Kids are Still Recovering from Pandemic Losses. Play Can Help.

As pandemic school closures recede into memory for many schools, the impacts linger. Kids, educators, and families are still working on creating a new normal. 

One working paper from the Calder Center found that during the 2020-2021 school year, students whose schools went virtual for the longest stretch of time lost around half a school year’s worth of math learning; reading also suffered. Schools are now faced with the challenging task of helping kids rebuild academic skills they missed. 

These academic losses—and their solutions—don’t exist in a void. The pandemic left all sorts of losses, some visible, some less so, all of which impact learning. Kids lost out on physical activity, social and emotional skill development, and a stable sense of community. And COVID added to the typical number of children who lose a parent or caregiver each year. 

As an antidote to all sorts of pandemic losses, opportunities to play are incredibly helpful. For decades, Playworks has been helping schools prioritize play at recess and throughout the school day. Here are three ways we’ve seen play already making a difference as school communities rebuild connections and recover resilience.

Recovering Physical Health

During the 2021-2022 school year, Sophie Zbesko was a Playworks site coordinator in Colorado. Most kids associated her with fun: when Sophie walked down the school hallway, she was usually greeted by grins, high fives, and a crowd of kids wanting to play. But when one little girl saw Sophie, she would immediately burst into tears.

Sophie talked with the student and found out that during the pandemic, she hadn’t had many chances to play with other kids. She never learned the games that her classmates played at recess, and now, she was afraid to join in. Without safe places to run around or friends to be silly with, many children spent less time playing together during school closures. 

Play at school is an important source of physical activity. During the pandemic, many kids lost out. One meta-study found that on average, kids lost 17 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day during school closures. That’s a big loss: according to the CDC, children should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, and many children were already getting less. 

Learning and movement are interdependent in healthy schools. Physical activity supports not just health, but also academic learning and cognitive performance. While schools can and must invest in academic interventions, physical health and academic recovery go hand and hand.

To support the kids in her school, Sophie did what Playworks has always done: she taught everyone the rules for popular games to help all kids participate. The girl who was afraid to play eventually joined in. She started laughing with peers and smiling when she saw Sophie.

In the early days of school closures, Playworks added another strategy for continuing to help kids play and stay active. As some schools were closed, some virtual, and some returning to in person learning, Playworks created a weekly curriculum to share games that teachers and students could play together in any context. Keep Playing includes simple videos explaining games, featuring team members like Sophie from around the country. 

Educators incorporated these games during recess, in class, during transitions, and after school. Most of the teachers surveyed played with their class at least weekly, and 93% agreed that the games got kids moving. “I don’t want to go back to that part of the pandemic and do that again, but it worked,” said Carrol Navarro, a teacher in Chicago.

Recovering Social and Emotional Health

In addition to missing out on physical activity during school closures and hybrid learning, children also lost out on opportunities for social and emotional learning. Less in-person time with peers set many kids back. “It’s things that in 33 years I haven’t seen,” said Navarro. “I just think they don’t have a lot of social skills that other kids got naturally in first grade.” 

Barbara Pileggi, a teacher from Pennsylvania, agreed. She noticed her students having a harder time managing emotions. “Our kids are angry all the time,” she said. “I spend much of my time de-escalating situations and dealing with the fallout of their aggressive behavior. It is exhausting.”

Navarro is still working with her third graders on basic prerequisites for academic learning: how to focus on the person speaking, how to show respect, and how to be physically safe while moving around a space–things they normally would have already learned by this grade level. 

Play is how our brains are built to learn, and so, games are a great “technology” for social and emotional learning. They give kids a safe container for practicing skills like emotional regulation and social awareness. To help students integrate these skills, Playworks’ Keep Playing includes SEL debriefs for educators to use after playing games. 

For example, in the game Huckle Buckle Beanstalk, students search for a hidden object but can’t let others know where it is. After playing, classes can reflect on skills like integrity and self control with questions like, “How did it feel when others found the object and you were still searching? If you found the object first, was it hard to keep the location a secret?”

One school counselor decided to build the games and take-aways into her lessons with students. Another teacher forwarded the games and debriefs to parents to try at home. 

“Playworks helps with the emotional piece we deal with on a daily basis,” said Pilletti. Navarro found that playing together and then debriefing helped her build a stronger relationship with her students. That made a challenging year a little easier. 

While some of the SEL skill deficits students face are about lost opportunities for social and emotional learning, there is also more going on. Many kids are still reckoning with big losses: parents who lost jobs, friends who moved away, and the loss of stable routines and clarity about the future. 

In addition, more than 250,000 children in the United States lost a parent or caregiver due to the pandemic; that’s about 1 in every 200 American children. In children, grief can look like “acting out” or like a general regression of social and emotional skills. Grief can also look like fatigue and an inability to focus on academic work. 

The second year after a loss can be as hard or harder than the first. This creates a catch-22 for schools: children need intensive academic interventions to recover from learning loss—but kids who are still reckoning with a big loss may have a harder time keeping up with the basics.

While play might not seem like an obvious answer, it can actually be crucial. Writing for the Child Mind Institute, Rachel Ehmke explained, “After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next.” That outlet is important. “Children cope differently than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.”

To support a healthy school environment, responses to learning loss must incorporate both extra academic support and support for childrens’ well-being. 

Recovering Healthy School Communities

Whether kids are grieving the loss of a parent or the loss of a normal school year, relationships and routine are crucial to recovery. Play can help students build relationships with trusted adults and strengthen relationships with peers. 

Carinna Minyard, an English Language Learners teacher in Colorado, spent the last year supporting many students who relocated to Colorado when the US pulled out of Afghanistan. “Even my most inclusive students struggled to find a way to play and interact with these new students,” she said. 

Then, a Playworks team member taught her class two easy games that everyone could understand: Splat and Four Corners. Games helped these kids connect and feel a sense of mastery. Minyard saw her newcomers blossom and begin to make friends. “I really appreciated that it wasn’t me just telling them ‘be friends,’” Minyard said. “They discovered and created genuine connections.”

In addition to supportive relationships, kids who have suffered loss need stable, consistent routines. In some schools, classrooms feel stable, but recess can feel chaotic. With a thoughtful approach, recess and play can be powerful parts of the solution.

Playworks helps schools who want to build more routines into recess. Techniques as simple as marking boundaries for different games, making it clear where to line up, and setting the expectation that everyone is invited to join in can help kids build a sense of safety and security on the playground. Routines for returning to class can also help children regulate their emotions

Strengthening routines and relationships can make school a healthy place to learn and play for kids struggling with all sorts of loss.

Good Things Are Happening

Play is an opportunity for healing and recovery that every child deserves. It is important for academic learning and for students’ wellbeing. But we all know that schools are overwhelmed in the wake of the pandemic. In the midst of so many competing priorities, play shouldn’t feel like another box to check. 

That’s why hearing from educators who are already embracing play is such a hopeful sign. It is a reminder that sometimes, the things that matter most are already happening. Taking a break to play and feel joy is what many kids need right now. It’s probably what we all need. 

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