In what seems like forever ago, but was actually only May, images circled the internet of preschoolers in France, newly returned to school, sitting alone in chalk drawn squares that may as well have been surrounded by invisible walls. The photographer who took the photo said the half dozen or so kids were told to stay inside their zones, which they do, more or less. In one image, many of them sit plaintively under jackets and sweaters without so much as a toy for company; few look like they’re having any fun at all. One French historian called the photos “heartbreaking” on Twitter, and wondered how we could even call it school. Others went farther, calling it downright “dystopian.”
For many people, it was their first glimpse into what happens when recess collides with strict social distancing as schools kickstart the long process of getting back into classrooms. Over the summer, educators and experts have been grappling with what the pandemic means for recess —typically an uninhibited free time for unstructured play—now that social interaction is curtailed and playground equipment off limits. As schools slowly trickle back to in-person classes amid mask wearing mandates and single-direction hallways, are isolation squares all that kids have to look forward to?
The obvious solution might be to cancel recess altogether. After all, no recess could mean a shorter school day, less possibilities of infection and a chance to avoid the meticulous planning and precautions necessary to make recess safe and, well, fun. Play experts, however, do not recommend this approach. They point to research showing that play is an essential part of the school day and critical to learning. Recess breaks provide kids with a much-needed change in activity, which some studies have linked to improved classroom behavior. Other research suggests these breaks help maximize cognitive performance and promote brain development. Recess teaches kids how to collaborate, to resolve conflict, to negotiate. In short, how to learn together.
“We know that one of the key purposes of play is socialization,” says Katie Salen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies game design and learning. By around 3-years-old, kids begin to play productively with one another and engage in peer-based play, which helps kids learn how to make friends and interact with other people. “Once they enter pre-adolescence, it's very peer-based,” she explains. “The play and experimentation is very much rooted in the peer group and issues of exploring identity and friendship and belonging.”
There are other reasons to value play, especially these days: It’s often used as a way to help kids cope with their emotions during potentially traumatic situations. In countries such as Bangladesh and Uganda, play labs are spaces devoted to play and socialization, used in refugee camps to help children process their experiences. Separately, one international study looked at children caught in conflict and natural disasters and showed that kids use play as both a coping mechanism and, over time, as a way to build resilience.
“We’re going to have kids coming back to school and for many of them, their trauma levels will have risen significantly,” says Deborah Vilas, a child life specialist who focuses on play and trauma at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York. “We're going to have kids facing separation anxiety and worries about COVID, and kids deal with all of these developmental challenges through play.”
Guided Play, Structured Recess
But just because recess should continue, doesn’t mean it must be a binary choice between busy playgrounds crawling with kids playing freely or chalk outlined isolation zones where students sit in isolation bored to distraction. It might be something a little more structured. “Scaffolded” is the term Vilas uses.
In research, the types of play most often discussed are guided and free play. During guided play, kids have a lot of control over how they interact with each other and what they do, but there’s an added layer of adult scaffolding designed to guide them toward a learning goal, even if it’s something as vague as: learn how to work as a team or think creatively. Exhibits at children's museums are classic examples of guided play. There’s an activity with a learning objective, but kids can explore it however they choose.
As kids get older, starting about age 7, they are more drawn to this sort of play, including sports and games with rules, says Vilas. “They may be using their imaginations in their play, maybe they’re playing a character or what have you, but it’s not that kind of organic, dramatic play that younger 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds are doing.”
In March, New York City was one of the first places in the country to brush up against the impact of the pandemic on play. While the virus brought the city and its schools to a standstill, the city opened dozens of free Regional Enrichment Centers at various school sites specifically for the children of essential workers. Classes were limited to 12 students and strict social distancing was enforced. Figuring out what to do with kids while they were at these centers was a challenge. For help, program leaders turned to Asphalt Green, a nonprofit that runs a recess management program for schools, teaching playground games and related soft skills. Asphalt Green did not send coaches to the enrichment centers, opting instead to curate a webpage with more than 60 games for social distancing—think: indoor obstacle courses and twists on Simon Says—with instructions and video tutorials.
In this model, large groups of kids might be split into zones or stations, each with a different activity. Yet it’s not simply a matter of teaching kids the rules once and walking away, says David Ludwig, Asphalt Green’s senior director of community programs. It could take weeks of sustained teaching. “I think it starts with teaching one of these games to a group of kids, playing the game with them, facilitating the play to ensure that the behavior is being played properly,” he says. “You’re not having a hundred kids being released all at once onto the yard expecting that they’re going to remain separated.”
