by Christina PELOPIDAS, Farzana PROPA, & 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
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.