School Awakenings

Editor’s note – this is a lightly edited version of a post that was originally published in PlayGroundology, a blog founded by IPA Canada board member, Alex Smith. We are always interested in hearing great stories about play. If you have an idea you would like to share with us, please drop us a line here.

Recent history tells us that on Monday mornings somewhere in the world kids are returning to school for the first time in weeks, or months. As the day gets underway, parents, students and teachers are trying to chart their way through a maelstrom of colliding emotions – excitement, anticipation, uncertainty and anxiety.

Martin Rowson – The Guardian

This week, England and British Columbia are among those testing the waters. South Africa reversed its decision on a scheduled opening. In the UK, there had been some thought that it would be a four nation milestone but neither Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland were keen to sign on. Numerous local education authorities in England have also decided to disregard the June date and are keeping schools closed. Results of an opinion poll published May 24 in The Guardian show only 50% of parents supported a June 1 resumption of classes.

As of May 25, UNESCO estimates that a staggering 1.2 billion learners worldwide continue to be out of school due to closures that are part of the public health and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overarching lock down and shelter-in-place directives of varying severity have contributed to a massive, months long disruption of children’s daily lives on a scale rarely experienced.

The impacts of closures go well beyond the realms of education and teaching time. Immunization programs, hosted by schools in some jurisdictions, are currently being interrupted. In lower and middle income countries this may have devastating consequences. Higher income countries could also find themselves at risk and are preparing for continuity as per Canada’s plan.

Schools also play an important role in alleviating food insecurity. Breakfast and lunch programs promote healthy foods and nutritional meals. In lower and middle income countries these school food programs are critical to students’ well-being. Research indicates that universal programs can result in significant, long term health and economic benefits. In some communities, such as Calgary, programs have been maintained throughout the pandemic and kids continue to benefit from healthy meals. However, this is not the case for many children.

On an education note, online/distance/emergency/home learning is meeting with mixed results for both parents and kids. At the primary level when it’s working reasonably well, internet-based instruction is helping kids to keep sharp in key foundational areas like numeracy and literacy. However, not all children have access to the internet, or a computer. For them, keeping academically fresh is an uphill struggle.

But the school ethos is not exclusively about academics and curriculum, certainly not from the vantage point of the kids themselves. They miss the social setting, a gathering and growing place for peers, and perhaps most tellingly they long for the friendships that help define who they are and engender a sense of belonging. This absence of presence, the seemingly endless being apart, evokes loss and sorrow as represented by our youngest daughter’s stripped down, open-ended refrain.

I just want to know
when will I ever get to play tag with my friends again?

 

In Sweden, kids have been playing with their friends all the while as schools were never shuttered. There have been some exceptions to this with localized closures for individual schools that experienced outbreaks. A lack of COVID-19 data collection from these schools is being decried by some in the scientific community as a missed window to better understanding how the virus impacts children and what role they may have in transmission. Overall the Swedish government approach to the pandemic has eschewed lock downs and other restrictions counting on citizens to do the right thing.

In mid-April, Danish kids are the first to break out of lock down as school bells signal the resumption of classes. Hygiene and distancing considerations are paramount as are creative solutions to space shortages (video).

Two key documents published by WHO and UNICEF – Considerations for school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19 and Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools – are assisting administrators, teachers, parents, caregivers and students with the transition back to school.

Full or partial openings in other countries and jurisdictions followed the Danish lead. It’s not the same old, same old as these photos from around the world capture a noticeably different look and feel. Kids in Australia, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Quebec, Taiwan, Vietnam and other venues are well on the way to developing routines that embrace a new normal. The most significant setback occurred last week in South Korea where more than 250 schools were closed.

As more children return to classrooms, governments need to broadly share best practices developed within their own jurisdictions. First and foremost, there must be an underlying commitment to follow the science. Also critical are key tools to build and maintain trust such as public engagement and outreach to parents. At a minimum, detailed plans – like this one from a British Columbia school district – documenting the return process should be made available to parents in advance of openings.

Consensus is coalescing around three priority areas that have the ability to give returning students a boost. PLAY, OUTDOOR LEARNING and RECESS are relatable for kids as they shift from home isolation to a rediscovery of peers in a school-based community. In the lead up to UK school openings, discussion around these themes has been very much in evidence.

Dr. Helen Dodd is a Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading. She is a charter member with other mental health experts of a newly formed ad hoc group, Play First UK which seeks to give greater voice to the needs and aspirations of children during the pandemic. We had an opportunity to speak last month.

Play First UK recommends that kids should be allowed to play with their peers as soon as possible as lock downs are loosened. These peer relationships are voluntary, equal and require negotiation and compromise. Research and observation show that play with peers allows children to learn to regulate their emotions, develop social skills and form a sense of identity. When this is not possible over extended periods kids can get lonely and feel socially isolated.

We’re anticipating a huge increase for child psychology services when we come out of this lock down period.

 

To offer kids a softer landing during school return transitions, Play First UK is advocating for more play. They have sent a series of recommendations to governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children.

  • The easing of lock down restrictions should be done in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school, and even while social distancing measures remain in place.
  • Schools should be appropriately resourced and given clear guidance on how to support children’s emotional wellbeing during the transition period as schools reopen. Play should be a priority during this time, rather than academic progress.
  • Public health communications must recognise that many parents and teachers are anxious about their child’s academic progress and the risk posed to children in easing lockdown restrictions. The social and emotional benefits of play and interaction with peers must be clearly communicated, alongside guidance on the objective risks to children.

Click through for full recommendations and letter.

From Dr. Dodd’s perspective, we could all do with an empathy top up and remember that we’re in uncharted territory.

“The kids will have to settle emotionally before we can really engage in teaching them. We’re not saying to play all the time but to go easy on them – a bit more time with their peers, a bit more outdoor play and some more outdoor learning, a bit more physically active for a while and why not? All of this is good for kids anyway and will be positive experiences for most children.”

Outdoor learning is generating some good conversation in the UK and is being put into practice in Scandinavia and other European countries. The UK, Scotland in particular, is developing some expertise in this area.

Juliet Roberston is a former Head Teacher in three different schools located in northern Scotland. She left the education system about a decade ago to dig more deeply into outdoor learning and play and is in demand by a number of local authorities and schools. You can find her @CreativeStar on Twitter. She is the author of Messy Maths – A Playful Outdoor Approach to Early Years. We spoke in May.

Think of the outdoors as additional rooms and
just like an indoor class develop routines around the space.

 

Robertson is among a group of practitioners who believe outdoor learning could play an important element in helping to maintain physical distancing. She also notes that just by being outside the probability of transmission is reduced. There are also mental health benefits associated with being outdoors that are present at any time but may prove helpful in a school re-entry transition.

Even though outdoor learning in Scotland has been a part of the curriculum since 2004, Robertson realizes there will still need to be reassurances for teaching staff.  Fortunately, there is good infrastructure in place. Numerous resources and organizations focus on preparing teachers and leaders for outdoor learning. Keep your eyes open as good workshops are available like one I attended online a couple of weeks ago – Learning to Return Outdoors – Use of school grounds for curricular learning as schools tackle Covid-19 provided by Learning Through Landscapes.

Then there is recess, the only block of time in the school day to have garnered its own cartoon show. Definitely a favourite in our house no matter what time of year we poll the three kids. Now the Global Recess Alliance, “a newly formed group of scholars, health professionals, and education leaders, argues that attention to recess during school reopening is essential.”

The Alliance’s Statement on Recess has great practical advice that touches on rethinking school recess policies, safe recess practices and supporting a safe and healthy recess.

I particularly liked this safe recess practice –

“Recognize the importance of physically active play and consider a risk-benefit approach; strict rules like ‘no running’ and ‘no ball throwing can undermine the benefits of play and physical activity.”

As schools reopen, we can see it as an opportunity to request more time for play, more time in the outdoors and a don’t mess with recess policy. From the top of this hill, the grass sure is looking greener on the other side

End note – our kids don’t return to school until September. They were disappointed when they got the news. We were not. That’s because we work from home and we’re not adverse to a little more close-knit time together. We are very grateful for this and recognize that not everyone has the same flexibility. With the additional time, we are hoping that our kids’ schools will be able to better prepare for openings and benefit from best practices pioneered in other jurisdictions.

A heartfelt thanks to our kids’ teachers. They pulled the pieces together to enable the online learning experience to work for the students. They were there for the kids, connected with them and encouraged them to do their best.

