Engagement, Promising Practices, Teaching

Playing Out of the Pandemic

The Canadian Playful Schools Network

WHEN WE’RE IN TROUBLE, we can give up, keep going, or play our way out of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has been big trouble, for sure. It is this century’s greatest crisis, and, for most of us, the greatest crisis of our entire lives. The immediate impact of the pandemic on learning, engagement, and wellbeing is clear. In Canada, concerns about student mental health, physical inactivity, excessive screen time, delayed social skills, inconsistent attendance, and ever-widening learning gaps are growing (Vaillancourt, T. et al., 2021).  

There have been four prominent educational responses to recovery from COVID-19:  

  • rectifying learning losses through testing and interventions  
  • supporting wellbeing for only the most vulnerable students  
  • expanding digital learning 
  • returning to “normal.” 

These responses are insufficient or inappropriate. The question is how can we re-engage all students and their educators with the joy and purpose of learning after months and sometimes years of literally – as well as figuratively – switching off from it? In other words, how can we play our way out of it?  

It is not only our students who are struggling. Globally, teachers and school leaders are leaving the profession at an unprecedented rate (UNESCO, 2022). There is an urgent need to find ways to recruit and retain new teachers, and also support those who stay. Engage our students, and we will engage their teachers, too.  

We’ve already witnessed schools get creative with scheduling and spaces, shift more learning outdoors, and embrace a variety of playful approaches to engage students. How do we capture and circulate these innovative practices across the country post-pandemic? What types of play-based learning matter for students, especially those traditionally under-served by school systems? These questions inspired our University of Ottawa team to apply for a LEGO Foundation COVID Recovery Grant to establish the bilingual Canadian Playful Schools Network (CPSN).  

Grade 5 STEM challenge: build a clothespin structure that will support books

The Playful Schools Network 

The first of its kind in the world, this bilingual network brings together 41 school teams from seven provinces to explore and advance significant and sustainable learning through play in the middle school grades (4–8). Learn more about the 41 participating school teams and their learning through play projects in the videos and descriptions on the CPSN interactive map. 

As a learning network, the CPSN connects educators who are using playful pedagogies from across the country and provides opportunities for them to share innovative practices and resources, learn with and from one another as well as experts in learning through play, and inspire and challenge each other. Together, CPSN members and the research team are exploring answers to the following research questions:  

  • What does learning through play mean for Canadian educators?  
  • How is it related to engagement and wellbeing?  
  • When is it deep, and when is it a distraction?  
  • What can we learn about the connections between play, language, culture, and identity? 
  • What is the potential of play to develop and strengthen French-language learning and a stronger sense of belonging for students in francophone Canada? 

Participating school teams share their playful learning journey through monthly reports, project videos, school showcases, and network events, such as playdates, playgroups, and the Showcase Conference in June, 2023.   

The CPSN provides each school team with funding to support time for monthly professional learning and its self-directed Learning through Play Project. Each month, educators collaborate as a school team, learn from other schools through playdates or playgroups, attend webinars offered as part of the Playjouer Professional Learning Series, share resources, and ultimately, deepen their play-based practices. The CPSN uOttawa team and 13 international advisors provide facilitation, consultation, coaching, and research support for the schools.  

The importance of play 

The importance of play for children’s learning and wellbeing has a distinguished history. The German inventor of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, Italian school reformer Maria Montessori, and U.S. progressive educator John Dewey have all argued for more play in the classroom. Learning through play is essential to children’s development and can support abstract thinking, language development, social skills, and self-expression. “Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development – it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play paves the way for learning” (Canadian Council on Learning, 2006). In Free to Learn, Peter Gray (2013) shows how free play, which is distinguished from play that is structured by adults, can help children learn to make friends, get along with peers as equals, solve problems, overcome fears, create rules, and make their own decisions.   

Across Canada, play is most prevalent in kindergarten and the early years of elementary school, but tends to vanish as students progress through junior, middle, and senior grades. Play-based approaches seem to be more challenging as students get older and bigger, and can be at odds with the pressures of top-down accountability and content-heavy curricula. Play is often seen as a frivolous distraction from the hard work of learning. Yet, as Dutch philosopher Johann Huizinga has argued, play is central to civilization and forms the basis for human culture. Play can and should look different across different ages and contexts, but it must be present throughout all levels of schooling.  

