Build, play and learn: uOttawa leading play-based learning and teaching initiative across Canada

University of Ottawa researchers received a LEGO Foundation grant to create a Canadian Playful Schools network

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children lost the opportunity to interact with their friends and learn through play, as they toiled away for hours at their online learning assignments. This prompted researchers at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Education to embark on an ambitious project to bring play back to the forefront for the benefit of children, thanks to the support from none other than the LEGO Foundation.

Co-principal investigators Dr. Andy Hargreaves and Dr. Trista Hollweck were allotted a $2.7 million grant from the LEGO Foundation to establish a Canadian network of schools using play-based learning and teaching to advance achievement and improve the well-being of students in high-need populations.

The 18-month project will involve eight professors working in Chenine, a research and development group at the University of Ottawa, that focuses on Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education.

The team led by Drs. Hargreaves and Hollweck will work in collaboration with education professionals, school systems and civil society organizations in English and French language systems and cultures. They will enrich, expand and integrate play-based learning beyond very young age groups, local innovations and more privileged communities into the mainstream of Canada's educational systems.

The project will impact up to 12,000 students in the participating schools, and a further 1.3 million students in the targeted age ranges in the projected group of 6 participating provinces.

This project isn’t just about making more play, more available, more of the time to more children. It’s an opportunity to take play seriously,” said Andy Hargreaves, a global leader and advisor in educational policy and change, visiting professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education, and Director of Chenine.

“It’s a chance to deepen our understanding of how it relates to and is an integral part of great work and deep learning. It’s driven by a moral imperative to use play effectively as a vital resource that can advance learning and well-being in different populations and communities, especially those that have been most marginalized in our society. These include but are not restricted to First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities, the rural and urban underprivileged, recently arrived refugees, historic African Canadians, and students with a range of special needs.”

Drawing on the range of expertise of Chenine faculty members, this LEGO Foundation funded project will also explore and analyze the relative value of and relationships among three kinds of play – green play (outdoor), screen play (digital), and machine play (robotic/mechanical).

“Play has always been complex and multidimensional,” explained uOttawa Associate Professor Michelle Hagerman, who has undertaken extensive research and collaboration projects with schools in learning through digital and makerspace technologies. “The Green | Screen | Machine framework will enable us to think with innovative educators in 40 school communities across Canada about how to design for playful learning in three environments, through diverse activities, and with different tools, and materials. The goal is to generate models of play that inspire and sustain healthy Canadian children. After two years of disruption due to COVID, children (including my own!) need play to help them recover, connect and understand themselves in the world.”

According to the researchers, the reach of a Canadian Playful Schools network will also strengthen the place of play in parents’ and the public’s mindset.

“While many view play as a recreational activity and merely a means of distraction, it is important to note that playful contexts in which students are fully engaged are highly beneficial to learning and to the development of significant, context-based and sustained knowledge and skills,” said uOttawa Assistant Professor Amal Boultif, an education specialist and Chenine faculty member. “A Canadian Playful Schools network of playful settings will enhance skills such as imagination, creativity and collaboration, and will increase students' engagement, thereby improving their confidence.”

The network of Playful Schools will become sustainable by being embedded in Canadian policy systems. Active attention will be paid to working with policymakers to address issues of the potential contribution of play in their systems beyond early childhood.

“After decades of runaway standardized tests that narrow the curriculum and straitjacket teachers, young Canadians are experiencing record levels of anxiety, depression, and feelings of alienation from school. The global pandemic has made these already worrisome trends worse,” said uOttawa Full Professor Joel Westheimer, University Research Chair in Democracy and Education and Chenine faculty member. “Playful schools humanize the learning experience by linking learning to the human need for play. A Canadian Playful Schools network will encourage teachers, administrators, school boards, and ministries of education to take very seriously the idea that there is joy in learning and that learning brings us joy.”

uOttawa researchers are clear about what’s needed to create an effective network to ensure it impacts students in a positive way.

“We know that there are many classrooms and schools across Canada that are engaged in innovative, powerful and effective playful learning,” said co-PI Trista Hollweck. “We need to connect these educators in a meaningful and networked way so they can not only learn with and from one another, but also offer necessary support and guidance, as well as challenge and provocation.”

According to Richard Barwell, Dean of the Faculty of Education, “Play is crucial for children’s flourishing. At this unprecedented moment in educational history, this project is exactly what we need to put imagination and creativity at the heart of learning for every student.”

“We are at a transformational moment for educational systems everywhere. This donation builds on the LEGO Foundation’s core values of finding creative solutions to the difficult challenges, caring for children and the communities they live in, and the power of collaboration to address the challenges, and opportunities, posed by the COVID-19 pandemic”, concluded Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, LEGO Foundation. “Together we need to make a leap in playful learning, creating a future that promotes inclusive education, lifelong learning opportunities for all children, and where holistic skills and innovation are central. We call on the private sector, philanthropic organisations, governments and other donors to donate generously to the global COVID-19 response. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

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Justine Boutet

Media Relations Officer

University of Ottawa

Cell: 613-762-2908

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