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For Partnership Students, Play Is Serious Business This Summer

Most of us who remember playing dodge ball during indoor recess probably fall into one of two camps: those who loved the quick triumph of launching a red rubber ball missile and hearing it thwack against a classmate/target, and those of us who resigned ourselves to getting beaned quickly and sitting out much of the time, rubbing our welts and, if we were lucky, commiserating with a friend.

Recess and play have come a long way from that stark mix of triumph and mortification—at least in those schools where Playworks has something to say about it. That’s why, as the Partnership Schools team were planning what summer school looks like in this crucial year, we partnered with them to help carry out a vision of the kind of play that all students richly deserve.

Some students have been physically absent from school for almost eighteen months, and for those who have attended in person, interactions often haven’t been the same, given health protocols and absent classmates. So helping students catch up on social-emotional skills along with math and reading is a priority this summer.

Yet deeply learning social and emotional skills—and the values by which we aim to have students conduct their social and emotional lives—is more likely to occur when students cultivate those skills by interacting constructively, not from explicit instruction. Simply put, we learn by doing—particularly those skills that involve interacting with others.

That’s where play comes in. As Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explains, “games are the power strategy for culturally-grounded learning because they get the brain’s attention and require active processing.”

Plus, as Coach Stefan Poaches says, “kids need a release.” Like Coach Stef, who is a seasoned educator at Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, we know that play belongs front and center in any serious plan to address COVID’s impact on kids this summer.

Yet as many of us might remember from our own school days, recess and other times of play come with their own challenges for kids—and for the adults who supervise them. Recess can be fun, but it can also be “a high stakes time with injuries and conflicts,” says Nehemie Villarceau, Talent and Academic Manager for the Partnership.

Two goals, then, sit side-by-side with fun in our approach to play at Partnership summer school: first, to ensure that physical play is “collaborative without seeming structured,” as Nehemie explains; and second, to ensure that it supports learning, both by giving students the physical activity crucial for thinking and brain development and by providing them opportunities to learn social and emotional skills from their play.

A national non-profit, Playworks helps educators and kids develop the skills to ensure everyone on the playground that, as Coach Stef says, “we can have a good time here, and you’re safe here,” both physically and emotionally. Coach Stef and Andre Stancil serve as program coordinators for Playworks at Partnership’s two summer school campuses in New York.

They and other members of the Partnership summer school staff, including teaching assistants, were trained by Playworks. Training in how to play, by the way, looks exactly as fun as that sounds:

There is a great deal of serious thought, though, that goes into the fun Playworks facilitates in over 7,000 schools nationwide. Playworks structures games and recess so that kids have autonomy and options, and so that accessibility is woven into play. As Coach Stef explains, the old P.E. and recess standard of dodgeball provides a classic example of a game that develops the physical agility of a few at the expense of the many. So Playworks has developed fireball, where players roll the balls. In this game and others from Playworks, “nobody wants to bring you down,” Coach Stef explains.

Keeping all participants involved is paramount in Playworks’ games. Students who might lose a round in a game, then, immediately have designated roles to play. If students choose to do a Roshambo tournament, for instance (that’s rock-paper-scissors to some of us), students who lose switch to cheering on the person who won and combining forces with a growing band of vocal cheerleaders as the field of players narrows.

Games that kids learn and then have the option to lead with their classmates also reinforce weekly themes, like self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. Coach Stef adds that in the Catholic school context, he can readily infuse these themes with the language of our core values and faith, language which is often more familiar to returning students.

Coach Stefan Poaches.

Taken together, the physical activity, quick thinking, social skills and values students are honing embody “the ancient idea of cultivating the mind, body and spirit,” Coach Stef explains. Given that Abi Akano, his principal, notes that Coach Stef is “all in on school culture” and is as popular as he is tough on students and his volleyball team, it doesn’t surprise us that he sees a holistic, purposeful picture when some passing by on the sidewalk might just see kids screaming in joy and playing tag.

“Kids are so technology-driven,” Nehemie reflects, “that we really need to provide them a chance to have fun in a different way, to play old-school games.” Partners like Playworks and Coach Stef are helping Partnership students do just that this summer—with a new twist.