While the benefits of play are well known, not all children in the Rochester City School District have access to it as part of their education, says the new PlayROCs report.
The analysis takes aim at improving policies, practices and environments that encourage equitable and culturally responsive playful learning in the school district. The report, released this week, is a collaborative effort of the Healthi Kids Coalition, a Common Ground Health initiative; parent and youth leaders; and organizations including the Strong National Museum of Play and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.
“RCSD parents and students are clear: play is vital to children’s education, social and life skills,” says Jenn Beideman, director of whole child health advocacy at Healthi Kids. “Unfortunately, not all children have access to the equitable opportunities for playful learning in the RCSD.”
After isolation mandates during the height of the pandemic, play has become even more important to a child’s growth. Fifty-two percent of families and students surveyed said that recess is their No.1 priority for playful learning.
However, at RSCD, the barriers identified by families, students and community partners include a lack of administrative prioritization for play. Parents are frustrated, the report states, that play is not a priority in the school schedule or in the curriculum. Even when policies are changed, they aren’t properly enforced.
Play is a privilege, separate from learning. Children and parents, according to the report, would like to see play as an essential form of learning and part of a well-rounded education.
Access to play is determined by a teacher or a school. Some schools have the resources they need, while others have none. A teacher’s role is unclear—most are bound to their school’s curriculum, which stresses teaching. Many RCSD parents believe teachers either do not want to or do not know how to use play to teach or engage with students. They are frustrated with the emphasis on teaching.
The lack of implementation of policies and standards is yet another barrier. While the NYS Next Generation standards and RCSD wellness policy provide a framework for supporting playful learning in the district, families are concerned about inconsistent application at schools.
“After months spent learning online and socially isolated, many of our kids are struggling,” says Evette Colón, a local play advocate, Healthi Kids Coalition member, and founder of the Treyer Street Children’s Garden. “Kids need to have safe places to play throughout their day.”
The PlayROCs report calls play a racial healthy equity issue in Rochester. Understanding challenges families face—many Black and Latino communities live in poverty—and how their children and others with challenges play is vital to solutions in the future.
The report identifies opportunities for structured play, embedded in curriculum and instruction like gym and experiential learning and field trips. Unstructured play time during recess and breaks and out-of-school time are some other suggestions. Data collected for the report indicate that families want opportunities for their children to have both structured and unstructured playful learning experiences. While recess scored the highest, families also indicated brain breaks (36 percent), school clubs (22 percent), and after-school programs (11 percent) were important to them.
A mechanism to support unstructured play in the classroom, the report notes, is a local wellness policy. Since 2008, the RCSD has mandated 20 minutes of daily recess in K-6 classrooms through this policy. Five years ago, the district decided that recess could not be taken away as a form of punishment.
While there has been progress, recess-assessment data compiled by Healthi Kids and the Children’s Institute in 2013-2015 found RCSD schools continue to struggle with policy implementation. Less than half of participating schools have a requirement for recess minutes, training for recess supervisors, or regular recess facilities and equipment maintenance, the PlayROCs report surmises. Families and students consistently share stories of recess not occurring in school buildings and of recess being taken away as punishment.
The report makes recommendations to alleviate the issue. In addition to considering how other communities have come together to make play a priority, the authors suggest advocating for playful learning, inviting the community to sign the group’s “Rescue Recess” pledge. They encourage parent and student leaders to attend school board and Parent Teacher Association meetings to call for change. Educating peers, teachers, principals and community members about the importance of play is yet another way. Finally, partnering with organizations to develop play-oriented programs could bring additional resources to bear.
“I find that playful learning is more important now than ever,” says Sharon Peck, parent advocate and member of the Healthi Kids Coalition. “Following the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a major lack in opportunities to interact socially and to connect to others, which is imperative to improving our children’s social skills and their future success. Yet, infusing play into the classroom creates spaces for children to connect, to learn how to interact, to laugh while they learn to ensure that they enjoy learning.”