The first day of school is ... a play day

The first day of school is ... a play day

This year’s first day of school will not look like any other.

A collective eye roll just ensued from anyone working in the school system. Please keep this thought in mind as I strongly suggest to all administrators that they make the first day of school a play day.

Rifle through your Rolodex memory files to think back for one of your own first day of school memories. For me, it was always filled with anxiety, mingled excitement and anticipation. Will the group of friends that I haven’t seen all summer — those two long months — still want to be friends? Will it be a happy joyous reunion, or will the mean-girls cliques start on the first day?

The feelings we had for our first day will pale by comparison to what children will face this September. Many of them have not seen their school mates for six months! That is a large percentage of time in some children’s lives. Their daily encounters have varied from, experiencing great loss or isolation, to being enveloped in their parent’s support and warmth of their familial blanket. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution on how to handle the tangle of social and emotional challenges, but there is one common option that lends itself to a multi-prong resolution — play.

Play has the superhero power to help children learn social skills, deliver the prospect of trying something “risky” and experience the thrill of accomplishment; and when you become lost in the pure joy of play itself, you find healing. While children learn empathy, compromise and sharing at home, play allows them to practice these skills with friends.

During play, children are able to act out feelings they may not understand or are able to articulate. If we are to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once our basic needs of food and shelter are met, the next two strands (psychological and self-fulfilment needs) can start to be cultivated through play. Dr. Stuart Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play, shares with us his definition of play. Play is purposeless, all-consuming, and fun. But as Brown illustrates, play is anything but trivial or a waste of time. Our biological drive for play is housed in the ancient regions of our brain and is as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition. Play is essential to developing social skills and adult problem-solving skills. Brown considers play the brain’s best form of exercise and suggests that evolution has preserved play for a greater purpose than just fun.

What will this first day of school play day look like? A successful back to school launch ought to be considered from the child’s perspective rather than from an adult’s, especially in this COVID-19 time.

This will be unlike any play day a school has experienced. The whole school will not run amok, children will not be on the playground congregated together and proper COVID hygiene protocols will be adhered to, but it will still be a play day!

What if the day included a variety of fun, noncompetitive challenges that would be played both indoors and out all with the purpose of getting reacquainted with friends and teacher? While most activities would be structured, there would also be some time for a child’s choice of play; quiet reading, talking with a friend or maybe drawing a picture. What a welcoming way for children to be embraced back to an institution that nurtures and fosters their social, emotional, physical and academic well-being.

While the children are playing, teachers would have the opportunity to observe how the children engage with each other, who may be withdrawing and who require additional support. Children are resilient as long as they are supported by caring adults who address all of their needs, not just ones that consider academic test scores.

No, this new school year will not compare to any others from our past. However, as we have done since March 2020, we will forge on with open minds and empathic hearts because we are all in this together.