Free Play for All: Universal access to sports, recreation & arts for all Edmonton youth after school.

As Mayor, Michael Oshry would be dedicated to building a universal, city-wide Free Play and After-School program, in partnership with a coalition of nonprofits and charities, local school boards, and other orders of government. This plan builds on the successful Free Footie Program developed by Tim Adams, now called Free Play for Kids.  By adopting this model and gathering supporting City resources, we can remove barriers to participating in free after-school recreation and offer every child in Edmonton access, regardless of their socio-economic background. Michael Oshry’s plan is certainly ambitious, but it is also highly achievable.

The Need:

Access to sports, recreation, arts, and physical, social and mental support for youth can make a life-changing difference. Sports and recreation help children build skills  and community ties - opportunities that are often not accessible for kids from low-income families, who most need help to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. For working parents, access to sports and recreation also provides after-school care, which means they can work full-time, gaining access to better job opportunities and earning more for their families, without having to pay close to $2,000.00 a month for this care. For kids with younger siblings, after-school programs can mean being part of a team, instead of having to play the role of caregiver to younger siblings.   

Healthy sport and recreation opportunities help to build strong physical and mental health, while providing ways to interact and connect with others. This has all kinds of benefits - reduced health care costs, reduced mental illness and substance use, increased confidence -  and happier, healthier kids who grow up to be happier and healthier adults.

None of these benefits are possible if this programming and care is financially unobtainable. Sadly, that’s the reality for many Edmonton families. According to a survey of 1,200 families accessing Free Play for Kids programs (free after-school recreation) in Edmonton, only 30 per cent had access to paid sports programs. On top of that, only 20 per cent of families accessing Free Play for Kids programs in Edmonton had childcare in place, which isn’t surprising given that 66 per cent of these families are considered low-income and child care can cost up to $500 per week per child.

Program Overview:

Here is how we will do it:

1) Free recreation after school

    • Oshry would work to make City-funded recreation facilities free for everyone 18 and under from 3:30 to 5:30pm every school day as part of a supervised program. This program will be available for everyone 18 and under, regardless of their family’s income level or other factors. Programs will be run by qualified and certified staff.

2) Free transportation

    • Oshry would establish a bussing program that would take students from the 100 highest-need schools in our city to the closest recreation facility. This would require 50 buses, each picking up students from 2 schools. This program would also remain in place until 2024 and will be able to accommodate up to 3,000 kids. Approved organizations will be required to welcome and support kids onto buses and accompany them to and from programming.

3) Free childcare for the families in greatest need

    • By providing targeted support to the highest-need schools (based on a needs index), we will provide childcare for the families in greatest need. Kids outside of these highest-need schools will also be able to access free recreation from 3:30-5:30pm every school day.

4) Free community recreation

    • By 2024, in collaboration with the coalition of helping organizations, Edmonton Public School Board, Edmonton Catholic School Board, Government of Alberta and Government of Canada, we would establish a truly exceptional, made-in-Edmonton after-school care and week-end recreation and wellness program for Edmonton youth. This would see after-school and weekend recreation programs established at schools themselves and in community leagues, complete with healthy snacks and a range of sports, arts and wellness programming options.

5) Initially, this will be funded by reallocating resources within the City of Edmonton’s current Citizen Services budget and over the long term by working with other government bodies and organizations.  We have the resources to start making a bigger difference in kid’s lives today. This program will not require any increase in tax levels and will be funded by reducing administration costs and other cost-saving measures. Costs can be further reduced if local school boards work cooperatively with the City to make school facilities available for the program. Longer-term this program is tailor-made for the forthcoming National Child-Care program, and some shifts in funding will be anticipated as that program comes on stream.  Because this program will already be operational it will be program ready.

We envision an Edmonton where one day 30,000 children can play every day for free after school.

Michael Oshry quotes:

“I believe that universal access to sports, recreation and arts programming for young people is the most important investment in the mental and physical well-being of our next generation. This is a tangible way to combat poverty with existing resources and a mandate the City of Edmonton already has. We can start making a difference with some immediate action.”

