This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It was a gray and overcast February morning in Philadelphia, and the temperature hovered around 32 degrees — too cold for the students at Richard R. Wright Elementary School to enjoy recess outdoors. Instead, they congregated in the cafeteria after finishing lunch to jump rope and play board games and tag.
In the wintertime, when inclement weather often prevents outdoor recess, schools have to adapt. At Wright Elementary, the nonprofit organization Playworks Pennsylvania has worked with the school to make sure students are able to engage in activities regardless of setting or conditions. Wright is one of 16 Philadelphia schools in Playworks’ Team Up program, which trains school staff members to coordinate play during recess.
Playworks program manager Corrie O’Neil, who oversees Wright, said that schools generally move recess indoors when the outside temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
The kinds of indoor play that can happen at recess depend on how much space a school has available. Wright has a spacious cafeteria with extra tables for board games and room for activities like jump rope and Duck, Duck, Goose, as well as an elevated stage.
Still, O’Neil said, “I do think it involves a little bit more management on the adult side of things to make things happen smoothly.”
At Wright, that’s the job of Charles Brown. As the school’s climate support specialist and recess coach, he assists in any areas that teachers need him, and he is in charge of recess and lunch. “I own the lunchroom,” Brown said with a laugh.
He transitioned to working in schools after 31 years in the hospitality industry, and this year is his third at Wright. Because of the structure and training provided by Playworks, Brown said, recess at Wright has become “successful,” especially indoors, which can be more challenging because the students have less space to play in.
“I’m just about having fun, so that’s what I try to do – create an environment so these kids can just have fun,” he said. He brought out a thick binder and flipped through it, showing pages of instructions for different games and a daily schedule for the games to play every day of the semester, which he wrote up himself.
“You and I know when you’re sitting in that classroom all day and reading or writing and doing math, you need to get an outlet, and we try to make recess that outlet so they can just get it out, and then send them back to that classroom. But I really enjoy it. This is what I enjoy.”
Before Wright Elementary was part of the Team Up program, permanent Playworks coaches were stationed at the school to coordinate recess. Brown was appointed climate specialist when the school began to move to the Team Up model.
“Minus a Mr. Brown, I don’t know how it would have gone,” Wright principal Jeannine Payne said.
Payne said that the difference between playgrounds and play is often overlooked and that coordinated recess games can be more productive and enjoyable for children, even if a school has fewer playground facilities.
“If you had a completely clear playground, it doesn’t have to mean that no good recess can happen,” said Payne. “That’s where systems and programs like Playworks become really important.”
For parents looking to keep their kids occupied during snow days and severe cold, Ivy Olesh, the executive director of Playworks Pennsylvania, recommended the organization’s free online game guide, where parents can search for games to play with their children, filtering for criteria such as age, number of players, equipment, and even which social and emotional skills they want to work on.
O’Neil added that simple games like “freeze dance” can also work to entertain and occupy children with cabin fever. “Sometimes it’s just turning some dance music on and dancing inside of the house.”