Let the Children Play!

During the recent Kindergarten-3rd grade family education and gathering events, we discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected children’s social and emotional growth.

It should be no surprise that children everywhere are behind in their social and emotional development. Most children spent the five months from March 2020 until August 2020 isolated in their family groups. Whether in preschool, elementary, or middle school, kids didn’t get nearly as much time engaging in social interactions with peers as they usually would. Although Gateway School was able to return to On-Campus instruction last year, students were required to be physically distanced in the classroom and on the playground changing the types of play and learning experiences they had. Wearing masks for the past 18 months meant less opportunity to learn how to read facial expressions, communicate with facial signals, understand vocal nuance, etc.

To borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s Ten Thousand Hour Rule, kids simply don’t have the time they need to learn to master the complex skills of relationship building, peer negotiation, shared imagination, and collaborative play that lead to social and emotional maturity. With tweens and teens, this is showing up as anxiety, depression, and mental health issues; with younger students, it comes in the form of struggles to resolve conflict, lower-than-usual fortitude, and general feelings of being isolated and misunderstood.

Gateway’s culture explicitly values and teaches strategies for mental health and wellness. From mindfulness practices to the Mood Meter, children are given tools for self-awareness and self-regulation and taught to be responsible for their feelings. We know that when students understand their own emotions, they are better able to use strategies to help them solve personal and interpersonal problems more efficiently – which in turn leads to positive mental health outcomes.

If you are wondering how to support your child’s social and emotional development, I offer this key concept: more unstructured play. As Fred Roger’s once epically said, “Play is the work of children” — they need time to explore, create, and satisfy their innate curiosity. Play gives children a laboratory to practice social-emotional skills such as sharing, negotiating, decision making, collaboration, inclusivity, and other friendship skills. Loose games of soccer, four square, and field games help students develop their conflict resolution skills as they navigate the rules and as problems come up. And the physical health benefits of play also translate into academic areas, from the improved clarity and focus to the upper body and core strength needed for handwriting, typing, and mental stamina.

Play, creativity, and innovation are part of our school’s nine core values, as research shows all are integral to learning. If you care to discover more about the power of play, I recommend the following books:

The Book of Joy, by HH the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

Cheers to having your child turn off their device and head outside for some good old-fashioned play! And feel free to join in and rediscover your inner child.


Dr. Zachary Roberts, Head of School