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The Importance of Play During COVID and Virtual Class

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Since the start of the new school year, some schools across the US have transitioned to in-person learning, but many are still fully virtual or hybrid. The challenges of virtual class are well-documented, but what often goes unmentioned is the importance of physical activity, social and emotional learning, and well… play! Student socialization and movement naturally happen when students are in person (like moving between classes, recess, and PE), but is more challenging when students are in virtual class. We know that students are getting less exercise while they are learning from home - so what can we do to ensure students are getting their physical and social needs met? To address this, educators are looking for creative ways to encourage active play and collaboration in virtual class.

The Power of Active Play

Even before the pandemic, physical activity for kids has dropped 50% in the last 40 years. In a publication called  Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the US Department of Health and Human Services states that K-12 students should have at least one hour of ‘moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity’ every day.

The benefits of physical activity are more than just physical. Studies show that moderate physical exercise has been found to reduce childhood depression and help children with managing their own behavior in and outside of the classroom. 

David Kober, a PreK - 4th grade PE teacher has embraced the challenge of getting his students physically active from home and is exploring new and creative ways to incorporate movement into virtual classes.

“My students only have PE once every 4 days so I constantly tell them how important it is to be physically active at home. Even if it is for a short time, they need to get up and move every day. And being physically active is important for physical, emotional, and social health,” said David Kober, a PE teacher from MO. David has been providing his students with a variety of activities from mindfulness yoga to Zumba dance parties

The reality is few kids are getting the activity they need. In a 2016 study, less than a quarter of kids were getting an hour a day. Even in classes dedicated to physical education, students may only get 10-20 minutes of vigorous activity. To help kids stay active, physical activity and movement needs to be included in different ways throughout the school day to ensure students are able to meet their daily goals. “Exercise also releases endorphins, which correlates to a happy child,” said Len Saunders, physical health educator, and author of “Keeping Kids Fit” and “Buddy and Bea.”

How to Incorporate Play and Physical Activity Throughout the School Day  

  1. Yoga or Zumba: One way to get kids up and moving during virtual class is yoga. Universally yoga is seen as a great way to practice mindfulness and to stay active. Yoga can be used as a ‘brain break’, giving kids a time to breath and relax in the school day.  It doesn’t even require any special equipment to do, kids can practice breathing exercises and stretching sitting in their chairs or simply standing up. Yoga Ed. is a great resource for teachers looking to add yoga into their virtual class, with lessons for students of all ages that focus on everything from communication and cooperation to energizing and focus.  This can also be a great resource for parents and families looking for fun and simple activities to keep kids moving during the winter months when getting outside can be challenging.
  2. Active Games: Kids are naturally great at playing and inventing games on the playground so it’s no surprise that games are a great way to encourage physical activity. Since many schools are still participating in virtual class, we talked with PE teachers to come up with a fitness challenge that would work for both in person and virtual class. We called it the Fall Fitness Challenge which incorporated coding with Unruly Splats and physical activity. For the challenge, students coded a stopwatch or timer in the Unruly coding app and recorded how many pushups or jumping jacks they could do in 30 seconds. They did this every week for three weeks and the school with the highest score won! Of course, you don’t need to have Splats to encourage movement through active games - there are plenty of resources for active games you can use with items around your home.

In this video, Kevin Terry, a PE teacher is recording his students doing burpees for the Fall Fitness Challenge! 

These sorts of activities not only get kids to move around and play, but they are also great SEL tools for teachers to implement during distance learning. Research has shown that playing is an essential part of the school day and can have huge benefits on a student’s ability to learn. Play not only encourages exploration and engagement with others but can also help children to cope emotionally during traumatic times. By including a variety of games and activities, students have the opportunity to practice their different Social-Emotional Learning skills while being able to play and explore new and exciting SEL games with their classmates

How Play Can Help Students Social Emotional Learning

Social-Emotional Learning helps kids learn how to manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, and create strong relationships.  It is the most fundamental set of skills children are taught, the foundation for their ability to acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in school and later in life.  Effective SEL games and practices help ensure students connect emotionally with their peers and encourages them to reflect on their own feelings.  SEL has gained popularity as a ‘Whole Child’ approach to help kids cope through these stressful times, and strengthen relationships both in and outside of the classroom.  

'Whole Child' Approach
'Whole Child' Approach

This pandemic has not been kind on the mental and physical health of children and incorporating SEL games into lessons can help ensure students have the tools to help. During a normal school day, organic play is a great way for students to practice their SEL skills, but in distance and virtual class, organic play is much harder to come by. For classrooms who already use Unruly Splats, be they virtual or in person, they can be a great way to encourage students to collaborate on inventing their own active games. 

In person and virtual class during COVID can be tough and overwhelming at times. By providing kids time to play, whether that be in a recess setting or as part of an activity during a lesson, it is just a small way you are helping students learn better and focus more on what they are learning.

Unruly Studios makers of Unruly Splats, programmable, stompable floor tiles that help kids learn fundamental coding skills through recess-style play. Best for elementary and middle school students from PE to science or coding class, a great addition to the classroom for active STEM coding and play!

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