[OP-ED] Saving Recess: Helping Our Kids Find Joy and Connection in the ‘New COVID Normal’

Wilton Youth Council’s Wilton Free Play Task Force has worked for three years to educate, inspire and support parents, schools, and community on the importance of play and help facilitate more opportunities for kids to do so. We never imagined that play would become more important than when we started. Play is a refuge for children, an opportunity to process the world around them. It provides them both with a mental and a physical break. This school year, with kids sitting at their desks with masks on and movements very controlled due to safety restrictions, recess is the best opportunity to be free of a mask, run and move. It is also the best opportunity to find joy and connection with their peers–all possible while maintaining a safe, six-foot distance. As parents, we need to do everything in our power to protect the sanctity of recess.

The Wilton health director has let the district know that children may not use the playground equipment, nor any shared materials outside (like balls, etc). Obviously this makes sense, but this drastic change comes with risk of frustration and “lostness” and as a result, an increased potential for unwanted behavior like bullying. Thankfully, our task force found some amazing, developmentally appropriate, and socially distant games on the website AsphaltGreen, which were shared with the schools. 

We hope that introducing these material-free and touch-free games will give kids some “scaffolding” and that they will come up with their own games as they get used to the new parameters for safe play. At the same time, efforts are underway to support kids who prefer to spend recess in conversation with classmates by providing a place to walk freely (but safely) or a safely-spaced spot in what we are calling a recess “chat circle.” With so much about a child’s new life being controlled from the outside, learning how to create their own games and find connection and joy are critical to their well-being–and ultimately the base for their academic learning. 

An enormous amount of thought has gone into Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill’s plans for recess. Both elementary schools will have smaller groups thanks to the hybrid model. In both schools, students play in secure “zones” set out by the schools. Students will stay in one “zone” for the week, allowing them to easily pick up where they left off in their play. These zones allow them to stay in their class cohort, getting a much-needed break from their masks while remaining six feet apart. Miller-Driscoll students are lucky to have their teachers out on the playground with them. Cider Mill has been able to increase recess time to a wonderful 35 minutes. Cider Mill will have 13 dedicated recess aides (they are still hiring for four or five of those spots) who will help keep the groups safe and engaged. At a time when parents are unable to volunteer within the school, working as a recess aide might be the one chance to see their child in action. Plus elementary children love to see their parents be part of their school life! 

Back-to-school this year has required, and will continue to require, an extraordinary amount of planning and effort for our administrators and teachers. In order for this to be successful, schools need our help. 

When kids go back to school this year, many things will look different. As parents, it is crucial that we talk with our kids in advance about some of the smaller details of what school, lunch, and recess will look like so they can adjust their expectations and prepare. Kids are looking forward to lunch and recess and need to understand how they will be different than in previous years. “Wait–I can’t eat with my friends?” my 6th grade daughter asks in alarm as I discuss the alphabetical cohort split and lunch at her desk. “When do we get to talk with each other?” Be detailed–don’t take anything for granted.

Kids will need to wear their masks as they move through from the classroom to the playground but are allowed to remove them once they are outside. Keeping track of their masks will be an opportunity to learn responsibility. We can make it easier by purchasing mask lanyards (available locally too!) or clips so our children can easily keep track of their masks when outside or eating lunch. Have them practice wearing the mask and using the lanyard or clip before the school year begins.

These last five months have wreaked havoc on the social, emotional, and academic lives of many of Wilton’s youth. COVID has taken many things from our children and we must come together to make sure the joy and connection that recess can provide is not one of them. Our kids’ well-being and readiness to learn depend on it.

Vanessa Elias is a member of the Wilton Free Play Task Force. She is the past president of Wilton Youth Council, facilitator of a NAMI-CAN parent support group and is founder of Thrive with a Guide parent coaching.