The Positive Power of Play

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It’s been a long, difficult year for staff and students in the program where I serve as a Behavior Interventionist.  High staff turnover has led to a lack of consistency and predictability, undermining the felt sense of safety of our students and promoting premature burnout of our remaining staff from the increased workload.  Needless to say, we were all heading into the last week before Spring Break on fumes.  Volatile emotions and behaviors of students combined with low frustration tolerance of teachers is a recipe for disaster.  As a program striving to become more trauma responsive, we know this. Many of our students don’t respond with the excitement that is typical of their peers before breaks.  For our students, with some exceptions, a break from school means lack of structure, absence of an adult who is in a state to adequately provide for them physically and emotionally, no break from home or community turbulence or violence, and nothing, in particular, to look forward to. For these reasons, we know that behaviors escalate before breaks and that we have a responsibility to respond proactively.  But how, when we haven’t had adequate support and time to discharge some of our own stress, could we do anything but react?

One teacher had the audacity to suggest that we have a staff vs. student kickball game on the day before Spring Break began – a day that is known historically for: increased outbursts and physical aggression from students and increased anxiety for teachers as they rush to meet final deadlines.  Not only did our director support the idea, but she mandated that all staff participate.  It was okay if we couldn’t physically play, but we all had to be present in the gym for the duration of the game.

Friday was gameday, and as I entered our building I felt something different, but not foreign – a buzz of light-hearted excitement.  Students were volunteering to help set up and staff were walking around in a variety of athletic wear, complete with mouth guards and eye block.  We had accumulated ample food for concessions and students and staff worked to prepare hotdogs and nachos in our family living center.

At 12:30 pm, everyone headed to the gym.  Rules were explained, captains were named, and the game began.  In that 2-hour period, between the game, the food, and the music, miraculous things occurred.  There was spontaneous dancing and laughter.  Students were helping and encouraging other students, students witnessed staff having fun, staff and students appreciated and enjoyed each other outside their typical roles, and students witnessed staff try and sometimes fail at something without having meltdowns.  But there were also miraculous things that didn’t occur. There was no physical aggression, there were no outbursts, there were no major arguments – and the ones that did occur were short and required no adult intervention.  Most interestingly, there were no refusals to get on the bus when it was time to go home.

As I reflected on the success of the day, the lingering smiles on the faces of students and staff, and the camaraderie among staff that hadn’t been present for a while, I realized what we had done.  We had created a safe, supportive environment for everyone and had activated our social engagement systems through physical movement and play.  In the most stressful of times, we had inadvertently fostered resilience in our students and each other.  Walking down the hall to the buses, the calm was palpable.  Students and staff alike had regulated their stress response through play by experiencing mutual joy, shared communication, and attunement.  I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to send everyone their separate ways for a week. We all should play a little more.

Additional Resources(s):

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children

By Kimberly Hodges


About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission of creating positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact info@starr.org or call 800-837-5591.