Images are unavailable offline.

Students at Chester Elementary School in Toronto play in the cool spray of sprinklers Wednesday. Chester is one of the few schools to use the Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program originally developed in Britain.

Fred Lum

For 15 minutes on a blistering Wednesday afternoon, students at Chester Elementary School in Toronto were set free to run through the sprinklers in their shoes and regular clothes on the field. Others preferred to climb nearby trees, or hop off an old stump to get onto the roof of the storage shed – all with the principal's enthusiastic blessing.

It was a way to cool off or find shade on a humid day. But there was something else at play.

In an era when so many parents seem to be filling every free minute of their child's day with organized activities – sports teams, music lessons or tutoring – a growing number of educators across the country are embracing the idea of putting unstructured play back into school playgrounds.

Story continues below advertisement

Raktim Mitra, an associate professor in the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University, said research has shown that engaging in creative and spontaneous play is important for the physical and mental well-being of children. "The idea is that when your free time is more creative and more imaginative, then you can concentrate more on the structured elements of your day," he said.

Prof. Mitra and his colleagues have been evaluating how students fare at Chester and a handful of other Toronto schools that signed up to participate in a pilot project funded by Earth Day Canada. The charity is the only organization in Canada licensed to deliver the Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program, developed in Britain. It pushes to bring back unstructured play and encourage children to use all sorts of "loose parts" – spares tires, ropes, sticks, logs and other castoffs – to build whatever comes into their heads. The program has expanded to 25 Toronto-area schools this year.

Sean Hume, principal at Chester, said children have built hammocks, zip lines and tire-swings. In the sandpit one year, a group of them participated in an archeological-type dig and discovered the bricks of an old house. Another group designed a roller-coaster from the castoffs that are emptied from sheds onto the field; they were studying the physics of motion in their classroom. Finding a student climbing a tree is not an unusual sight around here.

Prof. Mitra said that in his interviews with teachers and school staff, he found that students were more inclusive and children from different grade levels and from different backgrounds and genders played together.

When Mr. Hume first came to the school four years ago, he said some children used the field for soccer. But many did not participate and were inactive during lunch and recess.

Since signing up for the OPAL program three years ago, he has seen more children being active during recess and lunch, and as counterintuitive as this may sound, fewer students are coming to the main office for Band-Aids or complaining of injuries. Staff, he said, are asked not to discourage what they may deem as more risky play but to engage in conversation with students on three rules: Is what you're doing fun? Is what you're doing inclusive? Is what you're doing safe enough?

"Kids are learning to take risks," Mr. Hume said. "We don't want to deny them these learning opportunities. It's a different way of using the outside."

Story continues below advertisement

Richard Christie, senior manager of sustainability at the Toronto District School Board, said he has heard from several schools over the years that children have little to do during recess and lunchtime. The solution offered by the schools inevitably seems to be fundraising for expensive playground equipment. When Earth Day Canada approached him about piloting the OPAL program in 2016, the idea "resonated deeply with me right from the beginning," Mr. Christie said. (Chester became an OPAL school the year before.)

"We have lost sight in our culture … of unstructured free play. Recess time and lunch time has come to be seen as a break for everybody," Mr. Christie said, adding that the time can be valuable for social development and brain development. "We have to reclaim that time and see it for the value that it has."

Mr. Hume said turning on the sprinklers on Wednesday was an introduction to the OPAL program for the new students at the school. There were no complaints.

“They’ll go home and this will be the best second day of school they’ve ever had,” he said.