The Pandemic Gift of Play: Something for the Whole Family to Enjoy

One of the pandemic silver linings has been discovering the gift of play and having time each day to leisurely unwrap it.

 

“It’s 10:00!” I herald. My voice echoes throughout the main floor of our house and cracks the zombie gazes of my 7 and 9-year old sons who have been roosting in separate rooms with laptops for the past two hours. They are transfixed by Internet browsers with at least eight open tabs: Google Classroom, Epic Books, SeeSaw, Flipgrid, Screencastify, Zoom, Raz Kids, and Clever. They click their way through hyperlink lessons as I bounce back and forth like a ping-pong ball answering questions, retrieving forgotten passwords, and mostly redirecting focus: “Please stop translating your penguin report into Chinese!” “Your teacher can’t see your work when you turn your image into a blurry, pixelated collage of geometric shapes!” I sigh with frustration, but I also know that these are the things I would probably want to explore on the computer if I was 7 and 9.

It’s day 32 of homeschool, so we are mostly in our groove. My sons know that 10:00 a.m. is our regular time for “Outdoor Exercise and Snack Break.” It’s clearly written in bright purple marker on the daily schedule Scotch-taped to the kitchen wall. We scramble for socks, shoes, and jackets and head outside, craving the endorphin release that blood flow and crisp fresh air will bring.

Today we head to the Catholic schoolyard down the street from our house. My 7-year old bounces the red rubber playground ball, while my 9-year old skips and whistles. I take a moment to bask in their innocence and feel thankful for their genuine contentment. When we get to the deserted school parking lot, we choose the Foursquare court that gleams in the full sun, with faded yellow paint lines that bring even more nostalgia to this game of my youth. To avoid brotherly bickering, I always start as the King. I serve the ball, and we begin our new “brain break” ritual, spiking “cherry bombs”, rolling “duck feet,” and stooping to our knees to catch the ball before the bounce for a “BUS STOP!”

In the past three weeks, we’ve developed several of these new play rituals. There’s our walk around “Hawk Loop,” where we stop and gaze at hawks nest up in a tree against a blue skythe top of a tall pine that houses the nest of a screeching red-tailed hawk. There’s the Wiffle ball game in our backyard, constructed of makeshift bases made from tossed-aside Nerf guns and flattened soccer balls. And then there’s Foursquare—seemingly their favorite—where we make up chants and playfully tease each other until the cold springtime wind stings our fingers and reminds us that we need to head home to complete our day of Cyberschool.

I notice how much my boys are loving this time of intentional and non-distracted play, and I feel a pang of guilt that it took a global pandemic for me to prioritize these simple acts of togetherness. In our normal life, we would spend our after-school hours cramming in homework, piano and violin practice, dinner preparation, harried family meals, swimming/baseball/basketball practice, and cub scouts before barking orders to QUICKLY get into pajamas and brush teeth so we can HURRY up and do it all over again the next day….

My boys are soaking up this extra attention and expecting me to spend every second of “downtime” [off-screen time] engaged in active play. I haven’t been this tired by sunset since they were babies and toddlers, those days when I had to be within arms reach of them at all times to ensure they didn’t slip into a fatal episode of choking, falling, or teetering into traffic. While this excess of togetherness has been soul-filling, I am also working on setting boundaries and darkening in the outline of my own identity that seems to be fading and shape-shifting during these uncertain times.

Meanwhile, we embrace the play and the comfort of our triad, holding down our dear fort while my husband spends his days at the hospital as an “essential worker.” While I would never downplay the current sacrifice of healthcare workers, I do want a put a metaphorical sign in every person’s yard right now. We are ALL essential. Throughout my modified Foursquare-for-Three game, I can’t stop troubling thoughts like these from buzzing in, but witnessing the pure joy of gallops and giggles fills me with gratitude. There’s so much we cannot do right now, but we can always find time for the gift of play.

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