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Canadian Public Health Association

Program - Schools

Forest and Nature School, Child and Nature Alliance of Canada/Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Ottawa, Ontario

The vision of Forest and Nature School educators is to have outdoor, intrinsically motivated and free play be mainstream for and accessible to all children. By guiding and educating children about the outdoor environment, educators are teaching children how to approach risky situations outdoors. These children, in turn, will become better at assessing and approaching risky situations outdoors throughout their lives. This teaching practice is well-supported by research.

Educators work with two classes at a time from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. They meet the classes for one full-day, one day per week for six consecutive weeks. The day begins with educators walking down the path with the children, gathering around the fire, acknowledging the land, telling a story, and inviting the children to play. Educators encourage children’s learning during play, they ask questions to better understand children’s thinking and explore the environment, while playing with the children. The children’s perspectives help educators develop safety guidelines for play activity, and employees strive to say “yes” to a child’s play request as long as the activity can be done safely. Educators document their observations throughout this time and support other educators in understanding whether or not the initiative has visible results for children. Educators also provide mentorship for educators and children who wish to continue learning about nature and the land during play.

The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada (CNAC) supports the Forest and Nature School and provides evidence-based, practical training and mentorship for educators to facilitate learning through play on their own. CNAC offers a year-long certificate course for Forest and Nature School Practitioners - those interested in starting a Forest and Nature School program or incorporating elements of the ethos into their existing practice. They also offer a variety of workshops, including Outdoor Play First Aid, Risky Play, and an Introduction to Forest and Nature School.


Since 2013, 300 people have taken the Forest and Nature School Practitioners Course, with an additional 900 people participating in 14 workshops across the country and five study tours at headquarters, the Ottawa Forest and Nature School. Course participants are working in Forest and Nature School programs from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories to Victoria, BC, reaching exponentially more children each year. The Forest and Nature School has grown from a launch with five families and children to include a community of over 100 children and families, through its innovative school-aged and preschool programs. The Forest and Nature School also operates Forest School Day Camps, now reaching 1,500 students, by working with the Ottawa Carleton District School board.


Ottawa Forest and Nature School

Loose Parts Adventure Playground, Meadowlands Public School, Ottawa, Ontario

The Loose Parts Adventure Playground at Meadowlands Public School is part of a three-year research study, with the University of Ottawa, to examine the effect of Forest School and Loose Parts Play on teacher practices.

The adventure playground is set up at regular intervals throughout the school year where, during learning hours, loose parts are selected by students and then set up outdoors by students and organizers. Children are provided with ample time to play with their materials and are often found building, breaking apart, and re-constructing various things. If organizers feel that students are not motivated to use the materials, they will engage in provoking strategies, such as reading time (e.g., reading about leaves and trees) and conversation with students to provide them with ideas of what to build and use in their learning. Educators use risk mitigation strategies to reduce the likelihood that children will come to serious harm when engaging with loose parts. Educators strive to provide an environment that allows children to be creative, have fun, and be self-directed, curious and responsible. Children have been observed eating snacks inside a house they built; writing in journals about their interactions with nature; climbing fences; and running with long strings through sandy areas.


Teachers report many benefits of engaging in long-term participation of the Loose Parts Adventure Playground, including children: taking more risks; working collaboratively with peers; experiencing more in-school achievements; having better socio-emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being; developing better learning and problem-solving techniques; developing resilience; and having greater nature-outdoor knowledge.


Loose Parts at Meadowlands Public School
Outdoor Play and Learning: Loose Parts
Outdoor Play and Learning: Loose Parts Routines
Lesson plan

Cariboo Chilcotin Outdoor Classrooms, School District No. 27, William’s Lake, British Columbia

School District #27’s Cariboo Chilcotin Outdoor Classrooms initiative has been working to increase children’s unstructured play time in nature by fostering children, administrator and teacher comfort with children’s thrilling outdoor play. A Nature Kindergarten program provides students with a full-day program where children engage in play (mud, water, climbing trees, wrestling, and building with hammers and nails) during their time outside. This play leads to prosocial skills, as well as feelings of competency and self-agency in these 4-6 year olds.

The Grade 7 Outdoor Academy has students spending one day a week outside challenging themselves through various learning and play opportunities. They also take three overnight field trips throughout the year where they can canoe, cross-country ski to back country cabins, and go backpacking. Students also participate in nature observation through journaling, stewardship activities, and citizen science projects.


