Canadian Playful Schools Network now across Canada

Faculty of Education
Two people posing for a picture
Sometimes, the energy of a project feels tangible, as is the case for the Canadian Playful Schools Network (CPSN). Teachers and researchers use words like “joy”, “kindness”, “connection”, “whimsy” and “excitement” to describe their enthusiasm for this far-reaching initiative.

The scope of the initiative is huge: more than 12,000 students are enrolled in participating schools and over a million others who will benefit from its work. The CPSN is grounded in findings from educational studies which show that when play and learning come together, student health, engagement and well-being improve.  

In this conversation with CPSN principal investigators Trista Hollweck and Andrew Hargreaves,  we discussed the project’s significance, long-term potential for education, and what the network holds for 2023. 

Q: Where does the Canadian Playful Schools Network stand today? 

TH: Funded through a grant from the LEGO Foundation, and headed by the University of Ottawa, the network comprises publicly funded schools across Canada that use learning through play to encourage participation and to foster wellness for traditionally marginalised students in grades four to eight. Here are some of the milestones we have reached so far:   

  • established our research and support team and CPSN advisors at the University of Ottawa  
  • created a bilingual website with lots of information and resources  
  • confirmed our 13 international advisors and held our first meeting  
  • built relationships with ministerial partners  
  • selected 41 incredible Francophone and Anglophone school teams, with whom we’ve held onboarding sessions and facilitated playdates  

As for what we are planning for 2023, we are scheduling playdates, school visits, research publications, a spotlight series on our school teams, workshops and webinars by our international advisors, and announcing national partnerships. We will also be opening the uOttawa EdStudiO, led by our CPSN colleague Professor Michelle Schira Hagerman, in collaboration with Professor Megan Cotnam-Kappel, and our CPSN Showcase conference in June 2023 here on the uOttawa campus. 

Q: How does a national network work within Canada’s provincial education landscape? 

AH: Canada is a high performing country in education on international assessments. Yet it has no national system of education. How do we share good ideas and practices across a country where K-12 education is a provincial responsibility, and how can this be done without imposing federal control or hooking schools up to a commercial brand?  

The answer is through networks of educators who collaborate across provinces and yet are connected to the policymakers in those provinces.  

Schools become the drivers of change together in ways that are informed by each other’s work but that also fit their local circumstances. Policymakers learn from what the schools are doing and, if they like what they see, they can expand what is being learned to other schools. 

Q: What role do intellectual advisors play in the network?  

AH: One of the defining features of networks is that you can’t control them. Once they have their overall direction and purpose, the challenge is not to control networks, but to disturb them, shake them up a bit, and give them things to deal with, including feedback. This is the role of the 13 international CPSCN advisors. They are global experts in educational ideas, research, or leadership.  

Participating school teams and advisors need to make positive connections so they can learn from each other. This includes advisors responding to issues that groups of schools present to them and seek advice on, or advisors offering webinars on topics identified by the schools, for example. Advisors also act as ambassadors for the network through their current publications and social media, and their support for our project proposal was undoubtedly very helpful in making our project bid competitive and successful.  

Q: What impact do you want and expect this network to have?  

AH: Our goal is clear and transparent: we want this project to improve engagement with learning, and well-being, for as many students as possible who have to date been underserved or marginalized by school systems. We also want to help deepen everyone’s understanding of the nature and importance of play within and beyond the project schools. It’s a question of figuring out what the play is like, and where it can make a difference.  

We want to promote the idea that play is often fun but not always. Play frequently involves very hard work, which is evident when we watch children building things together. Role play can help us deal with bullying and conflict. Art-based play is one method of addressing post-traumatic stress among refugee children coming from war-torn countries, for example. Play can also reconnect us with our cultures and identities, with our senses of who we are – something that is essential in marginalized groups whose cultures have been ignored or oppressed.  

Q: What should we expect at your June 2023 conference? 

TH: On June 9 and 10, 2023, over 200 CPSN members will join us in person at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to share their learning-through-play journeys, to connect and to be inspired. We are thrilled to have partnered with Ingenium Canada, which will be co-hosting our evening dinner and activities at the Museum of Science and Technology. We have many playful surprises in store for our CPSN participants.  

Meanwhile, stay connected to learn more about the CPSN and our member schools, and read our soon-to-be published scoping reviews on the four modes of play. 

Stay tuned!