Four helmeted thrill seekers squeeze into the Road Rocket, Canada Olympic Park's new summer bobsleigh. Nothing unusual there - except these are teens on a mission.
The Calgary youngsters goal is to test the Road Rocket's full-throttle ride as part of their inspection of the 1988 Winter Olympics site. These volunteers rate attractions, businesses, and services for child-friendliness; they must meet or exceed kids' expectations to earn the Child Friendly accreditation.
Since 1993, Child Friendly Calgary (CFC) has encouraged this city of 800,000 to accommodate youngsters.
"The inspection includes the restrooms, restaurant, and staff training, not just the new Road Rocket," says teen Lauren Wilson. "Businesses know ahead of time what we require. For example, little kids should be able reach the sink, the soap, and the towels in the restrooms. If not, we suggest a step stool in each restroom."
Inspectors, usually four teens, also check the fun factor on bike trails, chairlift rides, summer ski jumps, and the Olympic Hall of Fame. They look for educational and amusing hands-on activities, signage in child's lingo, a lost-child area, and they give bonus points for a smoke-free facility.
About 90 locations - including hotels, restaurants, and tourism attractions - have received Child-Friendly accreditation.
Businesses pay $150 (Canadian; US $97) annually for the analysis. Upon passing inspection, they are listed in CFC's brochure and may use its logo in promotional materials.
It would seem natural that attractions like the Calgary Zoo - with programs like Bathtime with the Elephants - would instantly win accreditation.
Not so, says Janica Fisher, CFC's accreditation coordinator. "Kids see things differently," she explains. "A team inspected a hotel; things looked fine to us adults, but the kids discovered that in-room coffee makers were installed low enough that a toddler could pull a hot coffee pot onto himself. The hotel has since placed all coffee makers on higher counters."
Lauren admits that CFC has never denied accreditation. Instead, the team makes suggestions to align with the criteria. Now some businesses consult CFC before construction begins. The zoo's new family restrooms are equipped with diaper-changing tables, thanks to CFC suggestions. And Calgary International Airport enlisted CFC youngsters to help design SpacePort, a 6,000-square-foot addition.
"This is the first of its kind in the world where kids have their own control tower with an interactive mission control, and a model of the international space station," says Myrna Dube, SpacePort project director. "NASA loaned an exact-detail prototype of the space shuttle Orbiter. We'll have simulator rides, high-tech interactive exhibits and even real moon rocks."
From the beginning of the project, a dozen CFC kids joined planning and advisory committees. "The original idea was to have something like an airport," says Penny Hume, CFC executive director. "That changed quite a bit due to the kids' input. They expressed interest in space themes."
Her son, David, volunteered for the kids-only planning sessions. He endorsed inclusion of flight simulators. "SpacePort is going to be so cool," he says. "I want to bring all my friends here for a birthday party!"
Recreational outlets an hour and more from Calgary have also sought accreditation. One is the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, which offers camps and menus for kids, family programs such as guided bike rides, nature walks, campfire marshmallow roasts, and the telling of native legends.
Farther from Calgary are new programs modeled after CFC, including Child Friendly Saskatoon, Kid Friendly! B.C., and Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa. The Children's Commission of Queensland, Australia, is in the midst of designating a child-friendly program, too.
"We heard about Calgary's concept three years ago," says David Millen, executive director of Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa. "We have a tremendous resource of young people, so why not tap that?"
The Ottawa program also established the Regional Youth Advocacy Council, which provides a forum for young people to meet with community leaders.
"We are giving a voice to young people so they have a say in how their town can be more responsive to them," adds Mr. Millen.
The voices from the Road Rocket course vary from screams to laughter.
At the ride's end, the teens scramble out of the slick red bobsleigh and agree that it's a bit like going down an icy slope on a tray - no steering wheel and no brakes. "We had the fastest time of the day, a minute and 10 seconds," says Lauren. "That's 88 kilometers per hour."
About the business of the day, she adds, "I see why the Road Rocket's for kids over 14 years old. It shakes and bounces you around quite a bit, but I'm definitely recommending this to my friends."
For more information: Child Friendly Calgary (403) 266-5448 or www.child friendly.ab.ca.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor