By William Doyle and Pasi Sahlberg
When the novel coronavirus is no longer as great a threat and schools finally reopen, we should give children the one thing they will need most after enduring months of isolation, stress, physical restraint and woefully inadequate, screen-based remote learning. We should give them playtime — and lots of it.
As in-person classes begin, education administrators will presumably follow the safety guidelines of health authorities for smaller classes, staggered schedules, closing or regularly cleaning communal spaces with shared equipment, regular health checks and other precautions. But despite the limitations this may place on the students’ physical environment, schools should look for safe ways to supercharge children’s learning and well-being.
We propose that schools adopt a 90-day “golden age of play,” our term for a transitional period when traditional academic education should be balanced as much as possible with learning through play, physical and creative outlets and mental health counseling to provide support for children who will need it.
Play gives children a wide range of critical cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics, representing the nation’s 67,000 children’s doctors, stated in a 2012 clinical report that “play, in all its forms, needs to be considered as the ideal educational and developmental milieu for children,” including for children in poverty, and noted that “the lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also reported “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement,” and “can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior,” including concentration and attention. Regular physical activity like recess and physical education, the CDC researchers noted, also “improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and anxiety.”
This is especially relevant for a student population that may face a tidal wave of mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Data from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report detailed that, as of 2016, 1 in 6 children ages 2 to 8 years of age had a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. And a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that from 2009 to 2017, depression surged 69% among 16- to 17-year-olds.
A 90-day “golden age of play” school re-entry period would help ease children back into the school setting, while providing physical and creative outlets to allow them to calm their stress and thrive with their peers and teachers. But what exactly would this program look like?
It should look like a child’s dreams. A time of joy, movement, discovery and experimentation without fear of failure; a time when every student should enjoy comfort, safety, and socialization with peers and warm, caring adults.
Logistically, for elementary and middle school students, this means 90 days of low-stress learning largely through play, outdoor classes, the arts, music, and physical education. We should give each child a total of at least 60 minutes per day of safely supervised recess, divided into two or three periods spread through the day. Whenever possible, recess should be held outdoors and children should be engaged in setting expectations and guidelines for health and safety. Recess time can be added by shortening classes by 10 or 15 minutes. Educators can help children systematically develop the important social-emotional skills they learn at recess from regulating emotions to managing conflict.
For older middle schoolers and high schoolers, recess and free play can take the form of frequent break times, self-determined passion projects and learning to solve real problems in their communities. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted, “Cognitive processing and academic performance depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work. This applies equally to adolescents and to younger children.”
Students would still take part in more traditional academic tasks, but the school atmosphere would be energized and, therefore, more efficient for teaching and learning, discovery and experimentation.
Some politicians and administrators may want to accelerate content learning with extra pressure and rushed academic schedules that align with arbitrary, pre-pandemic benchmarks. But academic benchmarks will have to be re-thought and re-calibrated in the wake of the pandemic, months of cancelled classroom learning and the suspension of the federal requirement for this year’s state standardized tests for grades three through eight.
This should not be viewed as a setback to learning. The reality is that learning never stops. Children have kept on learning at home, but they’ve been learning different things that are just as important and relevant as what they would have learned at school. They likely are now better at managing boredom and ambiguity, taking responsibility, being creative, facing stress and seeing how adults deal with pressure and uncertainty. When schools reopen, we should not ask how much learning time children have lost, but what they have learned while schools have been closed.
Some educators and policy makers may even be tempted to eliminate any vestiges of play from school, including recess, which according to the National Academy of Medicine was already on the chopping block before the pandemic struck.
But this would be a terrible mistake. While the CDC advises that schools consider cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces or even closing school playgrounds with shared playground equipment, regular recess for smaller and staggered groups can still be held in places like indoor gyms and open outdoor play yards. Additional precautions should be taken like the wearing of face coverings by school staff and students as feasible, frequent handwashing and minimizing the sharing of objects, as recommended by the CDC.
“Shutting down school playgrounds is appealing to many for a sense of control, but a closed classroom and shared meals are more likely to spread an airborne pathogen,” says military pediatrician Dr. Jeffrey Hutchinson, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and co-author of 2018 AAP clinical report, “The Power of Play.”
He told us, “Play is essential. Unstructured time is vital for development, stress reduction and physical and mental health. The ways forward to keep playgrounds safe align with all of the health measures we have always emphasized: good hand washing, isolating those who are ill and cleaning highly trafficked areas.”
His co-author on the AAP play report, Dr. Andrew Garner, also noted that, “The research is clear that children benefit from recess, not only academically but physically, socially and emotionally… After ‘social isolating’ for a number of weeks — heaven forbid months — one could actually argue that re-socializing children through regular recess should be a top priority.”
When schools reopen, let’s give our children the knowledge, skills and experiences that will last for lifetime and advance their executive function, especially the emotional self-regulation that is at the heart of all learning and well-being, now and later in life.
Let’s give our children something they will cherish and thank us for in decades to come — a 90-day “golden age of play.” By doing so, we will enhance their health and well-being, supercharge their learning, and boost their chances of life success.
With any luck, when the 90 days are over, our children and teachers will make play a permanent part of the daily school experience.
Originally published on CNN Opinions, June 10, 2020