The CPSN is not just about getting more play into the curriculum. It’s about deepening and questioning what play is and where and how it makes a difference. Play is often fun – but not always. Play is not the opposite of work. Paradoxically, they are interconnected. Getting young people re-engaged after the pandemic is about grasping the connection between play and work, where play is work, and vice versa.  

Research focus 

The CPSN digs deep into the potential of play in the middle years, while addressing issues related to inclusion, equity, and wellbeing, as well as learning and evaluation. As a network, we are examining the ways through which students in grades 4–8 play, and how we can identify and integrate them. We are interested in when play can enhance students’ engagement with learning and wellbeing, and also when it does not – and finding ways to address this. We want to know how play in schools can better reflect students’ diverse languages, cultures, and identities and help make play-based learning accessible to all students in all contexts rather than being only for the privileged.  

The CPSN is also interested in the potential impact of learning through play on educators’ engagement with learning and wellbeing. Recognizing the challenges of integrating play-based pedagogies in older grades, we want to know how CPSN teachers persist in the face of testing, content, and behaviour demands and support one another. What are the most effective ways for educators and schools to share and circulate positive strategies for play-based learning? Which network activities, resources, and professional learning are most impactful for CPSN teachers and how can they give each other feedback that will deepen the approaches they are all taking? The answers to these questions will not only support the network but also help other schools interested in implementing play-based practices.  

Ways to play  

In the CPSN, learning through play is explored across four modes: green (outdoors), screen (digital and computer-based), machine (digital and physical building) and everything in between, which looks at the intersections of language, identity, and cultures through play and playful learning (See Figure 1). All 41 CPSN school teams design and implement their own CPSN projects that fit their different learning contexts (e.g. urban or rural community, Indigenous, French or English language, etc.). Together, the projects range across the four modes and many encompass more than one of them. In the network, learning through play is understood in different ways, though the themes and modes cut across all playful projects. For some schools, play can include experiential and hands-on activities such as building outdoor learning spaces, greenhouses, multi-modal murals, and electronic cardboard arcades. For others, play looks like playful inquiry projects where students have dedicated time all year, choose their own topics to explore deeply, and are supported by teachers and community members. For other schools, play means spending time in nature and learning on the land with knowledge keepers or it means creating your own play, song, or book and using technology like animation, Minecraft, or Ozobots to make it come alive. In all projects, play involves hard work, choice, autonomy, challenge, collaboration with peers, and the risk of failure.  

CPSN projects 

A description of all participating CPSN school teams and their learning through projects is available on our website: www.playjouer.ca. Below are some examples from four of our seven participating provinces. 

Chinago Nongom Wabang – Past, Today, and Tomorrow is the name of the learning through play project at Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan, a Grade 1–Secondary 5 school in Algonquin territory, near Maniwaki, Quebec. Their CPSN project reflects the school’s priority to provide a nurturing community that values Anishinaabe language and culture for students. Building on the school’s long history of passing on the traditional Algonquin way of life to students, this green play project is focused on learning on the land. During monthly cultural days, students choose from a variety of activities that spark their interest while also learning about their ancestry and local environment. Led by teachers, community members, Elders, and knowledge keepers, the activities vary depending on the month and season and include canoeing, ice fishing, boiling sap to make maple syrup, building shelters and fires, sewing, beading and making moccasins, working with hides, and learning about local plants and medicines.  

The project of Monseigneur de Laval Elementary Schoolin Regina is focused on developing and filming a play based on the biography of a prominent figure of Saskatchewan francophone heritage. Their project involves language and culture, as well as arts and making. Collectively, students choose their subject, and take a leadership role to document the region’s history, draft the script, design set and costumes, as well as act, direct, film, and edit. Students are supported by community partners, such as their local theatre group, Radio Canada, the Saskatchewan Historical Society, and the artists’ association. 

In King’s Point, Newfoundland, students at Valmont Academy are building a multi-modal mural out of recycled materials. The design is a sailboat, inspired by the work of a local artist. Students have the choice to work with a variety of materials, such as fibreglass, metal, driftwood, and beach glass. Students collected materials for the mural through field trips to their local beach, hiking trails, and surrounding nature. Local industry partners, including boat builders, welders, and fibreglass manufacturers mentor students on how to work with the different materials. The mural will be assembled under the guidance of a local artist. The project aims to rebuild Valmont’s connections to its community and promote local industry career opportunities. 

At L’École acadienne de Pomquet, a French-language K–12 school in Nova Scotia, students, community members, and Indigenous knowledge keepers have collaborated to build outdoor educational spaces, such as a greenhouse, outdoor fire pit, and 30-foot teepee. The school’s project focuses on improving the forest that surrounds the school and the connection between Indigenous and Acadian cultures. Consulting with partners from the local Indigenous community, students learned that there are no water sources in the forest, so they are working to dig a pond and build an aquatic ecosystem. They also plan to use the pond as a skating rink in the colder months. The project is not only an opportunity for students to play, build, and learn outdoors in French, but to see the minority language as a source of joy, rather than work: “Si t’as pas de plaisir, ça devient une langue de travail.”1  

CPSN members’ reflections  

In our playgroup discussions, CPSN members have shared how much they appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and how their projects are not only rejuvenating and motivating for their students but also for themselves. “It is bringing joy back,” one member stated. Learning through play, they report, supports inclusion, values student strengths, offers leadership opportunities, helps make connections with community and land, encourages students to speak French, and builds classroom community. It also provides a meaningful way for students such as newcomers from Ukraine to meet, work, and develop a sense of belonging with classmates through the universal language of play.  

Exciting as all this sounds, learning through play is not without its challenges. There is a tension between play-based learning and curricular expectations. Moving away from traditional teaching and evaluation may concern families, community partners, and even some colleagues. In French-language schools, most materials must be translated and adapted, which consumes resources and can increase workload. The CPSN supports educators to work (and play) their way through and out of these challenges together.   

In the middle years of schooling today, play is the exception, not the rule. It tends to flourish in early childhood, or prosper in university psychology “labs” promoting learning sciences where human and financial resources are much greater than in mainstream school systems. It also caters more to the privileged than the marginalized, as is the case in the worldwide Montessori school movement, for example. And it is tolerated in alternative schools, where there is an understanding that traditional ways of teaching and learning may look different. 

The CPSN is designed to spark thinking and action in the mainstream about the importance of play-based approaches in the middle years, legitimize learning through play, provide inspiration, offer examples and resources for other schools across the country, and deepen the dialogue about the nature and value of play in general.  

If the world were a hockey game, it would be in overtime now. This is not a time to hold on and be defensive. It’s time to make our best moves; to play our way out of trouble; to learn better, and play harder. Play is learning. It should be accessible to all students, no matter where they live, who they are, and which language they speak. 

Students spray coloured water to make snow art.



Gray, P. (2013).  Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.  

Hewes, J. (2006). Let the children play: Nature’s answer to early learning. Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre, Canadian Council on Learning. 

Huizinga, J. (2014). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Routledge.  

UNESCO. (2022). Transforming teaching from within – Current trends in the status and development of teachers. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 

Vaillancourt, T., Beauchamp, M., et al. (2022). Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada.  


Photo credit: Leslie Mott, Grade Five, North Gower Marlborough Public School

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Trista Ann Hollweck

Research Fellow, University of Ottawa

Trista Hollweck, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education whose work explores professional learning, mentoring and coaching, leadership, networks, and systemic change.

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Dr. Megan Cotnam-Kappel

Associate Professor, University of Ottawa

Megan Cotnam-Kappel, PhD, is a francophone Professor in Educational Technologies at the University of Ottawa. Her interest in learning through play stems from her passion for pedagogies that centre students’ and teachers’ cultures, languages, and identities, online and offline.

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Dr. Andy Hargreaves

Professor, University of Ottawa

Andy Hargreaves is Director of CHENINE (Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa, and Research Professor at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College.

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Dr. Amal Boultif

Assistant professor, University of Ottawa

Amal Boultif, PhD, teaches French didactics and pedagogy at the University of Ottawa. Her current research focuses on media and multimodal literacy and the implementation of all forms of games and the gamification in relation to French language teaching.  

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