With schools closed for another two months in Massachusetts, parents are feeling the strain: about lost income, childcare and learning time, messy homes and unmet needs.
No amount of expert advice could relieve all that (very real) stress. But it might help to know there have always been ways to learn outside of classrooms. And a growing body of research suggests that play is uniquely well-suited to building certain strengths.
And some parents are finding that — after a lot of anguish — some of the playful adjustments outlined below are helping families get through and even thrive.
1. Give yourself a break.
For parents who feel overworked and under-supported, suggesting a pivot to play could seem naïve, even insulting.
Melissa Winchell does not want to overlook that fact: “There is drudgery in the day — just these repetitive, boring tasks.” For Winchell, that means cleaning up accidents, coping with outbursts and preparing medications — all on behalf of her ten-year-old daughter, Moriah.
Both Winchell and her husband Jason are trained educators. But Moriah has a host of complex diagnoses that still make time at home difficult: from Down Syndrome and autism to oppositional-defiant disorder.
Winchell says she learned early that play was a “workaround” toward keeping Moriah calm — and learning. But it’s also helped the overall atmosphere at her home in West Bridgewater.
The family has a habit of playing card games at the dinner table — “because Moriah doesn’t stay in her seat otherwise,” Winchell laughs.
But after a particularly rough recent day, Winchell remembers, Moriah got silly mid-game: “She was cracking jokes about the cards. And I thought to myself — this is the first time all day I’ve laughed. Thank God for this!’”
Lynneth Solis, a researcher at the Pedagogy of Play project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that squares with one recent finding on play: that it can “reduce anxiety and stress” for both child and caregiver when both participate wholeheartedly.
2. Children do learn by playing — though we may not see it.
America is not exactly a world leader when it comes to play. There’s evidence that the amount of time American children spend in unstructured play — especially outdoors — has shrunk considerably. So we might learn from Denmark, where, according to Bo Sternje Thomsen, “it’s totally accepted that children explore and try out things” as they see fit.
Thomsen is the chair of learning through play at the LEGO Foundation in Denmark. He says research suggests that play has some discrete academic upsides. For example, physical play can support understanding of numeracy and causality, while role-play builds capacity with language and symbols.
Winchell and her husband have seen it work. They start with one of Moriah’s learning goals. “I throw out the worksheet,” Winchell says, and looks for a playful alternative. For example, for ‘money sense,’ they set up a little storefront indoors — attaching homemade price tags to items, while Jason works a toy cash register.
But Thomsen says play can also help in less measurable ways. It can foster executive function, and teach skills seen as vital for a knowledge-based economy — like solving problems by unexpected means, developing self-sufficiency and “coping with uncertainty.”
For Thomsen, the global pandemic highlights the need for educational systems to embrace play — for now, remotely. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of creativity needed, now, to adapt the way we work,” he says.
3. Give your kids a bigger choice in things.
When Solis and Ben Mardell — another Pedagogy at Play researcher — describe the best playful learning environments, they have something pretty definite in mind.
Start with a learning goal. Then, instead of offering drills or sharing content, encourage experiments and imagination — always asking, “‘What if we tried this? What are the other possibilities?” Mardell says. Good play often has a storyline and a social aspect. And, maybe most importantly, children have agency throughout.
Solis adds another key element: risk-taking. If kids are trying something new, parents should have some skin in the game, too. “Letting children loose in the kitchen can be very scary for [parents],” Solis says — especially this cooped-up spring.
And yet Solis recommended taking those risks where possible, with the attitude: “Things might not work out, but then we’ll reevaluate — and try this again.” If risk and failure are inevitable in the best sorts of play, she says , so is adaptation — and a degree of grace.
4. Play may be risky. But it’s not chaos.
Mardell insists that his team would not encourage anarchy during the closure. In other words, do not “look at this as forty snow days: ‘do whatever you want!’”