A couple of weeks ago we ‘bubbled’ with our next door neighbours. They have one young lad. It was a wonderful boost to bring the two households together and see the incredible play impact it had and continues to have on what is now a merry band of four. We are hopefully anticipating the continued easing of restrictions.

There is a lot of great work underway as we live though these extreme times. These are just a few representative samples:

Covid-19 and children: what does the science tell us, and what does this mean as the lock down is eased? – Tim Gill – Rethinking Childhood

Reopening schools – how do we decide what’s best? – Simon Weedy – Child in the City

Academics highlight children’s need for street play during lockdown – Policy for Play

Learning to Return Outdoors – learning outdoors as schools return – Learning Through Landscapes

A Helping Hand for Kids During COVID-19 – Tips and Resources

By now, many of us, including children, are finding it challenging to keep ourselves mentally healthy. We may be feeling overwhelmed, angry, tired, bored, and just grumpy with COVID life.

For children, play is even more critical as a tool for supporting their mental, emotional, and physical development during this pandemic. Play is a necessary part of childhood and influences every part of a child’s development and well-being: social relationships, emotional expression and release, movement and energy expenditure, creativity and imagination, and discovery and learning. Play is an age-appropriate and safe outlet for children to express feelings and experiences, understand their world, adapt to changes and build upon the relationships they have with their primary caregivers.

The importance of play, especially outdoors, should not be overlooked. It is an important bridge that re-establishes children’s connection to the natural world and the affordances that it gives them.

Play Tips

Include play in the outdoors. Outdoor play and interaction with the natural world has many benefits to children’s mental health, physical health, and overall well-being. Play in the outdoors may look different now, but it is possible to include outdoor play in small ways by: playing in the backyard, taking walks in your neighbourhood, collecting natural materials on your walk, or watching birds in your yard or neighbourhood.

Keep the connection with the natural world. For those who have no access to the outdoors, continue to establish a connection by reading books about nature, checking out local park websites for updates, pictures and videos, listening or looking for birds from your home, or taking care of indoor plants.

Provide opportunities for a variety of toys. This will allow your child to explore different mediums and different ways of playing. For example, toys and materials that promote pretend play (dolls, swords, animal miniatures, dress up, medical kits, etc.) or materials that promote regulated states (natural materials, sensory activities, journaling or art work, clay or Play Dough).

Provide open-ended materials. Loose parts are a great way to provide your children the opportunity to explore their feelings and experiences or to support them with their boredom. You can find loose parts around your house: sticks, wooden spoons or ladles, bowls, fabric, sheets, etc.

Follow your child’s lead. Many caregivers feel the need to structure their day with play-times, or structured play activities. You may consider asking yourself, “what is my child interested in today?” and going from there. Set up your home environment to include different play activities, toys, or materials, but also provide your child with opportunities for self-directed play. It is self-directed play in which children are free to express feelings and experiences.

Become playful with them. Remember one of the most important play items is YOU! A child’s attachment with their caregiver is important during times of change and stress. Be playful, and engage in play with them throughout the day. Don’t worry about not knowing “how to play” – they will show you the way!  Paul Ramchandani, the UK’s first Professor of Lego Play at the University of Cambridge, shares his take on this approach in The Guardian.

Play Resources

In the spirit of playfulness we are sharing some resources that have caught our attention from points around the globe in the hope that they will be of benefit to readers and the children they love and care for.

IPA World
IPA Play in Crisis: support for parents and carers was released earlier this month by our colleagues at IPA World. The collection provides information and ideas to support children’s play and includes topics such as the importance of playing in times of crisis and how to respond to children’s play needs. Issues specific to the pandemic that may concern parents are also addressed like children playing with difficult themes of loss, death and loneliness.

Individual themes from the resource can be explored here. The entire collection can be downloaded here.

East Lothian Play Association (ELPA) – Scotland
The ELPA team have been bringing fun and games to homes through their daily Play at Home Challenge. There are now over 30 challenges available on their Twitter account @EastLothianPlay and by searching the #ELPAplayathomechallenge hashtag. Sample challenges include: setting up a mud kitchen; potion making; things you can make with an egg carton; and, shadow drawing. There is a growing and varied selection of ideas and activities to inspire playful moments as ELPA continues its daily challenge.