“Homelessness, poverty, substance abuse and many crimes are rooted in social issues that can be prevented with significant investments in the physical and mental health of our children and youth. I am talking about a fundamental change in how we view access to recreation that will have a generational impact on our city.”

“Every person in our city experiencing homelessness or living in poverty is there because the system let them down. For every person who gets help, another person continues to struggle. We have a choice to make. We can keep doing the same things over and over and watch the cycle repeat itself, or we can try to turn off the tap. We do this by investing in kids, all kids.”

“We can make life better immediately for kids and families living in poverty by reallocating and redirecting City resources to this program. Doing so will provide the proof of concept, and a made-in-Edmonton solution that will be ready-made for the Province and Ottawa to step up and support. We’ll be ready for them to bring partners and resources to the table through the national child care program as it comes on stream.”  

Tim Adams quote:

“This strategy will be a game changer for many thousands of Edmonton kids. Kids need to be safe after school. They need love. They need places that are inclusive and inviting. They need places where they can make a best friend, meet a role model and talk about the hard stuff. Sadly, there’s a lot of hard stuff. The great part is that there are very easy ways to help! By getting all kids access to high quality programs and great staff we can see huge change, not just with our kids, but to whole families, schools, communities and the city. “

Further Background Information

This program is vitally needed for the well being of our children. It also makes good economic sense. It saves parents money on much more costly after school care programs (if they can afford those programs at all), it boosts the wellbeing of children in truly incalculable ways, and it allows parents to work more if they want to. This can all be done by reallocating resources within the City of Edmonton’s current Citizen Services budget and working with other government bodies and organizations.  This program will not require any increase in tax levels but will be funded by reducing administration costs and other cost-saving measures. Costs can be further reduced if local school boards work cooperatively with the City to make school facilities available for the program.

The primary costs early on will go towards extra staffing at recreation centres, new programming determined by an appointed coordination council, and transportation. The best part is that we can see immediate rewards right away. The cost for 50 buses and additional staffing capacity is approximately $6 million. Staff members will be qualified and certified to provide excellent childcare and recreation programs.

If each bus is able to transport their maximum capacity of 60 kids each for 3,000 total, that $6 million then becomes $2,000 per child every year, without a burden placed on parents who may not be able to afford to pay for after-school care. That compares to $20,000 per school year that the average daycare costs right now. For just $2000 per year ($8 per school day) per child we can provide access to excellent recreation options for the kids in our city who most need access. This is not counting other children who access recreation facilities for free after school, but are not from the highest need areas. 

We will work hard to obtain support from other orders of government - especially in the context of an emerging national child care program, corporations and the private sector, foundations, charitable partners, non-profits, and more that would bring the cost down further. All we need to provide in the interim is transportation and free access to City facilities.

A commitment to start the program would begin as soon as January 2022, with a target of 3000 or so of the highest-need kids. This is not counting the kids who may access recreation facilities for free after school, but don’t require special transportation from their school.

By 2025, Michael Oshry wants to see schools across Edmonton offer high value and high quality programming after school to every child that wants to access it.. This would allow us to provide free after-school childcare and high quality recreation access daily to almost 5000 children, all without a hit to tax levy, by focusing our priorities on the right things.


For further reading on the benefits of recreation access for children:

  1. Benefits of recreation on focus, school performance, and overall health, among others: https://www.apa.org/monitor/mar01/afterschool
  2. Benefits of recreation on youth social and mental health: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281925673_Variations_in_adolescent_engagement_in_sports_and_its_influence_on_positive_youth_development 
  3. Benefits of more regular recreation for children’s school performance and health: https://sedl.org/pubs/sedl-letter/v20n02/afterschool_findings.html 
  4. Benefits of child-care access for children: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/news/2021/04/budget-2021-a-canada-wide-early-learning-and-child-care-plan.html
  5. Interesting information from RBC program: https://www.rbc.com/community-social-impact/youth/index.html 
  6. American study on the benefits of after-school programs: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED499113.pdf