FEATURE/Taiwan's moms secure parks to restore children's right to play
By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter
On a breezy Sunday afternoon, laughter rises from a playground complex that looks like a red and white space fort in the Youth Park in Taipei. It was built 30 years ago to commemorate the moon landing but it is now seen as an icon that marks the development of playscape in Taiwan.
"I like the big sandpit here, and the fact that it matches so well with the fort," said 9-year-old Evelyn Lee (李天詒), who has been playing in the park over the past four years.
Lee would not have the chance to play in this popular playground-- and many others-- if it were not for a group of moms who fought for its conservation and urged development of similar play areas for children.
To pass on their experience, the group, called Parks and Playgrounds for Children by Children (PPFCC), recently published a book about the movement, which not only won widespread acclaim from officials and lawmakers, but also secured a promise from Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) to direct the Ministry of Health and Welfare to coordinate related efforts for children's right to play.
The composite structures-- comprising rocket installations, space-themed murals, grid nets and slides designed for different age groups-- narrowly escaped demolition in 2015, when the city government tore down two terrazzo slides without prior notice and announced plans to demolish 60 more in the city due to safety concerns.
That move prompted an unexpected outcry from 3,000 parents, who staged a protest demanding that Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) stop tearing down such facilities and building rather small, short and generic playground equipment as a convenient solution.
"Children have a right to play, and they deserve better than 'canned-food' playgrounds," said Christine Lee (李玉華), one of the parent-protesters who were originally loosely connected through Facebook.
With more studies about the city's resources for children's recreation, which were extremely scarce back then-- Lee and a dozen moms decided to register the group PPFCC in 2018 to promote youngsters' welfare.
"Can you imagine there were only four sandpits and 30 swings for a total of 320,000 children in Taipei?" she said.
Right to play
Citing the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by United Nations members in 1989 and written into Taiwanese law in 2014, Lee said it was a universal value "for children to have rest and leisure, as well to engage in play and recreational activities."
The pursuit of that value might be particularly relevant to Taiwan, which has been struggling with an aging society with low fertility.
According to the National Development Council, Taiwan's population began to register negative growth last year after peaking at 23.6 million in 2019.
Taiwan will become a super-aged society by 2025, meaning that one in five citizens will be over 65, the council said.
In response, the government has launched various incentives in recent years to build an environment more friendly toward child-rearing-- including giving subsidies, and establishing more public kindergartens and recreation facilities.
Acting in line with the government's policy, the PPFCC's calls to retain characteristic playgrounds and introduce inclusive parks-- those designed to be accessible to all children regardless of age and physical accessibility -- were finally answered.
From foes to friends
After rounds of negotiations with the parents, the Taipei government decided to not only keep the slides, including the one in the space fort, but also to refurbish them to make them safe.
Yu Kuo-jen (尤國仁), an official at the Parks and Street Lights Office of the city's Public Works Department, remembered the challenges when he was assigned to communicate with the parents.
"The public sector tended to act more cautiously, but the moms were very well-prepared and equipped with profound knowledge about the playgrounds and safety standards," Yu said.
There were quarrels in the beginning, which also involved other stakeholders who were more concerned about the safety of non-generic playgrounds, but all sides eventually reached a consensus, he said.
"To bubble wrap your children to keep them away from germs and injuries is not the best way to raise them," Lee said.
It is better for children to explore their abilities while developing their own strategies to avoid the risks by playing at properly-designed playgrounds that allow for more adventures and challenges, she suggested.
The PPFCC has since joined hands with local governments to reshape 100 playgrounds across Taiwan, and they have also started networking with similar organizations worldwide for information exchanges, such as United Kingdom-based "Playing Out," Singapore's "Chapter Zero" and Japan's "Tokyo Play."
The public-private sector collaboration between PPFCC and the Taipei city government also resulted in a virtuous circle, as new parks began to involve their primary users-- or children-- from their early stages of development.
One of the best examples is the Huashan Grassland Playground, which took children as the main consultants in the design process from start to finish.
The kids were first invited to submit their design ideas and demonstrate how they use playground equipment, according to Lee.
The studies were then presented to the parents for further input, and during a year of park construction, kids were allowed to participate in real work, such as laying tiles, she said.
That approach has just been applied to another new playground project in the Youth Park near the original space fort, which is slated to open between late March and early April and will feature still more space motifs.
Chou Hui-ju (周慧茹), a teacher at Taipei Nanhai Experimental Preschool, said her students were invited to join in the design of the "new space fort" two years ago, and they were thrilled to find their dream park became a reality.
That sense of achievement not only belongs to the kids, but to mothers like Lee as well.
"We were used to be perceived as 'angry local mothers' who 'should have brought our kids back home and cooked dinner for them when it was about time,'" Lee said, but through the movement, their voices were eventually heard.
During the process, she said, mothers of different backgrounds proved to government officials that they can be experts on children's needs and convinced them of the feasibility of playground transformation.
"It has been a lesson in civic engagement for us, too," Lee said, adding that she hoped her two children could also learn together with her how to pay attention to public affairs, find solutions, and keep those completed projects sustainable.
While those fancy playgrounds have laid the cornerstone for children to better enjoy their childhood, Lee and Chou agree that it is the parents' attitudes that matter more.
A kid will not necessarily grow up well in those parks if their caretakers are absorbed in their cellphones, they said.
"In fact, that is rule No. 1 our students wrote down when imagining their dream playgrounds -- that moms and dads are forbidden to play with their cellphones," Chou said.
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