COVID-19, the unprecedented pandemic that has disrupted our sense of normalcy, has unmistakably highlighted the ways in which school is more than just an academic learning environment for many students. Often, school represents a safe haven where students not only learn but thrive on routine and the consistency of caring adults.
We know that students miss their teachers, their classmates, and the comforts of routine, but students are also missing out on key opportunities for social-emotional learning – skills that are necessary in and outside of school.
Before COVID-19, students had ample opportunities throughout the school day to develop and strengthen their social-emotional skills, whether in the classroom, lunchroom, or on the playground. These informal learning moments may not have been pronounced, but they existed. Play is one of the most natural ways that children learn. The experience of joining a new game, learning the rules, and playing fairly strengthens a student’s ability to practice self-management. Students practice empathy, use positive communication, and build relationships as they navigate friendships and learn to solve conflicts that may arise. Students develop trust in their peers and adults through play, which impacts relationships off the playground as well. These social-emotional skills are foundational tools that students need to be their best selves as they grow. And they are even more essential in a time like this.
While a traditional school day presents opportunities for social-emotional learning, studies show that schools that are intentional about social-emotional learning show better social skills, behavior and attitudes, as well as academic achievement gains among their students. These outcomes lead to greater resilience and ability to withstand stress. The American Psychological Academy (APA) suggests that resilience – a skill that is critical now more than ever – is developed through social-emotional skills like self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills.
Playworks taps into childrens’ intrinsic desire to play and gives students the opportunity to not only learn butpractice core skills like empathy, teamwork, respect, and positive communication. Through Playworks, kids learn games designed to discourage conflict and exclusivity and to include children with special needs or other barriers to participation. Games are adapted to create a culture of encouragement and inclusion rather than competition and conflict. We teach students to say “Good job, nice try!” rather than dismissing someone with “You’re out!” By practicing simple prosocial skills, kids are more likely to feel included, get back in the game, and continue to be engaged. As a result, the RAND Corporation named Playworks as one of only seven elementary school SEL interventions to meet the highest criteria for evidence of impact under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Without school and recess, students are missing out on formative social-emotional learning experiences in a time when these skills are needed the most. During this prolonged period of out-of-school time, many students will continue to grapple with the stress and anxiety of COVID-19 compounded by the multiple losses of all that school typically provides. The change to virtual learning has reduced natural opportunities for students to interact with and learn from one another.
According to Tes Siarcacki, 4th grade teacher at the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, “School provides many children with an opportunity to play with other children, which is a critical form of learning. Teachers know that movement and free space and time for socialization are crucial for our students’ development.” Ms. Siarcacki adds, “Even before parks were closed due to the current crisis, many urban neighborhoods lacked safe outdoor playing space and, as a result, kids have fewer opportunities to learn to play and relate cooperatively and independently.”
Playworks knows that children need social-emotional support and physical activity to successfully navigate this turbulent time. We launched Play At Home to ensure that children can continue to reap the physical and mental health benefits of play. For resources on promoting social-emotional learning at home, check out Playworks’ Play At Home series with free game tutorial videos and live recess segments for kids of all ages to join in on the fun. School may be closed, but we’re still playing!
Learn more at www.playworks.org/new-england/playathome