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Canadian Public Health Association

Collaborative Decision-Making: Supporting a Balanced Approach to Children’s Unstructured Play

Learning Objectives:

  • Define the key principles of collaborative-decision making
  • Identify why collaborative decision-making is important to improve access to play
  • List the stakeholders/sectors who should be engaged in the process
  • Identify influencing factors that shape stakeholder decision-making behaviour
  • Identify how to develop guiding principles and shared goals

Learning Outcomes:

  • Have the knowledge to conduct a collaborative decision-making process with relevant stakeholders to improve access to high-quality, diverse children’s unstructured play opportunities


During play-related decision-making, risk managers or insurers are sometimes viewed as opponents to providing diverse and challenging play experiences. Biases may also exist among other parties who influence or make play-related decisions. It is essential to provide children with beneficial play experiences without exposing them to danger.

There is a need to bring together multiple sectors to address the fears, biases and knowledge gaps associated with providing access to unstructured child-led play opportunities and experiences. Collaborative decision-making can support this process by encouraging all parties who influence access to unstructured play to participate in the decision-making process from the start.

Important to Know

Principles of Collaborative Decision-Making

The purpose of collaboration is to develop joint strategies to achieve a shared goal, like developing a play space or policy.1 A key principle of collaboration is that it is a mutually beneficial relationship between all stakeholders/sectors. When all parties work together they have shared responsibility, accountability and authority. Collaboration includes engagement, dialogue, inclusion and mutual learning, and should be conducted in an environment that can foster these principles.

Why collaborative decision-making is important

Working in collaboration helps stakeholders and sectors understand one another. The decisions that best support access to children’s play can be reached through dialogue to understand differing stakeholder’s experiences, perspectives and assumptions. By understanding perspectives and assumptions, the partners and stakeholders can work to reach consensus* on important topics, contributing towards a broad base of support across sectors.1

Collaborative decision-making fosters a more balanced approach to decision-making by:

  • Engaging multiple stakeholders;
  • Identifying a shared goal;
  • Educating all parties on the importance of providing access to unstructured play, and addressing training or expertise gaps;
  • Understanding different stakeholder perspectives;
  • Identifying and addressing stakeholder fears and assumptions;
  • Developing strategies to manage fears and mitigate risks;
  • Removing restrictions that limit access to unstructured play; and
  • Developing a policy/plan/process/practice to move forward.

Relationship building

Collaborative decision-making fosters relationship building which can:

  • Increase buy-in from the top-down and bottom-up;
  • Build trust and mutual respect while removing preconceived notions;
  • Build the profile of the neighbourhood or school;
  • Build shared responsibility; and
  • Gain credibility.

Who to include in a play-related decision-making process

In a school environment, collaborative decision-making should include:

  • Legal experts, risk management, insurance, facilities team
  • Child development experts
  • Teachers, educators and principals
  • Parents
  • Children
  • The local public health unit
  • In a municipal setting, the groups could expand to include local organizations, including non-profits

Specifically, risk management and insurance sectors should be involved from the start to support development of risk benefit assessments, processes and procedures that navigate unwanted risks while supporting challenging play. Involving parents and children can work to address concerns and enables decisions to be made that can meet the needs of the school or community.

How To Foster Collaborative Decision-making

Key Considerations: Addressing Cognitive Shortcuts, Assumptions, and Perceptions

Stakeholders will bring their own set of influencing factors that shape their decision-making behaviour. In a collaborative decision-making process, it is important to identify and understand the perspectives of all parties in order to effectively work towards a balanced approach.

To do so, stakeholder readiness to implement a new play practice/policy/process should be considered. This includes identifying and understanding stakeholder beliefs or assumptions, biases and fears which may be contributing to cognitive shortcuts. These short-cuts can lead to decision-making without considering the available information.2

Consider the following factors that influence decision-making behaviours, and how understanding these influences can contribute towards a collaborative and balanced approach to providing play opportunities:

Factors Influencing Decision-Making Behaviours:


Questions for stakeholders to consider:

  • What does the stakeholder care about?
  • What motivates the stakeholder?

Example: Child wellbeing and academic development.

How this can foster collaborative decision-making:

Understanding this point can help to draw commonalities between parties and increase buy-in and ownership over a shared goal. A result of collaborative decision-making should include a clear discussion on roles and responsibilities of those involved; identify what is to be achieved.

Factors Influencing Decision-Making Behaviours:


Questions for stakeholders to consider:

  • Who is the stakeholder representing?

Example: other educators, a school, the school board.

How this can foster collaborative decision-making:

This will help participants understand the responsibilities that stakeholders have.

Factors Influencing Decision-Making Behaviours:

Current practices

Questions for stakeholders to consider:

  • What current approach is the stakeholder taking to provide play opportunities?
  • What is and is not working with this approach?
  • What results have been seen from this approach?
  • Has the available evidence been considered?

Example: Free outdoor play time is limited to the playground and on the field; children seem bored or unengaged.

How this can foster collaborative decision-making:

This will help all understand what current practices are or are not working. Consideration should be given to:

  • What to discard from past or current practices/processes/policies
  • What to conserve from past or current practices/processes/policies
  • What new practices/processes/ policies can be developed based on past experiences

Factors Influencing Decision-Making Behaviours:

Experiences, beliefs, assumptions, biases and fears

Questions for stakeholders to consider:

  • What previous experiences have shaped the way the stakeholder makes decisions?
  • What fears are contributing to current decision-making practices?
  • What assumptions are driving the resistance to change practice?

