My name is Coach Leah and I’m a second year coach at the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury, MA. In March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, I was anxious to see how being a Playworks Coach translated into a virtual setting. Immediately, the Playworks team dove into ways to bring play into homes, launching services such as Facebook Live Recess and Keep Playing. However, I myself still wondered how to be effective when I was separated from my students by a computer screen. Additionally, I was concerned by what that would mean for physical activity when children were behind a screen all day.
Prior to the pandemic, I would step into a classroom and see kids immediately start squirming in their seats. They wanted to finish their worksheets as soon as possible because they knew once they were done, it was time to go outside and play games. It was an incredible thing, watching the immediate joy kids experienced when they knew they were about to get Playworks time.
When the pandemic closed school buildings, I was worried that all that joy would be lost and the connection with my students wouldn’t translate into the virtual world. What I experienced was the complete opposite. When I joined a Zoom classroom to run a virtual Class Game Time, students sat up in their chairs, turned their cameras on, and were fully ready to play whatever silly games and activities I had prepared for them. I would hear from teachers afterwards that due to the engagement with Class Game Time and virtual recess, their students felt energized to learn and gained a sense of connection with their classmates, which fostered a more robust and engaged learning environment.
I offered optional recesses during lunch breaks for students and was astounded by the number of kids who would join, hungry for a chance to play and connect with their friends in this virtual world. Virtual recesses were embraced by my entire school community, with teachers logging on to engage with their students in virtual play, and parents hopping into the background of Zooms to play a couple rounds of Simon Says.
Returning to in-person school felt like coming home, but my fear was that the teachers would be so focused on learning loss that they would take away time for play and movement, and again I was shocked at how wrong I was. There was a deep investment in the power of play and the experience that Playworks brings to address the trauma and loss that students experienced over the last year. The play spaces that I intentionally built over Zoom with emphasis on inclusion and respect were modeled on the physical recess yard, and my students showed up with energy and enthusiasm, ready to embrace all of the new socially-distanced games.
I received countless messages from teachers, parents, and school administrators regarding the positivity that Playworks brought to the Hernandez. I had a parent tell me that because of the joy her five year old daughter experienced at recess, she suddenly wanted to be named “Coach Leah” in all of her pretend play. Teachers shared that they streamed Playworks videos on their classroom projectors to integrate physical activity into their class routines. When speaking to a parent at school dismissal one day, she told me that the reason her child felt safe and welcomed coming back to school was because she knew that Coach Leah would be there every day to play with her.
While this was my personal experience as a Playworks Coach through the pandemic, I’m positive that these powerful stories are not unique to me. Every day, hundreds of coaches enter their schools as positive adult role models, promoting play and social emotional learning as a way to bring out the best in every kid. In a time when kids need those caring, consistent and positive adult role models, the power of Playworks cannot be understated.