Designing recess in difficult times

Last fall, we met to plan, design, and imagine what a week of play might look like as our DPL 2020 summer group would gather together in Denver. We considered major barriers to enacting play-based experiences. The over-testing of our students seemed to be the barrier that spanned the PreK-20 learning experience. Testing and/or ‘teaching to the test’ lends itself to pigeon-holing learning and teaching and leaves little time to make meaningful connections and a love of learning for our students. This Spring, our world rapidly shifted, and we learned that unknown barriers became our daily experience in the realm of education (and our personal lives). For many, the panic of what our teaching would look like shadowed imperative aspects of supporting the learning of our students, such as community, wonder, and joy. We learned that some assignments were irrelevant, expectations not quite equitable, and many students are seeking communities to connect with to process their unique experiences.

In education, we have to be responsive—both to the needs of the community and the current state of the world. So we regrouped, rethought, and recentered our focus from how we play in a time of testing to promoting it in a time of pandemic. Our time gathered together in July will not stray from the importance of play, but will rather reconsider how we go about this work and design these experiences during this unique time.

One of our core readings in our planning has been centered around is a paper that came from the Lego Foundation, Learning through play: A review of the evidence. The authors of this paper describe six characteristics of play that we refer to as principles to guide our time together in July. We see each of them as particularly relevant to our current context and hope to engage around them:

Socially Interactive

In a time in which “social distancing” is used to describe how we must interact safely with one another, we see an opportunity to build community and wonder through play. We prefer the term “spatially distanced”. During our time together, we hope to create opportunities to be connected to one another—even from a safe physical distance. We believe that proximity and connection are not one and the same. Our aspiration is to build an online community that reflects that notion.


In almost every community, school means more than just curricular content and academic learning. Though academic/cognitive development plays an important role in school mission statements it is not secondary to emotional and social development – and knowing this, we must keep their relationship to one another at the forefront of educational design. For many of us and our students, joy seems like an elusive emotion. In our course, our ambition is to bring sparks of joy in a time that is so difficult. Throughout our week together, we hope to discuss this as well as engage in opportunities that bring joy to our (and your) learning communities.


In many ways, we see this principle as being central to all other principles—we must deeply engage in work around identity and explore how students can find relevance to all aspects of learning within their own identity. This Summer, we will play in a space of mapping our own identities as an engaging way to start to think about this work.

Actively Engaging

Engagement must be at a level that the learner becomes distraction resistant. This deep immersion in experiences is one we all hope for as educators—however, something many of us find challenging in an online space. Through a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning environments, we will explore your own home and community, and provide plenty of time to create and reflect for our broader group as well as your own context.


The last principle centers around the idea that play should be iterative—it is a constant cycle of testing and learning and rethinking. Through the design process of this course, we are already continually shifting based on context—and we will continue this Summer to facilitate through co-creation including elements of design thinking along the way. We are excited to play and learn alongside everyone.

We are so looking forward to knowing each person within the course better—and engaging in fun and collaborative ways to rethink how we promote play during a pandemic and the years that follow. We hope you might consider gathering with us online this July—we would love to have you come play with us!

Register for PreK-20 Recess

Andrea Laser

Among with Dennis DeBay

Andrea Laser works as a Senior Instructor in the Early Childhood Education program area at the University of Colorado Denver.

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