Examples: fear of a law suit resulting from the assumption that there will be parent complaints, or previous experience with a child injury.

How this can foster collaborative decision-making:

This will help understand biases, perspectives and cognitive shortcuts that stakeholders could be making that contribute to decision-making that limits play.

This process will also help to understand stakeholder decision-making concerns and address stakeholder fears by developing mitigation strategies.

Factors Influencing Decision-Making Behaviours:

Beliefs of the Benefits

Questions for stakeholders to consider:

  • What benefits will the stakeholder see if the current practice changes?

Example: improved attention in class, team work and cooperation among peers.

How this can foster collaborative decision-making:

The importance of unstructured play should be framed such that those included in the discussion are engaged and care. For example, there should be alignment with stakeholder priorities, such as:

  • Finance: how will an unstructured play environment affect existing financial issues?
  • Health: what are the health benefits of play?
  • Education: what educational or behavioural outcomes can be accomplished through play or play-based learning?

Adapted from: Heifetz, M. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press.

Identifying, understanding, and addressing the factors that influence decision-making behaviours from all stakeholders can build collaboration and shift perspectives by establishing a shared understanding,1 thereby improving access to quality, diverse unstructured play.

Developing Shared Goals

Collaborative decision-making should be guided by a shared purpose or goal that considers the contributions of all members. Involving all parties in the development of goal setting can foster a greater sense of commitment and engagement, build trust, and contribute towards greater coordination when decisions are made. Each decision-maker must agree upon and understand the importance of the shared goals or common purpose. Shared goals should be developed by listening to the perspective of each decision-maker, and are:

  • agreed upon by all members;
  • documented, for example, in a statement that uses inclusive wording to support ownership (i.e. “we”), is easily accessible by all members (e.g., in the terms of reference, on a wall, or on a website), and are revisited every meeting. Consider the following example:

    “We recognize that unstructured play is a child’s right and is integral to healthy child development. We commit to educating parents, caregivers and other decision-makers on its importance while implementing evidence-informed, child-centered strategies that increase access to opportunities for play.”

Guiding Principles for Decision-Making

A collaborative decision-making approach should center on a set of core values that have been agreed to by the group. These values will support any decisions that are made or actions that are implemented, such as a play policy. All decisions proposed should be outlined and implemented to reflect these underlying principles. This consistency allows the community to observe a direct connection between what is valued as being important and what actually happens in practice. In existing play policies, key principles that have been used to guide the decision-making process include:

Child-Centred: Best interests of the child are a primary consideration

Collaboration: Coordination and integration among stakeholders is prioritized

Community Engagement: All voices are heard to address community needs

Family-Oriented: Families are supported and empowered to facilitate play opportunities

Equity: All children have equitable opportunities for, access to, and participation in play

Sustainability: Infrastructure is environmentally-friendly and maintained over time

Action-Oriented: Planning is focused on achieving targeted outcomes

Inclusivity: Diversity of experience, culture, lifestyle, and ability are recognized

Enhancement: Play spaces complement and enhance their surroundings

Other considerations to adopt at the start of a collaborative process include adoption of the 80-20 rule for agreeing upon decisions, where at least 80% of the group is in agreement and 20% at most may be in disagreement.

Committing to Evidence-Informed Decision-Making

To increase validity and merit to the decisions made, all members should center their approach on evidence-informed decision-making. Committing to this approach as a “ground rule” ensures the consideration and incorporation of available research and information into all implemented actions. Evidence-informed decision-making should consider a variety of evidence sources, such as:


Research evidence

Source of Evidence:

Research findings shared in journal articles or synthesized reports/documents


Outdoor Play Position Statement3 and supporting literature review4


Community health issues, local context

Source of Evidence:

Surveillance data (i.e. surveys) or community health status reports


Ontario Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey5 or playground/school yard incident reports


Community and political preferences and actions

Source of Evidence:

Needs and interests of the community, Local or provincial political climate, or School or organizational climate


Town hall meeting with parents/caregivers, youth and decision-makers



Source of Evidence:

Financial, human, and materials


Internal monitoring reports

Adapted from the National Collaborating Centre of Methods and Tools (NCCMT). (N.D). A model for Evidence-Informed Decision-Making in Public Health.

Further learning:

* Consensus is a middle ground in decision-making, between total assent and total disagreement. Consensus depends on participants having shared values and goals, and on having broad agreement on specific issues and overall direction. Consensus implies that everyone accepts and supports the decision, and understands the reasons for making it. Read more at:

Cognitive shortcuts (or heuristics) are when someone makes a quick judgement to solve a problem.

An approach to developing a play policy is available in this toolkit.


  1. Chrislip D. Essential concepts of collaboration. The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook. 2002.
  2. Li R, Smith D, Clithero J, Venkatraman V, Carter M, Huettel S. Reason’s enemy is not emotion: Engagement of cognitive control networks explains biases in gain/loss framing. J Neurosci 2017;37(13):3588-3598.
  3. Tremblay MS, Gray C, Babcock S, Barnes J, Bradstreet CC, Carr D, et al. Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play. ParticipACTION, 2015.
  4. Brussoni M, Gibbons R, Gray C, Ishikawa T, Sandseter E, Bienenstock A, Chabot G, Fuselli P, Herrington S, Janssen I, Pickett W. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children?: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2015;12(6):6423-545
  5. Freeman JG, King M, Pickett W. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children: Focus on Relationships. Public Health Agency of Canada. Ottawa 204 pp.

Last modified: January 11, 2019