Asphalt Green’s model is strikingly similar to another program being sold to schools across the country: Peaceful Playgrounds. In the 1990s, Melinda Bossenmeyer was an elementary school principal in California who did not like recess. Or rather, she did not like the Wild West, anything-goes arena that typically results when 100 kids are set loose on a schoolyard. She thought this unstructured, unfocused time created too much conflict among students, which they didn’t know how to handle alone. So she created Peaceful Playgrounds as a new approach designed entirely around teaching kids the rules to developmentally-appropriate games, making sure they have the right equipment on hand and a framework for handling conflict. According to her philosophy, kids can play whatever games they want from that list, or they can choose to do nothing at all. It’s recess envisioned as the ultimate choice time.
Bossenmeyer doesn’t call it structure—it’s actually a term she resists. She calls it “enriching the environment” for kids, though it might be a matter of semantics. “We have competitive games, cooperative games and individual games,” she says. “So we believe with all of that, there’s something for everyone.”
New this spring: socially-distanced games. Even before the pandemic, Bossenmeyer and her team didn’t visit schools to train teachers and students. Instead, they send kits with all the supplies and instructions and let P.E. or classroom teachers do the heavy lifting. Over the past few months, she’s revamped the kits to focus on games where kids can be six feet apart at all times. The new kits also include plans for dividing the playground into so-called “activity zones,” using stenciled markings on the ground, which limit the number of kids that can play together—or play near each other at least. But she tries to build in community and playfulness by leaning on what organized games do best: building competition. In one activity zone, kids do ladder drills, a series of exercises of increasing difficulty that involve stepping and hopping around a ladder placed flat on the floor. In another, they bring water bottles from home and toss them at a distant target. Kids can still compete with each other, just not very close to one another.
This, Bossenmeyer allows, is structure. “We believe children should be able to do anything they want, or not do something,” she says. “But given COVID, it has to be really structured in order to keep them safe.”
The Rhythm of the Day
Even a well-designed recess program can’t solve every problem, of course. As anyone who’s spent time around kids knows, they don’t just play during structured recess periods or on playgrounds before school begins. The truth is, they’re playing all the time—in hallways between periods, during lunch, while settling in for their next class. Yet the nature of socially distanced schools is a disruption of the natural order of play. Movement is restricted and natural interaction is suppressed. Remote learning removes it almost entirely.
Katie Salen describes this natural order as “the rhythm of the day” and something kids become accustomed to over time. Every hour when the bell rings they can leave the room, talk and play for a few minutes. It’s something they can look forward to. But recreating this rhythm in socially-distanced classrooms will be hard. And while it will naturally involve building in breaks and unstructured time, it will also involve activities that reinforce this spirit of togetherness. “Those moments of being together probably have to take on a pretty different purpose, which I think is much more about retaining ties, enforcing a sense of belonging, which again, is native to play,” she says. “It’s why we often do it as human beings.”
Of course, part of that traditional playful rhythm simply will not be possible, and kids will likely mourn its loss. “I think kids will miss just messing around,” says YJ Kim, the executive director of MIT’s Playful Journey Lab, which focuses on play and learning. “There’s no room for that right now. Kids like to do things like passing or throwing papers at each other. That’s how they connect.” It’s also how they form relationships not just with their peers but with adults as well. Everybody has a favorite teacher, Kim says, who you can goof around with and come to trust, where you can have fun and also learn.
Kim’s lab spends a lot of time thinking about those kinds of teachers and what makes those environments playful—that is, both fun for kids and highly conducive to learning. Part of the equation, she says, is taking time to build that relationship in the first place. When kids play informally with their peers and teachers they start to feel comfortable, accepted, valued, safe. They can be funny, weird and creative, collaborative and every other 21st-century skill you can think of. But if schools don’t intentionally plan how those spaces will look this year, it can easily be lost. School won’t be fun for kids, a slog of worksheets and silent reading and single-file lines. It’ll be a drag.
Somewhat ironically, this part of play—the social connection, relationship building part—may be best saved for the online environment, where kids can be social and mask free. “It’s not about the space or the technology but what kinds of prompts are being given to them to support those interactions,” Kim says. “What are the things that get kids who don’t want to talk on the Zoom call—what makes them talk? What makes them actually listen?” Teachers can host discussions on Padlet boards and ask students to share Flipgrid videos about pets and hobbies. Students can make quizzes, share jokes and play games that have nothing to do with math standards or history lessons.
Relationship building and playful learning are certainly possible, but it will take creating a new rhythm both online and off, during structured recess periods and at morning check-ins, on apps and Zoom calls and while joking around in class. For kids, play is everywhere; it always has been. Now it’s up to schools to keep it that way.