The global pandemic has taken its toll on families and children. Children have not been able to engage in their normal routines, sit in a classroom with friends and teachers, visit extended family or participate in social activities without a mask. Most parents are more concerned about their children's emotional well-being than they were before the pandemic, a Pew Research Center survey in the fall found. And that situation may have grown more dire, as children have spent much of the school year online and maintaining social distance from other people.
Facing this year of loss, Democrats in Congress have framed the problem as primarily one of lower projected test scores, and their solution is to make kids in high-poverty schools spend the summer inside preparing for standardized tests. This is exactly the wrong approach to the sadness and loss of the covid era: This summer, children need to do self-initiated activities that are rewarding for their own sake. This will create happier children now and, as research has shown, lead to improved physical, cognitive, social, emotional and creative outcomes later in life.
At the end of 2020, Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, explained how he wanted to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic: "You can't just tell cash-strapped states and localities that they've got to cancel summer vacation. For the federal government, if we're going to suggest that, we've got to help pay for it."
So early this year, Scott introduced the Learning Recovery Act of 2021 to establish a grant program, and the bill could become law by mid-March. It would authorize $75 billion over the next two years to address learning loss in Title I schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students by funding school extension programs - including longer school days, an extended school year and summer school. It's a lot of money: Congress allocated about $16 billion for Title I schools in 2019.
The money has strings attached. The bill stipulates that state educational agencies shall support school districts "to effectively use data and evidence-based strategies to address learning recovery needs for students." To collect this data, a school district may administer "high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable to accurately assess students' academic progress." The bill also authorizes funding for the Institute of Education Sciences to study what interventions and strategies best address learning recovery, that is, raise test scores. The supporters of the bill are not interested in paying for kids to play this summer.
That's a shame - because pediatricians have been making a powerful case for the immediate and long-term benefits of play.
A 2018 article in the journal Pediatrics called "The Power of Play" defines play as "an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery."
Childhood play develops foundational motor skills, leads to an active lifestyle and prevents obesity. Climbing rocks gives children a chance to build confidence that will serve them well later in life. Rough-and-tumble play teaches children verbal skills as they have to negotiate when things threaten to get out of hand. Taking risks on the playground hones executive functioning skills such as concentrating, problem solving and regulating one's emotions. Recess gives children of different backgrounds an opportunity to become friends.
"Play is part of our evolutionary heritage," the authors explain, "and gives us opportunities to practice and hone the skills needed to live in a complex world."
And what happens when children do not have a chance to play? They don't have a safe way to release toxic stress and may lash out with antisocial behavior. By focusing on academic achievement rather than play, young people often develop anxiety, depression and a lack of creativity. "Play may be an effective antidote to the changes in amygdala size, impulsivity, aggression, and uncontrolled emotion that result from significant childhood adversity and toxic stress," the article argues.
Even more than usual, it would seem, children in the pandemic era need a chance to play before they resume their formal education in the fall. In England, experts in childhood development have called for a "summer filled with play" to recover from the pandemic. According to Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, "children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside and they need to get physically active again."
One classic way to play in the summer is camp. In a good camp experience, children get to swim, climb trees, learn skills such as sailing and archery, play basketball, make friends, take a break from screens, relax from the pressures of the school year and be present in the moment. As someone who has happy memories as a camper and a camp counselor, I would love for more children to get those kinds of opportunities. Minute for minute, I don't know what is more fun or intense, for the mind and body, than playing capture the flag in the woods.
For those who do not or cannot get to stay-away outdoor camp, scholars and policymakers around the world have been exploring ways to create urban play landscapes. One example is the Ultimate Block Party that brought 50,000 people into Central Park in New York City to partake in make-believe, construction and adventure games. Children in economically disadvantaged communities deserve to take a break from school, too, and explore the world, take risks in a relatively safe environment, move their bodies, meet new people and learn things that cannot be measured easily on standardized tests.
Think of all the rewarding things that children could do this summer. Day camps with arts and crafts, sports, theater, and activities like podcasting and three-dimensional printing. Visiting family in other parts of the country. Swimming at the pool. Riding bikes with friends. Performing in a band. As scholars such as Yong Zhao and Christopher Tienken have been arguing for years, these kinds of unstructured activities give young people a chance to invent new things, create works of art, start businesses and develop their own talents.
On Feb. 10, Senate Democrats wrote a public letter calling for the next covid relief package to include funds for summer enrichment opportunities for low-income children. The letter notes that camp provides opportunities for children to play, learn new hobbies and skills, develop leadership abilities and recover from the traumas of the pandemic. The letter makes an excellent point that the federal government should help low-income students access the extracurricular and summer options available to the rich. The House Committee on Education and Labor has made it clear, however, that it wants to fund summer programs that have an academic focus.
Kids would be better off if Congress votes down legislation that would keep children in high-poverty schools inside this summer. Those kids - including ones living in shelters, with food insecurity or in dangerous neighborhoods - deserve to play just as surely as do those children whose parents send them to sleep-away camp. And governments, civil society and families should look for ways to give children a chance to do activities that are voluntary, joyful and imaginative: that is, to play.
Nicholas Tampio is a professor of political science at Fordham University. This op-ed appeared in The Washington Post.