack of sand, mud, grass or water-play for children, who would probably appreciate escaping this concrete jungle from time to time. 

“Water-play and mist-play, that is very important for autistic children,” says Wong, who explains that it helps them to calm down. “In terms of water-play, I can’t find any [parks that have it], apart from outside Tung Chung MTR!” 

Wong tells us that even simple equipment can be hard to find. “Swings are very important for children’s development, but parents cannot always find a swing in the local community,” she says. Playright’s study indeed found one parent who often travelled from Tai Po to Fanling, just to take her child to a swing. “Swing design could also be varied – such as a tyre swing or a bird nest swing [instead of always being the same],” continues Wong. “These kinds of experiences can create a lot of fun.” 


Sensory simulation Good fun at Quarry Bay Park

Kit Poon, an occupational therapist with Heep Hong Society – an organisation that provides training and education to special needs kids and their parents – explains what happens if children don’t play often enough. “A lack of sensory-motor experience will lead to further lethargy and delayed motor development,” she says. “As a consequence, the children’s attention, cognitive and psychosocial emotional development will also be hindered.”  

Eva Lee is the mother of five-year-old Jeffery, who is autistic. She feels that park facilities are lacking. “They need more swings, more roundabouts; the jungle gym needs to be bigger and more challenging. Perhaps a bridge that moves when you stand on it, places for them to learn how to balance. Tunnels and mazes are also not common; there is one maze in Kowloon Park, but it is always so busy. And there is one in Disneyland Hotel, but you can’t go there every day!” 

As Jeffery’s behaviour is challenging, Lee often struggles with what she experiences at the park. “The equipment often has a queue, and Jeffery will always push,” she explains. “People will stare at you, some will avoid your child; some even tell us not to play here. Sometimes I wait and go to the park very late, after everyone has gone home for dinner. Or we travel to the playground that is very far away so we can avoid crowds.”

Lee is worried about the effect that consciously avoiding other children will have on Jeffery, yet she struggles to deal with other people’s reactions to his behaviour. “Sometimes I just avoid them; I don’t know what else to do. I bought lots of play equipment and we do it at home.”

In response to the findings, an LCSD spokesman said ‘elements of intelligence are blended into the design of the [LCSD] play sets to suit the needs of children with different physical conditions. For example, there are play panels to help develop their intelligence, tactile sensations, vision and hearing… In view of its growing popularity and for the benefit of children as well as the community at large, LCSD will continue to provide more inclusive play equipment in its venues’.

UNICEF and Playright now aim to provide the first ever set of ‘inclusive play’ guidelines in Hong Kong, which will advise designers on how to successfully design playgrounds that meet the needs of all children; disabled or otherwise. Hopefully this positive move could start to bring a bit more fun into the lives of Hong Kong’s play-starved youth.   

For more information on the UNICEF Playright Inclusive Play project, see bit.ly/TimeOutInclusivePlay.

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