Why our kids need to play through COVID’s education ‘apocalypse’

Play Club allows kids to just be kids and interact with their friends in an unstructured environment
By: | November 29, 2021
Kevin Stinehart

Kevin Stinehart

At this point, it’s no surprise to anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the way we see just about everything in education.

From the strategies we use to the ways in which we use them, much has changed in the last two years, and only time will tell what goes back to “normal” and what we have permanently improved upon and never want to go back to. One thing is for sure though, the Greek word “apocalypse” (which unlike its modern negative connotation, actually means to reveal or uncover) is exactly what we have on our hands.

The pandemic has been an educational apocalypse, as it has revealed just how off-base we have been in many ways in our education system like only a truly disruptive event could. While such a completely devastating experience is never something one wants to go through as it is filled with great difficulty, it is also filled with opportunity as it is a chance to rethink everything in the aftermath.

Well-being comes before academics.

The primary way our view is changing as educators is in recognizing that our students are holistic people.

In the earliest days of formal education, students were seen as empty vessels for us to dump knowledge into. As time went by education reformers began to recognize that students aren’t just a brain to be filled with knowledge, but they are a body as well, and that body needs movement and exercise. Physical education was introduced, and students for the first time were viewed as more than just a brain.

We are now at the dawning of another new age as the pandemic has unveiled and revealed the massive amount of anxiety, isolation, and depression our students battle (starting even before the pandemic). We are now seeing clearly that our students are not just a brain and a body, but there is also a huge social and emotional component that we need to be actively fostering and paying attention to in our students.

For the first time we are really beginning to teach our students as whole people—putting their deepest needs first and foremost. Virtual learning revealed that students desperately need social interaction, playtime with their peers, and time to connect with each other face to face in unstructured settings.

To be sure, there are countries that have been doing this successfully before the pandemic hit (Finland comes to mind), but for most of us here in the United States, this is a new age wherein our students’ health and wellbeing come before academics. When we look back though, we recognize that reformers have been trying to tell us this deep truth for decades, but we didn’t yet have eyes to see or ears to hear.

We needed a great shakeup like this for the scales to fall off our eyes. Maslow prodded us to see that belonging, friendship, and one’s sense of connection must come long before achievement and success, but we acted as though that was naïve or unrealistic.

Or perhaps we believed it, but it was too abstract to comprehend how an ordinary teacher can make this happen for their students. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day to teach all our standards and truly help our students socially and emotionally.

Happier, less stressed, less isolated

My school is a high-poverty elementary school in rural South Carolina, and as we have woken up and recognized this need to care for our students socially and emotionally first and foremost, we have found new ways to implement exactly what our students need—which simply boils down to time with each other in unstructured play.

After virtual learning for months, social distancing all day every day, and the near-death of playdates, students need time to be together and play again more than ever before. In this recognition, our school added an extra recess to our day, increased the duration of our recesses, and added a before- and after-school Play Clubs. This has been completely transformational for our students.

What is Play Club? It’s exactly what it sounds like—an hour or so before and after school where kids are allowed to just be kids, interact with their friends in an unstructured environment, and simply have free time to play. We follow our state and local COVID-19 safety guidelines, of course, but since we are outside in open air and we contact trace, no other requirements are needed.

While some districts mask indoors, no school in our state requires masks outdoors, so Play Club not only allows unstructured free play, it allows a much more “normal” environment as well.

We have found incredible results in our Play Club as students are happier, less stressed, less isolated, and have far more social connections and friends. Now the academic achievements, focus levels, and ability to sustain learning through rigorous classroom lessons are naturally following.

This educational apocalypse has been great at revealing and uncovering that students can (and will) achieve far more inside the classroom and outside the classroom when their more fundamental social and emotional needs are being met. We are seeing it first-hand at my school.

It has been a classic “put the horse before the cart” case for generations now as we’ve put such a strong emphasis on test scores and end results. We had missed that fostering a strong person holistically gets both—students who are well-adjusted, healthy mentally, socially strong, and are able to achieve at high levels academically, because their foundation is resilient, and their deepest needs are being met.

Kevin Stinehart is a husband, father to two young adventurous girls, public school teacher, play advocate, and South Carolina state teacher of the year candidate for 2021. Reach out to Kevin at kevin.stinehart@gmail.com—he would love to hear from you.