CAROLINE ALPHONSO, EDUCATION REPORTER for The Globe and Mail shared that for 15 minutes on a blistering Wednesday afternoon, students at Chester Elementary School in Toronto were set free to run through the sprinklers in their shoes and regular clothes on the field. Others preferred to climb nearby trees or hop off an old stump to get onto the roof of the storage shed – all with the principal’s enthusiastic blessing.
It was a way to cool off or find shade on a humid day. But there was something else at play.
In an era when so many parents seem to be filling every free minute of their child’s day with organized activities – sports teams, music lessons or tutoring – a growing number of educators across the country are embracing the idea of putting unstructured play back into school playgrounds.
Raktim Mitra, an associate professor in the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University, said research has shown that engaging in creative and spontaneous play is important for the physical and mental well-being of children. “The idea is that when your free time is more creative and more imaginative, then you can concentrate more on the structured elements of your day,” he said.
Prof. Mitra and his colleagues have been evaluating how students fare at Chester and a handful of other Toronto schools that signed up to participate in a pilot project funded by Earth Day Canada. The charity is the only organization in Canada licensed to deliver the Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program, developed in Britain. It pushes to bring back unstructured play and encourage children to use all sorts of “loose parts” – spares tires, ropes, sticks, logs, and other castoffs – to build whatever comes into their heads. The program has expanded to 25 Toronto-area schools this year.