Active for Life – Canada
Active for Life, a national proponent of physical literacy, is offering a variety of fun, physical activities to keep kids and adults moving. Parents and kids alike will be able to enjoy 42 easy activities to keep kids busy while parents work at home. The selection includes both indoor and independent outdoor activities. Many of the activities will be familiar but there are sure to be some that are new, or long forgotten that can help the kids get their play on. Penguin run anyone?

Scouts – United Kingdom
The Scouts in the UK have pulled together some fun indoor activity ideas to help keep kids entertained and engaged. There are over 200 ideas to choose from. Some of the activities were originally designed for face-to-face group meetings and may need to be recast to fit with today’s social distancing guidelines. Start exploring The Great Indoors here.

Studio Ludo – USA
Studio Ludo is an American non-profit whose mission is “building better play through research, design and advocacy”. The Studio Ludo team has posted play resources online here. In addition, they are distributing Play Packs to combat social isolation resulting from COVID-19 to families throughout Philadelphia where Studio Ludo is based.

Play Wales – Wales
Play Wales has a broad range of resources they make available to the public. In late March they published Playing actively in and around the home, a short and helpful digital pamphlet that provides guidelines and play ideas for parents. Brush up on balloon tennis, daytime disco and other activities here.

With a little help from friends at home and abroad together we can contribute to ensuring that the needs of kids are being met, including their need and their right to play. We would be pleased to hear from individuals and organizations who have play-related stories to share related to the pandemic. Drop us a note through our contact page.

Statement: Play in the time of COVID-19

Play is a fundamental necessity for children. We know from research and practice that play nurtures a child’s physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual development. During times of crisis, children benefit from play as a means to explore their emotions as well as to make sense of and cope with environmental anxiety. Through this process they develop resilience and build self-confidence which will help them navigate life’s challenges.

This spring Canadians are escalating the fight against a significant global challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. When we listen to our public health authorities and governments we make our neighbourhoods safer and become part of the solution. This reduces risk to ourselves, our children, loved ones and the broader community.

Our focus on defeating the virus means some typical play enablers are no longer available. For example, numerous provinces explicitly recommend against play dates and sleepovers. Some municipalities across the country are closing playgrounds and indoor playspaces temporarily. Parks are being closed by the federal government as well as some provinces and municipalities. We encourage you to consult official online statements from your provincial and local health authorities for up to date recommendations in your area.

Keep informed of the latest guidelines via your local health authority

When we add social distancing, limited numbers at public gatherings and self-isolation to the mix of recommendations, it’s clear that it’s no longer business as usual for play. With extended school closures and many parents teleworking or on a work hiatus we are experiencing huge shifts in our daily lives. Play needs to be a part of that shift.

Play is not just a renewable source of fun – it helps kids make sense of the world around them particularly in times of uncertainty. Its impact is so significant that the ‘right to play’ is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At IPA, each of us is doing her/his best to play and support play on a daily basis as well as to be alert and open to playful opportunities. We invite you to do the same and share your best play ideas and adventures within your networks.

We have a bias to outdoor play at IPA Canada but we know that the outdoor focus may not be possible for some with the measures in place to combat COVID-19. Play is great wherever it takes place! For some good ideas and play options, please read this post by UK play advocates and friends, Tim Gill and Penny Wilson – Play in the time of coronavirus (over 1,300 shares on Facebook).

Thank you to all Canadians involved in the fight against COVID-19! Together our collective actions are making the difference in our communities.

For a pdf of this IPA Canada Statement click here.

Media inquiries – ipac@ipacanada.org

Welcome to our Sandbox

Dufferin Grove Sandpit, Toronto, Canada

Welcome to our new sandbox. It’s a place to get news about IPA Canada’s comings and goings as well as exciting play-related developments from communities across the country. We’ll share insights from leading advocates as well as emerging experts and make available resources that contribute to a better understanding of play.

Kids set the fun bar pretty high when they zone into independent play and that’s what we’re reaching for here. IPA Canada is also sharing stories and curating on Twitter and will soon be adding other social channels.

We are always interested in hearing from friends old and new. If there is an idea, a story, or a development that you think we should be sharing, please get in touch with us through the Contact page.

Our homepage header image and the photos illustrating this post are from Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. Community-led and managed, the sandpit has been a destination playspace for residents and visitors for over 20 years. Find out more about the Dufferin Grove experience at Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS).