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The Return of Play

Our school recently cut the ribbon on a brand-new playground. It was one of the more joyful occasions of the entire year. The kids anticipated it the way they anticipate birthdays and Christmas, which may seem a little absurd at first, until you realize they’ve been kept inside all year.

Of the many injustices I’ve witnessed in just three short years in one of the country’s poorest communities, it’s the playgrounds that somehow hit me hardest. They seem the perfect symbol of the contrast between the haves and have-nots. And while I’ve made my peace for the most part that American society is built on this inequality, it doesn’t seem right that kids should be subjected to such a system of inequity. Having a chance to play is a vital part of childhood, if not the defining part of childhood.

Sadly, the students at my former school had access to this integral part of childhood only half the year (weather permitting). The students at my new school have had no playground all year, because the yard was under construction. In the end, for their sacrifice, they were rewarded with a beautiful new playground, but I can’t help but wonder, would schools on the Upper West Side or Upper East Side permit their kids to languish in the auditorium for months on end? No, I imagine accommodations would be made.

In any case, that’s not necessary for my students anymore, and watching them while I eat my lunch on the park benches has been informative. In some ways the experience of playing seems strange and unfamiliar to them. I can tell that some of them are almost at a loss at what to do. They run around aimlessly, on the verge of some version of tag that never seems to manifest. Looking out at the yard after school, when unsupervised the kids mostly just wrestle and fight.

I worry that the kids may be losing some of the most positive, socializing effects of play because they haven’t developed the skills and habits of cooperative and imaginative play. Even so, any play is better than none, and I’m happy it is now a regular part of my students’ school day.

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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