Program opens children to new possibilities

Children at Yarmouth Central Elementary School.
Children at Yarmouth Central Elementary School play with pieces of wood as part of the Loose Parts program

A pilot project is sparking the imagination of Yarmouth-area school children and opening them up to a whole new world beyond touchscreens and smartphones.

The community-driven Loose Parts Project, initially conceived in 2016 at the grassroots level, was implemented at four sites last year and has so far received encouraging results. 

The initiative is coming at a crucial time in a child’s development. The most recent data from Statistics Canada shows that eight per cent of children are getting at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity. 

“We’re really excited about it, because preliminary data shows that it’s had some really dramatic impact on the social and emotional development of the kids,” said Jillian Griffin of Yarmouth Recreation. “So we’re seeing an increase in more of the social play and a decrease in solitary play.”

As part of the project, outdoor play areas with reusable materials that children can move, control, adapt or manipulate at their leisure were installed at Carleton Consolidated School, Port Maitland Consolidated School, Acadia First Nations Head Start and Yarmouth Central School. 

These materials can be anything from tires, untreated pieces of wood and even cardboard boxes. 

Loose parts initiatives have been gaining in popularity in recent years across the country, including in Nova Scotia, where the Halifax Regional Centre for Education implemented it through its EXCEL program.

But Griffin said the pilot’s focus is on children aged three to 11, rather than just in their early years, is a little different. 

“From my perspective, looking at Loose Parts in the play environment within the school setting was pretty unique,” Griffin said.

The project is funded and run through a partnership that includes the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture & Heritage – Communities Sport and Recreation; South Shore Active Communities; Tri-County Regional Centre for Education; the Nova Scotia Community College Early Childhood Development Support Centre; Nova Scotia Early Childhood Development Intervention Services Tri-County Region; and Nova Scotia Health Authority via Public Health.

Waste Check, which offers waste-reduction awareness, education and program support in the Yarmouth and Digby counties, provides the schools with the reusable materials.

Rather than your standard swing and play set, outdoor areas now offer children a variety of play options, Griffin said. 

And the benefits are starting to be seen in the classroom as well. 

“(An English teacher) was saying that the kids were struggling with what they were writing before Loose Parts came in and everything that they were writing about was video games,” Griffin explains. “And then once the loose parts came in, they were so excited about everything that they were playing on the playground that they started to channel that into their writing.”

The Loose Parts committee is currently evaluating the project, with a final report due in the spring, but the four sites will keep their Loose Parts play areas.

Denise Vacon, a health promoter with Public Health Services in Yarmouth, said the pilot project will provide research content and connections to help implement loose parts learning in other schools and communities not only the Yarmouth-area but across the province.

“The concept of loose parts play is gaining momentum as a means to encourage outdoor play that supports creativity, exploration, problem-solving, cooperation and social-emotional development,” said Vacon. “It is already an integrated part of many early years’ programs.”