School, for nearly every child, means far more than schoolwork. This point was clearly highlighted by the pandemic-related isolation: children were missing their friends and the social fabric of their school communities. During the pandemic, most children in Canada were isolated at home or confined to cohorts during the school day, often separated from friends. Recess, lunch, extra-curricular sports were drastically reduced, if not cancelled altogether.
How quickly we were reminded that social connection, play, and overall well-being are critically important to a healthy childhood, and how quickly we were reminded that well-being is critically important to school engagement. Just as there have been concerns of pandemic-related “learning loss,” there has been, unequivocally, a “play loss.” As we start a fresh new school year, we argue that children will need an extended amount of school time to focus on reconnection, healing, and play. Supportive spaces at school will need to be carved out for this to happen.
Why social connection and play, and why now?
Schools have long been defined by standardization, academic competition, individualism, and conformity – so much so that play, social connection, and a sense of belonging may seem trivial and counterproductive to the purpose of learning.
But there is a sizable body of research to indicate otherwise. In a landmark new book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle (2019) consolidate over 700 recent research studies that link school-based play and social connection to increases in well-being and far better learning. Creativity, imagination, play, and social connection are foundational to well-being, and well-being is foundational to learning. It’s that simple. Yet the education system tends to be deeply entrenched in practices and routines that pay less attention to the social and emotional needs of children.
But we can change this. If the pandemic is to have a silver lining, it’s that it has highlighted the need to prioritize time and space for human connection. And this is particularly necessary in school, where attitudes and behaviour take root early and are continually reinforced. We have an opportunity now to change up the entrenched routines.
Let’s start now with something rather simple: provide more – and better – recess.
Why recess? And why now?
Recess is a social space. Remember how important recess was to your life, for better or for worse? Recess, from the perspective of students, is far more than a break from instruction, a time for fresh air, or a need to amass the required 60 minutes of daily physical activity. We have long known that positive school friendships provide students with a sense of connectedness that makes school meaningful and engaging. Indeed, we know that learning happens in relationships, and relationships are forged when students have an opportunity to connect with their peers during the school day, most often outside of instructional time. These connections happen during lunch, on the playground, and in other informal school spaces, with important benefits for health and learning.
Yet, we need to pay attention to these informal settings to ensure that they are supportive and inclusive, otherwise we run the risk of undermining the very benefits we hope to realize. Unfortunately, out of all of the developed nations, Canada has some of the highest rates of school-based social harm – and the majority of this harm has been found to take place during recess and lunch. Many schoolyards, particularly those in low-income areas, are barren and uninviting, covered by a soulless layer of asphalt; and in dense urban neighborhoods, schoolyards are further impeded by their small size. And for some children, particularly those in low-income and urban areas, recess may be the only chance for outdoor play and access to friends in their entire day. Our concern is that when these spaces go unsupported, we see higher rates of boredom, bullying, loneliness, and exclusion – factors that undermine children’s attempts at play and connection.
We can do better. It’s time to change this and use this time to prioritize well-being and ensure all children have the space in the school day to connect with others in activities that allow for meaningful, inclusive, and playful engagement. Far from detracting from learning, these opportunities can influence mood, well-being, school engagement, behaviour, learning, focus, attendance, and overall school climate.
More reasons to support play
Play and social connection mitigate stress. After nearly a year of social isolation, chaotic change, and uncertainty, students are undeniably experiencing stress. Stress makes it difficult for children to access the aspects of the brain that allow for thinking and reasoning. We now know that play activates the brain’s reward circuitry and releases endorphins – the chemicals that make us feel happy and calm.
Play, by definition, is something we do because we want to, not because we have to (Gray, 2013). This is important for children – particularly now – because it gives them a sense of control and predictability that allows them to feel safe and secure, mitigating the effects of anxiety and stress. Both laughter and physically active play trigger the release of oxytocin and serotonin, chemicals that relieve tension and buffer against further stress. Social play provides the emotionally sustaining qualities of happiness and support, which is precisely what children need to feel safe and secure.
Play makes children happy. Gasp – dare we consider this as a “metric” to measure school quality? Schools are far more than academic institutions. They are communities where children spend a considerable amount of their waking hours during highly significant developmental years. We know that when children feel included, connected, and accepted by their communities, they are more likely to develop a healthy, positive attitude toward themselves and others that influences their behaviour at school. When children feel calm, secure, and happy they are more likely to enjoy school, engage cooperatively and considerately toward their schoolmates, be committed to their schoolwork, and have higher expectations of success.
Children have a Right to Play. Because play is so fundamental to a healthy childhood, Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly of the United Nations, 1989) deems play and rest to be indispensable human rights: “the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” This responsibility to protect and promote this right includes schools. This right can be leveraged by ensuring the recess environment is inclusive, fully accessible, secure from the effects of social harm, and appropriate for all genders, ages, stages, and abilities (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013).
Children should love school. We all want our children to experience an ecosystem that supports curiosity, creativity, and connection. When this nightmare pandemic is over, let’s collectively find ways to give them opportunities to laugh and connect again, to have meaningful breaks in their day that allow them to heal from the relentless trauma. Let’s push hard for what William Doyle calls a new Golden Age of Play – and be sure schools are part of this conversation.
This article is a summary of a chapter from the Royal Society of Canada’s Report on COVID and Schools, in press, 2021.
Steps to better recess
As a start, we suggest all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, education leaders, parents – continuously advocate for schools to integrate more and better recess:
- Engage children in planning and organizing of recess time – especially older youth. Include discussions about activity preferences, inclusion, social harm, equipment management, and fair play. Be sure to set clear expectations and rules for health and safety.
- Ensure children have a continuum of options to choose from. Create leadership opportunities for older students – they can help maintain the equipment and emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion.
- Consider all the available indoor and outdoor spaces to provide a range of activity options and minimize crowding.
- Encourage principals to lengthen recess times and add recesses. Better yet, pressure the Ministry of Education in your province or territory to include this in the Education Act.
- Allow and encourage teachers to take their students outside during class time to engage in playful activities that are fun, enjoyable, and inclusive of all ages, stages, abilities, preferences, and needs.
- Encourage teachers and staff to avoid strict rules like “no running” and “no ball throwing” that can undermine the benefits of play and physical activity.
- Help schools in low-income neighborhoods raise money for schoolyard improvements – the disparity and inequity are remarkable and painfully unfair.
- And let’s not withhold recess as punishment for missed schoolwork, poor classroom behaviour, or any other reason. Instead, let’s ensure that all children are able to experience meaningful and playful engagement, free of social harm.
General Assembly of the United Nations, Convention on the rights of the child (1989) Treaty no. 27531. United Nations Treaty Series, 1577, pp. 3–178.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.
Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the children play: why more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford University Press.
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), 17 April 2013, CRC/C/GC/17. www.refworld.org/docid/51ef9bcc4.html