Family & EducationLifestyle & Wellness

It’s time to take play seriously

There is no question that the pandemic has had a significant impact on children over the past year. As kids have returned to school, there has been a necessary focus on catching them up academically, but what about catching them up socially?   
As we continue to monitor and discuss the impacts the past year has had on kids from a learning perspective, we can’t underestimate or ignore the fact that our kids have missed out on many key social interactions that contribute to overall mental health and development—specifically those that happen at school. Case in point, because of the pandemic, many kids do not even know the names of students in their own classroom, let alone know how to behave in social situations that may be new to them, which could present some issues in the future.   
The solution? It’s time to take play seriously.   
Playworks is the leading nonprofit in Minnesota that works directly with schools to build their capacity to create a safe and inclusive environment through the power of play. We are passionate about educating both parents and schools about the importance of play and how critical it is to a child’s overall development and well-being.  
“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,” Will Massey, assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University said in EdSource. 
  Before we approach recovering from lost learning, we must ensure kids feel emotionally safe and cared for. Helping them feel safe involves ensuring they feel included in the community, they have built trusting relationships, and feel comfortable being their most authentic selves.  
Social relationships, in particular, provide a context for emotional support, enjoyment, creative play, physical activity and the development of social identities—all of which contribute to overall development and well-being. 
Studies have shown time and again that regular access to play makes kids healthier and happier, more successful in and out of the classroom and better prepares them for adulthood. And play at school—aka recess—is a pivotal time for all children.  Either kids love it, or they dread it.    
Playworks Minnesota works directly with schools to leverage play inside the classroom and at recess through on-site support, training and development of 4th and 5th grade Junior coaches who mentor and support younger students at recess. Playworks brings joy back to the playground and reduces wasted classroom time after recess dealing with injuries, meltdowns, etc.  
The importance of play and the physical, social and emotional benefits it offers children, as well as the advantages it brings to the classroom, cannot be ignored. Play brings diverse groups of students together and helps improve the overall school climate. 
While this school year is almost over, administrators and teachers need to be thinking about what students will need when they return in the fall. Because decisions about funding allocations for the next school year are happening now, educators and parents need to take a critical look at how schools are investing in bringing joy and healing back and reconnecting students with each other.
Shauna McDonald is the executive director of Playworks Minnesota. 

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