Classroom operators have been able to shift practice around going outside at lunch and recess. These changed practices now reflect the research where the benefits of outdoor play are favoured over the adult assumed risk of harm (or personal preference). Both programs have received public district support and are now permanent programs within the district with approved job descriptions, policy and funding specific to outdoor teaching.

Discovery School, Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools, Red Deer, Alberta

The Discovery School is a pilot project that works in conjunction with River Bend Golf & Recreation Area where programming is offered to over 400 children attending Pre-K within schools. The goal is to emphasize the importance of play inside and outside the classroom.

Children are led through a week of inquiry, outdoor exploration and learning, and developmentally appropriate practices that encompass teaching to the whole child. They engage in an open-ended play classroom for a portion of the day to work on problem-solving skills and language development, and then go outdoors to explore over 420 acres of forest and open area. Through this outdoor exploration, children engage in: gross motor skill development; meditative practices through feeding birds and observing their surroundings; developing appreciation for the natural world around them; and risky play on a natural playground and free open space. Parent meetings are offered to gain an understanding and appreciation for inquiry-based, authentic learning that their children will be engaged with throughout the week. It is the hope that the program can be expanded to all Pre-K and Kindergarten children.


Teachers have reported that they are focussing on two goals: increased emphasis on outdoor play and exploring the natural world through authentic discovery; and inquiry-based learning to stimulate problem-solving of the whole child. In addition, observing children in the space allows educators to see that their variety of exceptionalities are less noticeable, and allows children to regulate and function in a positive manner within the Discovery School model.

Random Acts of Play, Brant County Health Unit, Brantford, Ontario

In an effort to encourage physical activity among the school-aged population, the Brant County Health Unit (BCHU) piloted the Random Acts of Play (RAP) initiative from February to May 2018. RAP days were an opportunity for elementary school-aged students to engage in unstructured active play during their nutrition breaks (or recess) once a week at 10 schools in Brant. This pilot project was proposed as an alternative to the active playgrounds initiative that the health unit had been employing since 2005.

The RAP initiative provided students with various toys to facilitate active/unstructured play by simply bringing them to schools and letting the children use them. Each school is visited once per week. The equipment provided ranged from various types of balls (soccer, football, basketball, dodge ball etc.) to bubbles, chalk, streamers, hula hoops, and rubber chickens, to scarves and much more. Two staff members from the health unit brought the equipment and monitored which pieces were used and how the students used them. The pilot ran until the end of the school year and is being evaluated to determine impact and whether it should be continued next year.


The outcomes for the project included: increasing engagement in physical activity; improved interactions between the grades; and reduced frequency of bullying incidents, while fostering a sense of community among the youth. Schools and participants enjoyed implementing the program and the support staff members were eager to advocate for children’s play. On average, 58 students per school participated, with the highest engagement coming from students in grades 1-5. Over time, the students complained less, stopped asking for their own equipment, started taking turns and played together. Students were happy and excited about having RAP at their school; BCHU staff members were met with cheers, exclamations of gratitude, children charging at them and requests to bring the equipment more often. All the schools that participated are interested in having the program run again.

Outdoor Play and Learning, Earth Day Canada, City of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

Earth Day Canada is a national charity that inspires and supports people across the country to connect with nature and build resilient communities. It believes that outdoor play is the foundation of environmental education and action. Earth Day Canada aims to put self-directed outdoor play back into the lives of children as a natural part of their day-to-day lives by addressing play provision in schools, streets, parks and community green spaces.

The Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program brings together school administrators, teachers, lunch supervisors, parents and support staff to enrich outdoor play opportunities at school. The program focuses on improving support for play through planning and supervision practices, introducing loose parts to promote self-directed play, and creating environments that are interesting and challenging for students. Through a year-long process of guidance from an OPAL Mentor, schools facilitate play events and participate in professional development workshops and community outreach, leading to the development of a school-wide play policy. The result is a unique strategy for each school to sustain a more inclusive, and supportive environment for outdoor play.


The OPAL program will roll out to over 35 schools in the Toronto District School Board by 2020. A formal evaluation and testimonials from kids, teachers, and school principals illustrate that kids benefit from: the increased opportunities for being physically active; an improved attitude to creative play; working as a team; and engaging in exploration. OPAL reduces stress for teachers and kids alike since the former don’t have to constantly say “no” to kids and kids gain a greater understanding of where the line is drawn between safe and unsafe behaviours. One challenge reported by teachers and a school principal is maintaining access to a continual supply of loose parts.


Outdoor Play and Learning program

Last modified: June 7, 2019