Children ride on a swing at a playground in Karachi, Pakistan, May 14.

Finally, a summer outdoors for kids: Play on!

As pandemic restrictions ease, new opportunities are created for non-remote learning.

“Let children play.” That’s the theme of summer 2021 after a school year with young noses largely pressed close to computer screens, the result of the necessity for remote learning. Despite concerns that students have fallen behind academically this school year, many educators and child experts say this year’s summer recess needs to be a time away from formal learning. While restrictions continue to evolve on how closely children can play together, the benefits of play are so apparent that all entrusted with the care of children are exploring how to play safely.

Finland already builds 15-minute outdoor breaks into every hour of schooling. Play, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg told The Guardian, can improve grades, reduce stress, and promote general happiness. Right now, he says, children “need that much more than they need academic pressure, graded assignments and excessive screen time. ... It can be boiled down to a single phrase: let children play.”

Statistics show a huge interest among U.S. parents in providing a summer camp experience for their offspring. Last year, few summer camps were open. In 2021, many more children will be able to participate in the joys of camp. 

“This year more than any other year, it feels very important for kids to be out and be able to be free and be under the trees and be able to connect,” says Tanequa Hampton, camp director at the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan. Some camp activities will still be modified, including the use of masks and social distancing, she told MLive, an online Michigan news provider. But campers will still be able to connect with nature and each other through traditional activities such as art projects and hikes to ponds to discover plants and bugs.

Still, many kids will be home for the summer. With the pandemic easing widely, cities are ramping up their efforts to bring more summer play opportunities back to children.

In Boston, Super Bowl champion football player Rob Gronkowski, formerly a member of the New England Patriots, has donated $1.2 million to renovate and modernize a playground along the Charles River Esplanade, one of the largest private gifts ever made to a Massachusetts state park.

Children have been in a kind of lockdown for more than a year, experts point out. They need formal playgrounds but also ways to play nearer to home as well. In Philadelphia, the city expects to close some 300 streets to traffic on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. On each street, a volunteer supervisor will run a kind of informal urban day camp. Meals and snacks will be combined with activities from drawing with chalk, to dancing to music, to playing with water. Philadelphia is also sneaking literacy and math activities into the play, providing book wagons and hiding arithmetic lessons in the games.

“You can’t cancel summer for kids, you just can’t,” Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told Bloomberg. “There has got to be a safe way for us to save summer for the kids of Philadelphia.”

Around the U.S. and the world, the summer cry is rising: “Let the fun begin!”

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