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Fiona Medley, an elementary-school teacher at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School in Gatineau, has been using guided play in her classroom to support socializing and learning post-isolation.Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

In Fiona Medley’s classroom, the students aren’t just reading a poem, they also create body percussion in the form of a stomp, a clap or a snap as they play with the words. They act out scenes in a story. And it’s not unusual to hear chants or music coming from her corner of the school.

Ms. Medley, a teacher at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School in Gatineau, Que., guides her students in what she believes will help improve learning and socialization after two years of pandemic disruptions.

She lets her students play.

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Learning through play is often limited to kindergarten-age children, where they have a chance to explore and experiment by being playful. Even though researchers say older children also benefit from play, a shift happens where students tend to sit at their desks and focus on their studies.

But Ms. Medley, an English teacher for French-immersion classes, believes it’s equally important to immerse her Grades 3, 4 and 5 students in guided play. “It does help them use their imaginations. It does help them find their creativity and it allows them to explore,” said Ms. Medley, who has incorporated learning through play for the past five years.

Researchers in Canada are tapping into that learning philosophy.

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The impact of schooling disruptions is still unclear because there is a scarcity of data on how Canadian students have fared.Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

The impact of schooling disruptions is still unclear, because, unlike other countries, there is a scarcity of data on how Canadian students have fared. Although many students have adapted, some studies suggest the pandemic has left others behind in their learning, and educators have seen a marked difference in the social and emotional skills of children. One researcher at the University of Alberta found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in the Edmonton-area performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the past academic year.

Trista Hollweck, a part-time professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, co-leads a research team that is exploring how to bring guided play to the forefront of learning. This goes beyond the free play that happens during recess. Researchers will examine how to engage Grades 4 to 8 students in underserved communities through play in order to improve well-being and academics.

The 18-month project, through a $2.7-million grant from the Lego Foundation, will involve schools in at least six provinces and connect and coach educators in incorporating everything from outdoor play to robotics and drama and language. For example, when learning about the solar system, students can build a model, record themselves describing the planets and then use coding to make it interactive. Prof. Hollweck said a walk outdoors could transform into an expedition where teachers can intentionally design playful activities.

She noted that learning through play is not only about “fun and joy,” but it also means “hard work, struggle, problem solving, and a chance for students to work through difficult emotions such as stress, change and worries.”

The goal, she said, is to create a network of schools across Canada where educators can learn from each other.

As students move up through their grades, “there’s a lot more pressure on educators, on schools, on students to make sure that we’re meeting curriculum deliverables,” she said. “Play is a way of learning.”

Andy Hargreaves, who co-leads the team with Prof. Hollweck and is a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said many children lost motivation, struggled in their studies and suffered emotionally. Play, he said, would help stimulate them. “Now is the time to get kids learning, wanting to learn and feeling well again and more play-based activity can really help with that.”

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Ms. Medley, an English teacher for French-immersion classes, believes it’s equally important to immerse her Grades 3, 4 and 5 students in guided play.Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

David McFall, the principal at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary, has made play an intentional part of learning at his school for the past five years. The school invested in bicycles, scooters and even skateboards, so the children can play outdoors and then focus better on their learning.

The past two years have been difficult for many students, he said, and it has impacted their willingness to learn.

“There’s a gap in some of the experiences of kids, in their learning, in their relationships, in their well-being,” he said. “Before we can just focus solely on teaching and learning, straight into math, straight into languages and science, we really had to ensure that we could bring back that love of being in school, the excitement of being in school.”

One of the teachers at his school, Chelsea O’Brien, will often pull out a box of figurines or Lego and let her students play. It’s a time for them to innovate and create, she said.

More recently, her Grade 2 students used a piece of black fabric with glitter to create a sky. The children made flying pigs with blocks and then flew them across the night sky. If students are guided in play, they don’t necessarily consider it a learning task, she said. The lesson “pushed their vocabulary,” she added.

“We are aware that we need to have marks and evidence, but there’s different ways of collecting that and different ways of evaluating students,” Ms. O’Brien said.

“It’s how we go about changing our lens about what learning looks like.”

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