Valerie Dugale's  picture
Valerie Dugale
Media Relations Officer
Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario
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Ontario’s Ultimate Block Party

The play movement takes hold in Toronto

Canada takes children’s play seriously. That was the message on Sunday, June 5, 2011, as thousands of families, children and educators from across Ontario flooded Fort York National Historic Site in Toronto for the first international Ultimate Block Party (UBP), the biggest demonstration of play-based learning ever to be held in Canada. Organized by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the event was modeled after the very successful Ultimate Block Party held in New York’s Central Park in October 2010. “We know that play-based learning fosters creativity, initiative, collaboration and problem-solving. Best of all, play is fun, affordable, active and accessible for everyone,” said Sam Hammond, president of the EFTO.

The decision for Canada to host the second block party came easily. In 2010, the Ontario government introduced full-day kindergarten into many of the province’s public schools. In addition to having play-based learning as a focus, each kindergarten classroom has both an elementary teacher and an early-childhood educator delivering this new early-learning program. According to Ontario province’s 2010–2011 Full-Day Early Learning — Kindergarten Program for the new blended classroom, play-based learning, including role-taking, in which children engage in pretend play, “children use langauge and thinking skills to compare, plan, investigate materials, problem solve, experiment, negotiate and evaluate” and, in the process, develop important skills in language and taking on the perspective of others.

Additionally, Ontario’s curriculum plan says, “Engaging in pretend play also supports children’s development of self-regulation as defined in a 2008 study in American Psychologist by Clancy Blair and Adele Diamond; and subsequently strengthens their ability to learn through engaging with people and resources in their environment.” According to researchers Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, nurturing settings that foster social and emotional self-regulation are key to preparation for successful learning. “Self-regulation is a deep, internal mechanism that enables children as well as adults to engage in mindful, intentional and thoughtful behaviors.” Blending preschool and elementary teachers in one classroom was designed to make a seamless transition from early learning into formalized schooling. The program is scheduled to roll out into most schools over the next four years.

Ultimate Block Party TorontoOne goal of showcasing this new program publicly through the Block Party was to make the connection more evident to parents and other primary caregivers, as well as government decision makers. As noted in “Every Child, Every Opportunity,” the 2010 Curriculum and Pedagogy for Ontario’s Early Learning Program by Charles E. Pascal, a special advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister for Early Learning, “Children’s learning and development happens within the context of their daily lives and events in families and communities. Parents are children’s first and most powerful teachers and role models. A warm and intimate family atmosphere is conducive for optimal learning. Parents offer learning opportunities that are based on the deep knowledge they have of their children.”

Most importantly, UBP was a way for families and teachers not already familiar with play-based learning to better understand its benefits. UBP showed families that play-based learning is not just for small children but is a key part of learning through all elementary grade levels.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, UBP founder and advisor to the Toronto event, said, “Our partners in Ontario pulled off an amazing event with global reach and local flavor. Besides the play-based activities we’d expect to see—from Legos to playground building with Imagination Playground—the National Ballet of Canada was an attraction here. Imagine all these little girls in tutus—but everyone danced. The main library was there. Canada is a community interested in its children. This is a country that aims to cultivate and nurture and protect young people as one of its primary natural resources.”

Ultimate Block Party Toronto“In New York, our message, ‘Play is about learning,’ is headline news. In Canada, the idea of combining informal and formal learning is more organic,” noted Hirsh-Pasek, who studies early language development and infant cognition as the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Professor at Temple University.
Organizers assembled an outstanding lineup of education partners to present 25 play centers to help children and adults explore adventure and construction play, language and creative play, and make-believe and physical play. Partners included Right to Play, Lego, and Imagination Playground. Participating Canadian partners included the Ontario Science Centre, Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, National Ballet of Canada, Scientists in School, Toronto Public Library and local theaters and performance groups.

“Play is the work of children” is a philosophy organizers took to heart. Canada’s academic play partners included York and Ryerson Universities, Humber College and the College of Early Childhood Educators.

Related Reading:

“Why Play Equals Learning,” LearnNow interview with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff

“Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum,” New York Times

“Developing Self-Regulation in Kindergarten: Can We Keep All the Crickets in the Basket?” Young Children on the Web