Licensed early years settings in Ontario are mandated to embed outdoor play into the daily schedule. Any program operating for more than 6 hours per day must ensure children engage in outdoor play for a minimum of 2 hours each day (OME, 2014). These outdoor play periods can be flexible. Most programs split this time into 2 outdoor periods each day to work around other daily routines and to avoid peak hours of heat in the summer months. Some programs may have an extended period of outdoor play, once per day, to reduce the number of transitions in the daily routine. Other programs such as Forest Schools spend the majority of their day outdoors with a limited amount of indoor time.
Outdoor play is essential for children’s health, learning, and sense of well-being. Long periods of uninterrupted time in nature engages children and all of their senses. Research reinforces the importance of the positive impact on mental health for children when interacting with nature (Tillmann et al., 2018). Being outdoors supports health and wellness for children and for educators. Educators play an important role in sharing these values with families to encourage a connection with nature outside of the early years setting.
Read and watch the videos in the following blog to support your understanding of the importance of children’s connection to the land.
Playgrounds in Early Years Settings
Outdoor play areas vary amongst early years settings. Many licensed programs have naturalized their outdoor play areas to support a connection to nature. Naturalizing licensed spaces can be challenging when ensuring compliance to regulations for playground safety standards. Working with companies that specialize in designing natural playgrounds that comply with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standards and a certified playground inspector will help licensees safely naturalize outdoor play spaces. Typically, play structures and spaces are constructed with a particular age group in mind. Many licensed early years programs have outdoor spaces separated for each age grouping. These areas must be adjacent to the indoor space to ensure safe and easy access (OME, 2014).
Outdoor play space24. (4) Every licensee shall ensure that, at each child care centre it operates, any outdoor play space, fixed play structure or surfacing under those structures that is constructed or renovated on or after August 29, 2016 meets the requirements set out in the Canadian Standards Association standard CAN/CSA-Z614-14, “Children’s playspaces and equipment”, as amended from time to time. O. Reg. 126/16, s. 18 (2).
(5) Every licensee shall ensure that at each child care centre it operates,
(a) a playground safety policy is developed that reflects the Canadian Standards Association standard mentioned in subsection (4) and indicates the roles and responsibilities of employees regarding safety on playgrounds;
(b) daily, monthly and annual inspections of the outdoor play space, fixed play structures and surfacing are conducted in accordance with the requirements set out in the Canadian Standards Association standard mentioned in subsection (4);
(c) a plan is developed on how issues or problems identified in a playground inspection will be addressed; and
(d) a playground repair log is maintained. O. Reg. 126/16, s. 18 (2).
(Ontario Regulation 137/15, under the Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014. © King’s Printer for Ontario, 2015)
Playground policies are developed with the support of a certified playground inspector, playground designers, and a program advisor from the Ministry of Education. These policies support educators in knowing where to strategically place themselves during outdoor play to ensure appropriate supervision is provided for children in a manner that allows children to take manageable risks. Additional information is included in playground policies related to ratios, weather safety, water safety, inspections, and daily maintenance. Playground policies and procedures will be introduced during the orientation process for new employees, students, and volunteers. An annual review of these policies and procedures is helpful for ongoing training.
Outdoor play spaces have a maximum capacity for usage which will be determined by program advisors and shared with licensees. An early years setting may support several classrooms of the same age group. A daily schedule indicates when groups can take turns accessing the outdoor space to ensure capacity has not been exceeded. This may limit the amount of time a group can access the outdoor space, particularly during the summer months when the UV index is high during peak hours of the day. Some groups may alternate and go on nature hikes or access local green spaces to ensure children have ample time connecting to nature. Field trip policies need to be implemented in these scenarios, depending on the proximity to the early years setting. Infant programs often use large strollers or buggies to engage in nature walks while toddler groups may use wagons to assist in transporting younger children. Walking through neighbourhoods is an excellent way to connect to the local community.
Multiple inspections are conducted on outdoor play areas as part of ongoing playground safety procedures. Daily inspections by educators or employees of a licensed program must take place prior to children entering the outdoor space. Checklists are part of the playground safety policy and will be provided for each outdoor area to ensure it is safe prior to use. Employees must ensure the sand areas are raked and are free from trash or animal droppings. Equipment must be inspected for any loose parts or sharp edges. Any safety issues must be noted on the daily inspection and the area closed until the safety concern can be addressed. Ministry of Education program advisors will check to ensure the daily inspections have been completed when they conduct their licensing inspection. The outdoor daily checklists are often in a chart format, posted monthly in the classroom. Past daily inspections are stored to reference at a later date.
Monthly outdoor playground inspections are conducted by supervisors of programs or the licensee. The monthly inspections are more thorough, with safety concerns being noted and any areas of concern closed immediately until they can be addressed. These concerns may involve the licensee contacting the playground designers or a contractor to repair any safety concerns. Repairs are logged to document the date and name of the party who repaired the area of concern.
An annual playground inspection must be conducted by a certified playground inspector. The inspector has specialized equipment to test the drop zones to ensure the impact surfaces meet the CSA standards. Annual inspections generally take a few hours to conduct and a lengthy report will be shared with the licensee. Any noncompliances must be addressed through the development of an action plan. The action plan must be kept on file with the annual inspection for the program advisor to review during their licensing visit. The action plan is updated when areas of noncompliance have been addressed. Recommendations are also included in the annual inspection reports that may become part of the action plan.