Early learning and child care (ELCC) programs have navigated a challenging year due to COVID-19. Educators and administrators have strived to deliver high-quality programming for children in the face of personal health risks and a constantly evolving landscape of disease epidemiology and public health guidelines intended to keep everyone safe.

In July 2020, with early evidence that outdoor environments were safer than the indoors, the Lawson Foundation published Increasing Outdoor Play in Early Learning and Child Care in the Context of COVID-19 with advice from public health, early childhood education and children’s rights experts. The central position stated:

“High-quality early learning and child care (ELCC) programs are central to the recovery of both children and the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor play in these programs supports goals related to health protection and promotion, and child development and learning. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for outdoor play in ELCC programs during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Public health guidance for ELCC has evolved somewhat over the last year in several jurisdictions to promote use of the outdoors to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, discrepancies remain among jurisdictions and specific guidance distinguishing between indoor and outdoor environments is still lacking. Clearer guidance and further encouragement of outdoor ELCC would benefit public health and high-quality early learning.

 

What we’ve learned since 2020

Our 2020 report drew on an environmental scan of provincial and territorial public health COVID-19 guidelines for ELCC. That analysis surfaced multiple issues relevant to increasing outdoor play, the most important of which was governments’ missed opportunity to promote the outdoors as a distinct and preferred environment for ELCC.

Our report recommended governments be explicit in encouraging ELCC programs to maximize use of their adjacent outdoor space as well as community green spaces. Further, the report found that the lack of recognition of the outdoors as a distinct environment meant that guidelines often lacked specific advice about cleaning and disinfecting outdoor play equipment, natural versus manufactured play materials, and approaches to physical distancing and the use of masks outdoors. We circulated our report to the departments of Public Health and ELCC across the country as a tool to support deeper consideration of these issues and inspire change.

Happily, we have found evidence in many jurisdictions across Canada of progress toward understanding the outdoors as an environment that supports health promotion and child development and learning. Yet there is still room for further promotion and additional clarifications.

Since that report, the available information indicates that the virus is mainly transmitted through the airborne dispersal of droplets from an infected person to individuals around them, either through aerosols or close contact with an infected person. Transmission is also more likely to occur indoors, especially when there is poor ventilation.

Similarly, children are less susceptible to the infection than adults. As of June 27, 2021, approximately 271,000 of the 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 in Canada (19.2 per cent) occurred in people less than 19 years of age. This resulted in just 13 of the country’s 26,238 total deaths, 1.8 per cent of all hospitalizations and 1.2 per cent of ICU administrations.

It is also known that the available vaccines work. Their roll-out through winter 2021 reduced incidence rates from highs of 8,000 cases per day during the second wave and 9,000 cases per day during the third wave to just a few hundred per day, with accompanying reductions in deaths, hospitalizations and ICU stays. It is expected that the vaccination of youth aged 12 to 19 will further reduce this incidence.

 

Outdoor education guidelines still inconsistent

In May 2021, we revisited the state of current pandemic guidelines to see if there had been any changes. Five more jurisdictions have explicitly promoted use of the outdoors for early learning: Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec have joined the four jurisdictions (British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Yukon) that were already promoting use of the outdoors in June 2020. (Click here for a full comparison.) In addition, those nine jurisdictions plus Saskatchewan all currently recommend the use of outdoor community spaces, either through community walks, use of parks (including public playgrounds) or field trips. This support is good news.

However, we also found that current guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting materials, physical distancing and use of masks still do not tend to distinguish between indoor and outdoor environments. Early pandemic restrictions on the use of ELCC centres’ playground equipment have been lifted, with some jurisdictions continuing to advise use by single cohorts at a time. Some jurisdictions continue to prohibit the use of sensory materials (e.g. sandboxes) or sharing materials among groups, while others allow them and instead focus on hand hygiene as a mitigation strategy. Most jurisdictions continue to recommend physical distancing among children and educators, although a few have focused on cohorts and/or small groups in lieu of strict distancing requirements. Only two jurisdictions specify where mask use is required: In B.C. masks are only required indoors; in Ontario, masks are only required outdoors when physical distancing is not possible.

Happily, we have found evidence in many jurisdictions across Canada of progress toward understanding the outdoors as an environment that supports health promotion and child development and learning. Yet there is still room for further promotion and additional clarifications of public health guidance specific to outdoor contexts. Such promotion and clarification could make it easier and more desirable for ELCC programs to increase their outdoor programming. Therefore, we reiterate our call to provincial and territorial government departments responsible for public health and ELCC to continue to work together and with the ELCC sector to support the provision of ELCC outdoors.

This work needs to happen now. As Canada moves through the pandemic and vaccinations make it safer to gather indoors, the impetus to move ELCC outside may diminish. We are hopeful that enough ELCC programs have eagerly tried, erred and figured out outdoor learning, discovering joy and well-being in a distinct learning environment.

For those seeking more resources on how to increase outdoor ELCC, we refer you to our report last year and our curated list of resources to learn more. We encourage all ELCC programs to throw open the doors and get outside.

Author(s)

Posts by this author

Christine Alden is Program Director of the Lawson Foundation, a Canadian family foundation that invests in and engages with ideas, people and organizations that contribute to the healthy development of children and youth.

Posts by this author

Frank Welsh is former director of policy for the Canadian Public Health Association.

Posts by this author

Kayla Ritchie is an Early Childhood Educator and a student in the Bachelor of Early Childhood Leadership program at George Brown College.