Pay to Play: On Profit and Priorities
My 11-year-old son and I visited an indoor play centre with my sister and her two preschoolers yesterday. It was the first time I’d ever been to one of these places.
I guess I was hoping for something more than what was on offer -- a more enriched version of what I'd experienced with my kids at Ontario Early Years Centres (which, being publicly funded, are free). What I encountered was the opposite: a highly commercialized pay-to-play enterprise. And I had to pay $8 for my child to get in.
Instead of puppet theatres and dress-up centres; water tables and sandboxes; ride-on toys and construction sets; paint easels and craft tables; and other activities geared to kids of various ages (the images I carry with me from many happy days spent at Ontario Early Years Centres), the pay-to-play place featured toys and climbing equipment plus pay-more-as-you go extras: pay-to-play carnival games; a snack bar; a birthday party room and birthday cakes, and other amenities, tucked away behind closed doors, ready to be unlocked for the right price.
In the for-profit world, the bottom line has a way of trumping service and common sense. The single staff member working the customer service desk had to juggle phone calls (birthday party and cake bookings) with meeting the needs of parents-and-kids. She did her best, but it isn't easy trying to be the receptionist, order desk clerk, cashier, and customer service rep all at the same time. What got lost, as a result, were the elements that make for a truly child- and parent-centred experience. What was on offer was a spacious room with toys. That’s all.
Parents tell me that they frequently seek out privately-operated play facilities because their local Ontario Early Years Centre is too crowded or it only operates part-time hours or its not as convenient to their home. And, of course, Ontario Early Years Centres only address the 0-6 age range. There aren't publicly funded drop-in centres for kids ages 6-12. That means that what’s available at any given time is very much determined by where you live, the time of year (summer camp and March Break camp season vs. after-school or weekend programming), and your ability to pay. (These types of programs are typically offered on a user-pay system.)
This makes me wonder why we parents have been so willing to reach into our own pockets to pay for access to indoor play spaces? Why aren’t we asking governments to create neighborhood playgrounds (both indoor and outdoor) and parenting centres (perhaps in unneeded schools or schools with excess space) staffed by early childhood education professionals (the people who know how to create the best environments for children to learn and grow)?
So here's what I'm thinking.
Given what we’ve learned about the key determinants of health and what leads to lifetime success and well-being, it doesn’t make sense for governments to default to the private sector when it comes to meeting the needs of children. Issues of universal access vs. ability to pay inevitability arise. If it’s in the public’s interest for children to have safe places to play, shouldn’t the public invest in those spaces and ensure that the programs that they deliver incorporate the best evidence about children and learning (to say nothing of parent support)?
Besides, at a time when taxpayer dollars are being reinvested in all kinds of different projects, don’t you think it’s time we asked ourselves and our governments what brick or mortar project could possibly warrant greater investment than the next generation of citizens? If we fail to invest in our human infrastructure, all the other infrastructure investment won’t matter at all.
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RESEARCH NEWS: The Public Health Agency of Canada has just released new findings about Canadian women's experiences of pregnancy, labour, birth, and postpartum. “What Mothers Say: The Canadian Maternity Experiences Survey” and “Mothers' Voices —What women say about pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood" are available at www.publichealth.gc.ca/mes.