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Back to basics: PhD in Health student researching cognitive benefits of loose parts play

Posted by Stephanie Brown on August 2, 2019 in PhD in Health
Nila Joshi was able to see her research in action at the recent Pop-up Loose Parts Playground. (Photo: Kelly Clark)
Nila Joshi was able to see her research in action at the recent Pop-up Loose Parts Playground. (Photo: Kelly Clark)

Nila Joshi grew up with a forest in her backyard, so she was always playing outside and using her imagination. She built forts, and a stick could be anything she wanted it to be.

Now, she’s researching how playing with open-ended materials like those can benefit children.

Nila is a PhD in Health student, supervised by Dr. Michelle Stone from the School of Health and Human Performance and the Healthy Populations Institute. Her thesis is on the PLEY (Physical Literacy in the Early Years) project, focusing on the impact loose parts play has on cognitive development and physical activity in children.

Nila and the PLEY project team just finished their pilot study, in which they put loose parts (tires, crates, wood, and tarps and more) in child care centres across Nova Scotia to see if they helped improved physical literacy in children ages 3-5 years. There were 19 child care centres in total – some received the loose parts and others being the comparison.

They did assessments on baseline, at 3 months and 6 months. The team measured children’s physical literacy and conducted focus groups with educators. The team is now assessing their results, but from the focus groups they have found that this type of play is beneficial.

Passion for play

For Nila, this project has fueled a passion she didn’t realize she had.

Nila completed a BSc in Psychology and a Master of Health Administration at Dalhousie before entering her PhD in Health, and was planning on researching health literacy. When there was an opening for a field coordinator with the PLEY project in January 2018, she went for it and decided to shift her thesis.

“When I first heard the term loose parts, I didn’t even know what that was, but then I realized this was what I played with when I was a child.”

“There has been a shift – educators realize this is what we played with growing up and wonder when that change happened. Now we’re bringing it back to basics because you don’t need fancy equipment to engage children.”

Risky play

Nila says she loved seeing the educators take ownership of these materials.

“During our focus group we had one educator tell us she was driving and saw a pile of tires on the side of the road, so she stopped to pick them up. That made me so happy because it shows they not only understand the value, but they appreciate and want to advocate for it.”

Risk is a big factor to this type of play, which Nila said is beneficial to children, but it’s something that educators and parents usually fear.

“That’s the beauty of these materials. Educators would say risky play is not something they are comfortable with, but once they saw children using crates to build a tower to climb, or walk across a log balance beam, they see it allows children to problem solve and build their confidence.”

Study moving to schools

The PLEY team recently received an Establishment Grant from Research Nova Scotia of $150,000. The three-year grant will enable them launch PLEY School (they are hoping next fall) which will be the same as their child care pilot project but in schools across Nova Scotia, while also looking at the cognitive benefits.

The schools chosen for this project will also be aligned with the UpLift partnership, a school-community-university partnership started by PLEY co-creator Dr. Sara Kirk, School of Health and Human Performance and the Healthy Populations Institute.

Summer of PLEY

The team has put together the Summer of PLEY series, with many events including a talk with Dr. Mariana Brussoni and a panel discussion with the educators that took part in the pilot project.

The Pop-up Loose Parts Playground event on July 22nd was a huge success, with lots of kids using their imaginations to create some incredible structures and games.

“We heard parents and educators comment on how this type of play provided opportunities for their children to socialize, be creative, and to learn,” Nila said. “And that was the whole purpose of the event. To provide the chance for children to play with these materials and to share with parents, educators, and the general public the importance of outdoor loose parts play and the value it adds to children health and development.”

You can find information about future PLEY events here.