Laurier researcher aims to improve quality of Ontario's schoolyards, asks students for help

New study asks students, teachers to perform hour-long audit investigating current state of activity and learning opportunities in schoolyards.

Research shows higher-quality environments improve children's development

Students from Rose Avenue Public School in Toronto participate in the first Schoolyards Count audit. (Submitted by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay)

Higher-quality schoolyards with diverse options for learning make for healthier, well-developed kids. A new study asks students to investigate whether Ontario's schoolyards are up to par.

Schoolyards Count asks willing students, teachers, and parent councils to perform an hour-long audit on their outdoor recreational areas using a validated tool first developed in England.

Students can rate the quality of sports fields and courts, playground equipment, and the amount of bio-diversity on their school grounds. 

The project was founded by Wilfrid Laurier University researcher and educational policy expert Dr. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay. She partnered with Ontario's healthy schools organization, Ophea, to launch the project Friday at a Toronto school.

Giving students the opportunity to audit their own schoolyards will hopefully put the push for infrastructure updates into their hands, Gallagher-Mackay said. 

The ideal schoolyard

Students spend roughly half of their waking hours Monday-to-Friday at school — they spend a good chunk of that time outside in the schoolyard.

Those built environments "are an essential pillar of comprehensive school health," said Ophea executive director Chris Markham.

Gallagher-Mackay, an experienced researcher, firmly believes that well-designed, high-quality environments "produce more active children."

They also positively contribute to students' social, emotional, and creative development, she said.

Researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay sits with Ophea executive director Chris Markham at the launch of Schoolyards Count at Rose Avenue Public School in Toronto. (Twitter/Kelly Gallagher-Mack)

A well-designed schoolyard, Gallagher-Mackay says, would take into account a mix of different elements, including safety, accessibility, and environmental sustainability.

The ideal schoolyard would have accessible access for bikes and pedestrians, a diversity of play environments including courts and fields — as well as environmentally diverse areas with trees, grass, and gardens.

A variety of options caters to different learning styles and also encourages children to play and learn more imaginatively.

HWDSB supports efforts

When reached for comment, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board representative Shawn McKillop said they were not aware of the Schoolyards Count project, but they "certainly support their efforts with respect to keeping the health and well-being of students a priority."

McKillop also noted the importance of the ongoing work Ophea and EcoSchools do for students.

HWDSB trustees recently approved a Long-term Facilities Master Plan, which includes the Elementary Benchmark Strategy — it will see $50,000 to $100,000 go towards playfield improvements.

Old tool, new study

After learning of a citizen science project in Boston that assessed park quality, Gallagher-Mackay was inspired to develop a similar kind of study for Ontario's playgrounds and schoolyards.

Her interest intensified after learning that only 35 per cent of school children aged five to 15 get the proper amount of daily physical activity, according to a 2018 Participaction study.

That drove Gallagher-Mackay to design a study focussed on investigating how students' outdoor spaces could be better utilized.

She borrowed a tool originally developed to assess schoolyard quality in Norfolk, England and adapted it for use in Ontario. 

The tool was tweaked to assess students' opportunities for activity and learning in schoolyards — the overall state of schoolyards will be evaluated, especially differing quality across Ontario. 

Only 35 per cent of school children aged five to 15 get the proper amount of daily physical activity. (Getty Images)

The researches behind the project hope to receive feedback from 1000 schools out of the total 5000 in Ontario. A database of public information will be compiled with the information they gather.

From there, Gallagher-Mackay hopes the groundwork will be laid for the revitalization of Ontario's schoolyards.

The toolkit for the audit can be found on the Ophea's website and can be completed by students, teachers, or parents in English and French.

About the Author

Justin Mowat


Justin Mowat is a journalist and a filmmaker interning at CBC Hamilton. He’s a multi-faceted storyteller with a passion for classic films, the environment, and the occasional slick guitar solo. If you’ve got a story to tell, he wants to hear it: justin.mowat@cbc.ca


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