April 12, 2019
For Immediate Release
Brantford – How good and how equitable are schoolyards across Ontario? A research partnership between Ophea, Ontario’s healthy schools organization, and a Wilfrid Laurier University researcher aims to enlist children, teachers and parents in schools across Ontario to help find out.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an educational policy expert and assistant professor in Laurier’s Law and Society program, launched the Schoolyards Count! citizen research project Friday, April 12, at Rose Avenue Junior Public School in Toronto.
“We’re overdue for a checkup on the health of Ontario schoolyards,” said Gallagher-Mackay. “Schoolyards matter a great deal for students’ health and understanding of nature. They’re an incredibly important public resource and we should know more about their quality across the province.”
The Schoolyards Count! project aims to have those who know their schoolyards best – whether teachers, student groups or parent councils – spend an hour assessing schoolyards using a validated audit tool available online or on paper. The tool asks participants to assess their schoolyard and surroundings with detailed questions about observable features, such as bike lanes, traffic calming measures, play structures, fields and shade trees.
“Playgrounds and the built environment are an essential pillar of comprehensive school health,” said Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea. “Ophea works with communities and educators to maximize students’ opportunities to be healthier and more active. Using this tool provides students with a learning opportunity on the connection between playground quality, physical activity, safety and health, and educators and school councils can help identify priorities for their schoolyard and education policy.”
“From Monday to Friday, kids spend half their waking hours at school, and there is extensive research showing that higher-quality environments produce more active children,” said Gallagher-Mackay.
“Our students use the schoolyard for learning about the environment, active outdoor play and as a hub of the community outside of school hours,” said Alorani Van Hahn, EcoSchools leader at Rose Avenue Public School, part of the Model Schools for Inner Cities program of the Toronto District School Board.
Another important component of the research is examining equity between schools. The audit tool also asks questions such as how often students learn outside, how much money is allocated for maintenance and whether the school has recently fundraised for schoolyard improvement work. Studies show a huge and increasing fundraising gap between schools in more and less affluent areas.
“Our goal is to create an Ontario-wide picture of what our schoolyards look like and how much variation there is,” said Gallagher-Mackay. “Do richer schools have better playgrounds? Does fundraising make a difference to playground quality? Those questions are on people’s minds and we don’t know the answers yet.”
To find the answers, Gallagher-Mackay adapted a tool originally developed to assess schoolyards in Norfolk, England. Researchers in England demonstrated that schoolyards that ranked higher on the tool had more active students. The project is funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and will employ graduate students as research assistants.
The researchers aim to have at least 1,000 of Ontario’s 5,000 schools participate. The audit tool and research information are available in English and French. Elementary and secondary schools are encouraged to take part.
“My hypothesis is that high school schoolyards tend to have fewer assets for physical activity, just as students start to move less,” said Gallagher-Mackay. “When you consider the drop-off in physical activity levels along with the increase in stress and mental-health concerns in high school, I really hope we get high school students and educators participating and telling us about their schoolyards.”
Schools that consent to further communication will receive electronic copies of all reports. The plan is to produce an interim report by fall 2019, with a full report in summer 2020. Schools will not be ranked and their data will not be made public. The audit asks only about public data.
The audit tool and accompanying information will be available in English at www.ophea.net/schoolyardscount and in French at http://www.ophea.net/fr/Prioritécoursdécole between April 12 and June 28, 2019.
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