While many of us have been anxious to return to movie theatres and go to big weddings again, children have been going through some of the most critical times of their lives.
A time to learn how to make friends, how to make lasting connections, to begin to understand more about your own health, your identity – a time to play.
But staying home from school and the suspension of many after-school activities have greatly reduced children’s opportunity for growth and health through play.
That’s why programs like Hiiye’yu Lelum’s Right to Play are so critical.
Funded by United Way British Columbia, the Right to Play program has continued despite the pandemic, moving back and forth from in-person groups to Zoom and activity gift bags when necessary, keeping kids engaged and learning about themselves and the world through play.
Offered to Indigenous kids ages 7-12, the program has a strong focus on health through physical activity, says Katie, the program’s community mentor.
“Especially with our community, we focus on diabetes prevention and the importance of health and physical activity,” she says. However, the program provides opportunities for mental health support and personal growth as well, all by facilitating play.
Part of that is providing kids with the ability to do activities they might not be able to access on their own.
From rock-climbing to trips to the movies, tie-dye activities, and even just organizing games of freeze-tag at a playground, the program encourages friendships, physical activity, and trying new things.
“I think especially in this community, it’s important to have this type of program,” says Katie.
“There is lots of poverty in Duncan, and a lot of children don’t have these types of resources. I think what’s really nice about being able to get a grant from the United Way is that I can give those opportunities for children to do activities that they maybe don’t get to do, and that’s a special treat for them, too.”
Though pandemic restrictions have gotten in the way of these activities at times, that didn’t mean that play had to stop. During those times, Katie put together and sent home activity kits, giving kids crafts and supplies to keep learning by having fun.
“We try and do about eight hours of programming a week,” says Katie, which has been especially important for kids who have had to stay home for an extended period under the Cowichan Tribes’ stay-at-home order.
“It’s been really isolating for them,” she says, noting that anxiety, depression and other mental health issues have resulted from isolation.
But, through the program, these kids have been able to remain connected to Katie and their friends, to grow in confidence, learn coping skills, how to navigate friendships and more.
“I feel like now, in society, children have a lot more expectations and worries that they have to deal with regarding their family, school, other friends, social media,” says Katie. “And so just being able, I think, to get away from that kind of world for a few hours after school [is important].”