Canadian researcher awarded additional $1.3 million for ongoing outdoor play project
The Sector > Research > Canadian researcher awarded additional $1.3 million for ongoing outdoor play project

Canadian researcher awarded additional $1.3 million for ongoing outdoor play project

by Freya Lucas

July 25, 2022

Canadian researcher Dr Mariana Brussoni has been awarded an additional $1.3 million for her ongoing project to maximise outdoor play time for early learning and childcare centres to support pandemic management and preparedness activities.


Dr Brussoni’s project is called PRO-ECO, “Promoting Early Childhood Outside,” and the team has been given a $1.3 million grant from the Canadian federal government’s Early Learning and Child Care Innovation Program to launch the second phase of the study. 


The first phase, which started last year with a trial at eight YMCA daycare sites around Greater Vancouver, is ongoing. 


“We already know from many other studies that more outdoor play is better,” Dr Brussoni said. 


“What we are doing with PRO-ECO is focusing on how we can change the behaviours and practices of early childhood educators and families, to support more outdoor play in their centres, especially in the context of the pandemic.”


Through the expansion of the study researchers hope to gain important insights which they will use to create recommendations or guidelines that other childcare centres can follow.


Dr. Brussoni’s team has been working alongside the YMCA of Greater Vancouver on all aspects of this project, right from the initial design. They are examining several different components — from the attitudes and beliefs of the educators and administrators, to the outdoor play policies at each site, to provincial policies governing childcare facilities.

“The staff education and training that is embedded within the project has brought renewed excitement and enthusiasm for outdoor play and exploration to our early childhood educators,” explained Sarah Gallop, the YMCA’s Manager of Early Childhood Development. 

“It has empowered our staff to spend longer periods of time outdoors, become more creative in planning outdoor activities for the children and become more confident in communicating the children’s risky and outdoor play stories to their families.”

Getting creative with play space ‘makeovers’

The final component of the project is the actual physical space itself. That is where Professor Susan Herrington comes in. She and a team of her students have been doing the ‘dirty’ work of remaking the outdoor play spaces. The budget is tight — $6,000 per site, with some of that provided by BC Cancer to incorporate sun safety into the interventions.

“Increasingly in Vancouver, childcare centres are part of mixed-use complexes that also house condos and retail facilities. Since these complexes are typically made of concrete and glass, we see a great deal of hard, inert surfaces in the outdoor play spaces at these centres. This has made getting nature and natural loose parts into these places more difficult,” Professor Herrington observed.

An outdoor play space at one of the YMCA Child Care Centre that was transformed through the PRO-ECO project.

After spending time at each site and analyzing how children play in the existing areas, the students come up with ideas specific to each centre. They have worked with Métis herbalist Lori Snyder to learn more about incorporating Indigenous plants into the play spaces, and they teamed up with lumber artist Eric Scragg to recycle a giant tree stump into a natural wood climber for one site.


The team had to get creative, repurposing affordable materials to increase opportunities for play. At one service, which borders a bridge where some “questionable activity” often takes place just beyond the fence, in view of the children.


To combat the challenge, the students repurposed banners (commonly seen on construction fencing) that advertise development projects. Working with a local company, the students created scenes of nature on the banners that they installed on the centre’s fencing to block the view.


Feedback from the children and educators who have been involved in the project thus far has been enthusiastic, especially at the eight centres that have now completed their outdoor space interventions. One child made a bouquet of leaves to give to one of the landscape architecture students. Another child made a painting as a thank-you gift. At one centre, the kids were so excited about new plants called “bunny tails,” they created their own songs.


Educator Leonilyn Lumbo, who works at Bob and Kay Ackles YMCA Nanook House Child Care, is an enthusiastic supporter of the project.


“The first time we all explored the updated space, it didn’t take long to see how the children were excited to experiment and learn, especially when it came to climbing, balancing and many other valuable skills,” Ms Lumbo shared.


Follow the progress of the PRO ECO project here

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