Instead, he suggests that, like jazz musicians, families could understand playfulness as an improvisational attitude. “In the past, you’ve had some agreements about how you spend your days, what you do when you come home from school,” Mardell says. Now, “we have to remake those rules — together.”
For many families, daily needs — remote work, groceries, meals and chores — now loom larger than ever.
But Solis says there are simple ways to introduce play to your routines. Set a weekly schedule and give kids the power of the vote: if they get a TV break, when should it happen? Indoor exercise is a ‘must’ — but what form should it take? “And if there’s chores,” Solis added, “can they be chores where there’s a dance party involved?”
For parents of children in early grades — say, kindergarten through grade 3 — she recommended adding intervals of pure play, however brief, to any schedule. Those might take the form of impromptu challenges to balance a metal spoon on their fingertips to announcements that, for the next ten minutes, “the floor is lava.”
5. You’re not alone.
Ellen Pack is president of Common Sense, a nonprofit that hopes to help families through the many media choices of the technological age.
In mid-March, Common Sense and dozens of partners put together “Wide Open School,” a space to share content and activities, online and off. The activities were chosen for their ability to support children’s development, and are tailored roughly by age group.
The site’s core premise, Pack says, is that “the most important thing is emotional wellbeing — ‘are the kids O.K.?’”
And so far, Pack says, parents have been most grateful for the site’s daily schedules, dynamic, day-by-day menus of activities. Some are straightforwardly academic: recommended shows, games and e-books. But others are not.
“One of the biggest challenges families are facing is how to keep kids moving,” Pack says. So while preschoolers are “assigned” to dance along with a man in a moose suit, middle schoolers are introduced to CrossFit and the burpee.
In putting together Wide Open School, Pack says, Common Sense mainly played its longtime “curatorial” role — steering families through online’s great variety, with the promise being, “you’d be able to come… and find the highest-quality resources.”
She doesn’t anticipate that parents will do every exercise on the schedule, but she hopes they feel relieved to have some template to shape to their long days. “The philosophy is, you know your child best,” Pack says.
6. Screen time can be time well spent.
For many American kids, play now takes a particular form: holding a phone, tablet or a controller in front of a TV. But while the world of video games might still carry some stigma, Thomsen warns against judging too quickly.
On the strength of some new studies by the LEGO Foundation, he recommends in particular games that are “broadening — where you’re creating things” or engaged in active collaboration. That would mean favoring Minecraft or Scratch, the programming language designed for children, over linear, repetitive games.
Thomsen says, “there’s a balance to everything.” Whether your child is lost in real-world construction play or their favorite game, the goal is not to let it go on more than two or three hours at a time.
Finally, Thomsen says, it may be “most important” for parents to stay engaged even when they’re turned off by their child’s favorite game. “A lot of [parents’] distrust of games is that they don’t really know what’s going on,” he says. To sit with a playing child and ask questions — “how does this work? what are you trying to do?” — can mean a lot.
7. Embrace the imperfection.
When Ben Mardell was raising his two children — now adults — in Cambridge, he remembers seeing thoughtful, dutiful parents grow frustrated and angry when confronted with shortcomings in schools or camps.
And he’s sympathetic: “For very understandable reasons, as parents, we try to get it exactly right.” But he also says certain kinds of parental perfectionism can color the way kids — and that “to learn, you have to make mistakes.”
Back in West Bridgewater, Winchell says that — despite her embrace of play in teaching Moriah — she’s naturally a “control freak”: “highly structured, highly organized — I really prize efficiency.”
It’s only after a decade with Moriah, and even more time with her older adoptive children, that the idea of an orderly, predictable life has come to seem to Winchell like a “mirage.”
And so she learned to see the wisdom in a playful view of her life as a mother. “As I’ve learned to accept life, my kids, my spouse,” Winchell says, “I feel a sense of freedom — from my own expectation, other people’s expectations… It’s allowed me to just enjoy her.”