School leaders have the unenviable task of figuring out how to get students back on campus in ways that follow public health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. A growing number of schools are planning to open with children learning from home this fall. Others will presumably adopt a some combination of in-person and distance learning.
But what is best from a public health standpoint — desks six feet apart and minimal contact between students — may not help children heal from the social isolation and multiple hardships the pandemic has brought.
To create healing spaces, California’s elementary school leaders must prioritize outdoor recess and play time when schools physically reopen.
Recess is where children exercise their bodies and practice their social and emotional skills. Negotiating who goes first in tetherball, resolving whether the ball is in or out in soccer, coping with sadness or anger after losing in four-square and learning to be empathetic when a friend is sad all contribute to students’ positive development. These peer connections through play contribute to student healing.
Recent news that remote learning will extend to the fall for many of California’s schoolchildren further amplifies this need. Making up for learning losses is on every educator’s mind, but children won’t be ready to hunker down with their books after many months away from school routines and social interactions. Focusing on learning loss to the exclusion of healing when children return can exacerbate their distress and trauma.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has released its guidance for reopening schools, noting that is important to attend to the needs of the most traumatized students — those in communities disproportionately affected in terms of health and economic outcomes, as well as those encountering the pain of racially motivated violence against Black Americans. In an updated statement, the academy further implores that local leaders are best prepared to make decisions about when to reopen schools safely.
When schools reopen, however, recess and other play-based break times must be incorporated into the learning environment. Social support and physical activity help buffer children’s stress response, which will be needed, given that children’s physical and psychological health are negatively affected, and trauma symptoms increase when they are isolated.
When children experience stress and trauma, it is difficult for them to access the portions of the brain that support thinking and reasoning, making play a needed ingredient of a successful learning environment.
Fears of coronavirus infection on the playground are real but transmission of the virus is much less likely in outdoor environments. To mitigate risk on the playground, the academy recommends keeping students grouped with their classmates and limiting the size of groups on outside at the same time.
The benefits of recess reverberate well beyond that short play period. Children may return to school with a range of emotions — from excited to nervous to angry — and with differing levels of ability to control them. Providing them time to reconnect with their friends will help them to transition and improve their abilities to pay attention in class and learn.
The Global Recess Alliance — a group of international researcher-educators and health professionals of which we are founding members — has created a list of suggested adaptations for recess. Among them are:
- Offer recess daily when children are physically present at school, outdoors if possible.
- Advise recess staff to prepare to support students in resolving their own conflicts and figuring out how to play together.
- Disinfect sports equipment and do not allow students to bring equipment from home;
- Add handwashing stations and model their use.
- Limit the number of children at recess at one time and create different play areas for their activities.
- Avoid structured or sedentary activities — like watching movies or activity-break videos that do not provide students free choice and peer interactions — which are not substitutes for recess.
- Do not withhold recess as punishment for any reason (e.g., as a consequence for missed schoolwork or misbehavior).
The pandemic’s effects on children’s wellbeing is still emerging, but one thing is clear: Children are not immune to the effects of the major disruption to their family’s lives and their social existence. Parents and teachers should remind school leaders that recess must be central to the reopening plans.
When students re-enter their school world, attending to their safety and ensuring their emotional health is of the utmost priority. Recess is a way to do both, and support their transition back into learning as well.
Rebecca A. London is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. William Massey is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.
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