To read the full statement on which this summary is based, click here. Version française disponible ici.

High-quality early learning and childcare (ELCC) programs are central to the recovery of both children and the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor play in ELCC programs supports goals related to health protection and promotion, and child development and learning. Use of the outdoors is underestimated and overlooked as both a significant COVID-19 mitigation strategy in children’s settings, and as an important learning environment for early learning and child care (ELCC). Outdoor play supports health protection goals to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while providing developmental benefits for children.

The Lawson Foundation has developed a statement in consultation with advisors from public health and ELCC to inform evolving guidance to support the re-opening and implementation of high-quality ELCC programs for young children (birth through preschool) and school-age children (up to age 12). This report is intended for all levels of government developing public health and ELCC guidance, as well as for ELCC programs (community-based and publicly delivered) and post-secondary early childhood education programs. We examined:

  • the context for increasing children’s opportunities for outdoor play;
  • the evidence-based rationale for maximizing outdoor play in ELCC;
  • the feasibility of increasing high-quality outdoor play through existing ELCC resources;
  • issues that require harmonizing public health and ELCC perspectives to recognize the outdoors as a distinct learning environment in order to fully enable outdoor play; and
  • policy, practice and research recommendations to increase opportunities for outdoor play in ELCC.

We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for outdoor play in ELCC programs during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The following principles inform our thinking and recommendations:

  • Guidance should be developed in consultation with both public health experts and ELCC outdoor play experts and regularly reviewed based on emerging evidence.
  • Guidance should consider the best interests of the child, alongside those of the family, educators, and others. Risk-benefit analyses and child rights impact assessment, as established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, can be used to assess those guidelines.
  • ELCC programs should maximize time spent outdoors with a focus on high-quality pedagogical experiences for children.

The following recommendations in five areas further our overarching recommendation: to increase children’s opportunities for outdoor play in ELCC programs during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The same three principles, outlined above, that informed their formulation should guide their implementation.

1. Information and Guidance for ELCC Programs

1.1. Collaborate—all levels of government should collaborate to develop consistent, evidence-based approaches in all jurisdictions.
1.2. Evolve the guidance to explicitly encourage use of the outdoors in ELCC programs, and to distinguish between and clarify infection control measures in indoor and outdoor settings, including:

    • whether outdoor materials need to be cleaned and disinfected;
    • whether manufactured and natural materials should be treated differently;
    • cohorting and physical distancing outdoors; and
    • the use of masks outdoors.

1.3. Provide training that helps ELCC programs interpret evolving COVID-19 guidelines.
1.4. Provide ELCC programs with information about health protection and promotion in the outdoors to debunk myths and misinformation.

2. Access to Outdoor Play Spaces

2.1. Provide sufficient funding for the development of high-quality outdoor environments for ELCC programs. Such environments:

    • are based on principles of outdoor pedagogy and Universal Design;
    • have direct access to indoor spaces; and
    • include diverse collections of loose parts materials and appropriate storage.

2.2. Partner with regional/municipal departments to support the use of community green spaces, such as parks and forests, as outdoor ELCC environments. Develop the partnerships necessary to support the safe, ecologically respectful, and regular use of such spaces.

3. Professional Learning for ELCC Stakeholders

3.1. Increase professional learning to support outdoor play through recognized high-quality programs. Address the distinct needs of administrators and educators and ways of communicating key messages to families.
3.2. Develop and implement peer mentoring programs for colleagues with limited outdoor play experience, to help them increase their time outdoors gradually, within their level of comfort, and consider ways to increase play-based learning outdoors.
3.3. Develop post-secondary programs to intentionally prepare educators for outdoor play-based learning and land-based pedagogy and practice, to support long-term use of the outdoors in ELCC programs.

4. Research and Evaluation

4.1. Address gaps in knowledge about COVID-19 and the impact of control measures in ELCC settings. Priorities include the incidence rate and infectivity of children and adults, and the infectivity of diverse play materials and surfaces, particularly natural ones.
4.2. Examine ELCC in indoor and outdoor environments, in particular the effects of different approaches to infection control measures.
4.3. Evaluate the implementation of outdoor play programs to support continuous learning.

5. Continuing Support

5.1. Explore regulatory changes and curriculum enhancements to support high-quality outdoor play. Governments should consider changes and enhancements in consultation with the ELCC sector and outdoor play experts.

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. The Foundation’s Outdoor Play Strategy is entering its second phase (2020-2024) and focuses on building adult capacity to impact outdoor play in early childhood education.