Pictured Above: A child participating in outdoor play with loose parts - a keystone of the OPAL program. Photo Credit: OPAL, 2020.

Authors: Christina Pelopidas, Farzana Propa, Patrick Duran Yutiga, & Raktim Mitra

Play is a natural childhood instinct that is crucial to a child’s learning and development. In the context of a systematic decline in outdoor play across the western world, schools can be a refuge where children can engage in self-directed, creative, and spontaneous outdoor play.

Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) is a play provision training program by EcoKids (formerly Earth Day Canada) that is designed to protect a child’s right to play, particularly at elementary schools. The programming was influenced by the U.K.-based school improvement program of the same name (www.outdoorplayandlearning.co.uk). OPAL aims to transform attitudes to play provision, supervision, and risk management in Canadian schools. It encourages schools to use loose parts to enrich and diversify the play offering. Between 2016 and 2018, EcoKids worked closely with six school communities in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to implement an OPAL pilot programming in Ontario. The programming later expanded to 40 more public elementary schools in the Toronto region.

This research evaluates the OPAL pilot project (i.e., the programming at six pilot schools) using a mixed-methods approach, which includes baseline and follow-up surveys (multiple cross-sections) of children attending grades 4-6, and post-implementation interviews of OPAL Champions (i.e., teachers and staff). The goals of this evaluation research are to (1) improve understanding of the benefits of such programming in enhancing children’s play outcome and wellbeing, and (2) provide insights that would improve larger-scale program delivery at other Canadian school communities.

The study team collected baseline data in Spring 2016 and follow-up surveys. Interviews were conducted in Spring 2019.

Interviews with OPAL Champions at schools indicate that outdoor play has become more engaging, inclusive, and imaginative. OPAL playgrounds have also created opportunities for children to be more physically active during the recess periods. Especially at the kindergarten level, teachers noticed improved opportunities to develop motor skills and improved focus and classroom behaviour.

More specifically focusing on students in grades 4-6, results from questionnaire surveys indicate higher levels of parental support toward outdoor play in 2019 compared to 2016. Students in grades 4-6 reported spending more time playing outdoors during lunch periods. The perception of play equipment diversity was also higher in the follow-up year.

More students found friends at school after OPAL implementation than before, and more students were happy when playing outdoors.

The majority of children reported learning something new during OPAL play, and more than a quarter of students would like to see more loose parts in their schoolyard.

The key informants also discussed several challenges to the implementation and long-term sustainability of OPAL programming in Toronto. Ensuring adequate training to lunch supervisors and caregivers, and replenishment of loose materials on a regular basis were identified as top concerns.

Our research results offer insights into the benefits of outdoor play-based programming, and more specifically of those focusing on loose parts play. The report also provides valuable knowledge that will inform and encourage larger-scale play programming interventions across Ontario and Canada.