"Miss Joyce, Miss Joyce, what are we going to play today?"
A hand tugs at the side of my T-shirt. It's a first grader—one who always joins in the games I organize at my child’s elementary school during recess. This particular girl is a little bit awkward and seems left out of the social whirl. These are typically my most loyal game-players: the kids who need a little help connecting. My own daughter Violet was one of these kids, last year. This year, things are better.
I started volunteering at the school three years ago, when Violet would come home crying, saying that no one would play with her at recess. I thought if I were there I could help her, and maybe some of the other less-well-adjusted kids, play together and enjoy their recess instead of moping alone and feeling left out.
But I didn't expect the experience to affect me so much. Author, psychiatrist and National Institute for Play founder Stuart Brown has spent decades studying the importance of play in adults' lives; he writes in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that playtime is as important as oxygen: "it's all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing."
Stuart's research has found that play is essential for early childhood development, and in adults can help regulate emotions, ease stress and possibly even enhance immune system function. Yet with the average U.S. adult spending 11 hours a day engaged with digital media according to 2014 Nielsen research, that leaves precious little free time for Red Light, Green Light or Duck, Duck, Goose, games that regularly leave me laughing and panting when I play them with the kids at school.
The first-grade girl slips her small hand into mine as her eyes turn up to me trustingly. Her eyes are so big and gentle. They touch the same part of my brain that squeals over internet cat videos and fat baby knees. She loves me! I must be doing something right.
"Hmmmm," I say back to her, the word rising and falling like a sigh. I make a stagy thinking face next to the table of first graders, now all looking at me expectantly. "What are we going to play today?" I waggle my eyebrows mysteriously.
"Talk to your table and you all come up with an idea together," I tell her. As I walk away, I hear the sweet, slightly awkward girl start to buzz with her table-mates, planning what they'll tell me.
Great! I've given her a reason to relate to her classmates; maybe this success will build on itself and add to her sense of social competence. Sometimes all the awkward kids need is something in common with the others. If they talk to classmates at lunch, they're more likely to join in a game with them on the play yard. I'm helping!
Back at the first grade table at recess, I ask what they want to play. "Parachute!" they yell in unison. The kids love playing with the parachute; they help spread it into a big, bright, rainbow-striped circle. There is room for everyone, and no one who wants to play has to be left out.
"Okaaaaay!" I call, drawing the word out with rollercoaster-y zip. We all start walking in a circle. "Do you think we can go a little bit faster?" They obediently speed up to a trot, laughing. "Faster?" Our feet are pounding the pavement now, round and round, and I'm laughing so hard I can barely say "STOP!” Everyone's giggling and out of breath.
“Whew, I need a rest! Should we make a big tent?” Nods and grins. “Okay, you know what to do.” We hold our hands down close to the ground. “One, two, three!” All the hands lift a billowing mushroom cloud into the air as we all duck under and sit on the edge. It's dark. The parachute is settling so slowly that we have a darkly colorful cave all to ourselves.
“Does anyone know any ghost stories?” one bold boy asks. He gets in trouble a lot in class, I hear. But out here, at recess, he's always laughing.
No one seems to know any ghost stories, so I suggest we try to sing like opera singers instead: “Ooooooooaaaaaaaah!” I trill, in what I imagine might be an aria on a planet where the opera singers aren't very good. They sing back to me and to each other, as the parachute falls softly onto our singing heads.
At this point, I’m not sure who is having more fun, the kids or me.
Joyce Slaton writes, cooks and sews in San Francisco, California. She reviews baby products, and writes blogs about her parenting experiences for BabyCenter.com.