Originally published Aug. 8, 2021 by USA Today.

By Matt Alderton

America’s future is figuratively on the line. After a year and a half of remote and hybrid learning, children across the United States have fallen desperately behind, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which estimates that the average American student has lost up to nine months of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And students of color fare even worse, it reports.

That may not sound like much, but even a few months of learning loss could have a lifetime of impacts, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international policymaking group that says education interruptions as a result of COVID-19 will have implications for students and nations alike. It estimates that students will earn nearly 10 percent less income over their lifetimes for every year of learning loss they experience.

Because less knowledge translates to fewer skills and decreased innovation, every year of learning loss likewise will cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars in gross domestic product annually through the end of the century.

Against this backdrop, school systems are expected to spend billions of dollars on accelerated and auxiliary learning programs to address learning defecits. In the rush to close academic gaps, however, there’s a risk that they might widen social-emotional gaps that also have formed.

“A lot of parents and educators right now think our No. 1 job at school is to catch kids up. But what does that look like? More homework? More instruction? More time in seats listening to lectures? What I think will ‘catch kids up’ is less of all that,” says youth development researcher Rebecca London, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The pandemic has been traumatic for all of us, including children, so I think our first order of business needs to be healing from that collective trauma.”

Catching students up academically is obviously still a priority, but a key place to start the healing process is the playground, according to Elizabeth Cushing, CEO of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that promotes play in schools. “Our brains can’t take on the work of learning if we don’t feel safe,” she says. “Because it makes school feel like a fun, welcoming and inclusive place to be, play can be a really powerful, efficient and easy lever to pull to help kids feel safer.”

If play is essential, so is a favorite school “subject” — recess.

The Power of Play

In 2020, London helped establish the Global Recess Alliance, an international group of scholars, educators and health professionals whose goal is making recess an important part of schools’ reopening plans.

“Decades of research indicate that rather than detracting from student learning, recess supports learning and well-being,” Alliance members wrote in a statement. “As schools reopen, recess must be included in the schoolwide planning.”

Along with helping children heal from trauma, play and recess assist in their complete growth. “Children’s development can be broken down into four domains: intellectual, social, emotional and physical. Play is really the only context in which you can attend to all four of those at once,” says London, who is also the author of Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime for All Children in School.

Intellectually, play activates the brain’s reward mechanisms and decreases stress, which can facilitate cognition by improving mood, focus, attention and engagement.

Physically, recess is often the only time of day that children have unstructured time for physical exercise and activity. Socially and emotionally, recess is where children become good citizens by learning skills like empathy, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and impulse control.

“Recess is where kids learn social skills like taking turns, negotiating disagreements and being good teammates,” explains Cushing, who says play deprivation in childhood has been linked to depression, addiction and violence in adulthood. “We know from studies of play deprivation that when children don’t have opportunities for social development, terrible things can happen.”

Re-engineering Recess

Because it creates “joy, relief and a chance to connect,” every child should have access to recess, says Cushing. Unfortunately, she says, not every child does. And with many schools laser-focused on addressing learning loss, there’s real risk that play might fall by the wayside.

Parents can ensure that it doesn’t by asking educators and administrators to explain what recess will look like when most schools reopen this fall.

“Every kid in America should get to play every day. Recess promotes more learning, not less, so we encourage every school and district to take advantage of this reopening moment to establish play as a value in the school community,” Cushing says.

Specifically, Cushing and London say parents should hold schools accountable for making sure recess is:

  • Safe. In school districts where COVID-19 protocols remain in place, recess can happen safely, according to Cushing, who says educators can build recess around socially distanced games like “popcorn,” where students stand in a circle and take turns throwing their ball in the air, clapping, then catching the ball.
  • Substantive. London says recess should be included in the bell schedule, and should be offered at least twice a day for sustained periods — at least 20 minutes at a time, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. This is especially important in schools that serve low-income students who often receive less recess time compared with students in better-funded school districts.
  • Structured. What makes recess so effective is that it facilitates free, unstructured play. And yet, London and Cushing agree that some amount of structure is important to ensure that recess is inclusive and productive. Schools might establish shared rules for popular games, for example, or create dedicated, democratic play spaces for children who are socially anxious or isolated. Such practices can reduce negative recess behaviors like exclusion and bullying.
  • Smart. If the goal of play is facilitating learning and development, it can be counterproductive to withhold recess as punishment for missed classwork or disruptive classroom behavior, suggests London, who says doing so can be more harmful than helpful.
  • Student-led. One way for schools to maximize their return on recess investment is to create a student-run Recess Improvement Council, according to London, who says such groups can provide opportunities for young leaders while cultivating ideas that can help schools make recess the best it can be for all children.

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