Niyo: Recess doesn't need to be on lockdown; Playworks Michigan can help

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Sports are canceled. Schools are closed. But recess is still on the schedule.

Or at least that’s goal – and an important one – according to Angela Rogensues, the executive director for Playworks Michigan, a Detroit-based nonprofit affiliate with a mission to keep kids active and engaged and healthy through the “power of play.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day.

It’s a task made more challenging by social-distancing restrictions and safety precautions we’re all being asked to make to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s one Playworks is trying to tackle in different ways, through a growing network of more than 70 schools across the state and an online platform that’s available to all.

“Our games and philosophies – and the creativity around them – allow us to play in a hallway, in a gym, but also in someone’s living room,” said Rogensues, who joined Playworks in 2012, a couple years after it launched here in Michigan. “So one of the things that we have done, now that recess is not happening in schools at the moment, is to offer virtual recess for kids, and folks can tune in live on Facebook.”

There’s also a YouTube channel that parents can utilize to keep their young kids moving – in addition to their online learning – while trying to juggle their own stay-at-home work responsibilities. Running out of ideas after a week of unexpected home-schooling? Playworks has a 30-page game guide that parents, educators and others tasked with caring for children can access on a web platform that launched late last week.

As for the reasoning behind all this, it goes back to the core principles that’ve been part of Playworks since it was founded in 1996. This idea that kids don’t just want to play, they need it, for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to improve their gross-motor skills or develop executive function and self-regulation abilities or simply stay fit and healthy. 

“And it doesn’t have to be organized sports, it doesn’t have to be a game of kickball,” Rogensues said. “It can be a 10-minute break running around the living room playing a game.”

More: Niyo: Hiatus may cause us to rethink priority we put on organized youth sports

Every little bit helps as families try to adapt to a surreal set of circumstances that has upended routines and raised anxiety in immeasurable ways.

“Particularly when you talk about low-income students who may already be coming from homes where food insecurity is a real thing and safety is a real thing, and now you’re talking about adding a layer of trauma and/or uncertainty that exists where school was the safest place for them,” said Rogensues, who oversees a staff of about two dozen and a local budget of nearly $2 million. “So how do you help bring what they used to get in school into their living rooms?”

That’s among the myriad problems area schools and educators are busy trying to solve right now, at a time when youth sports typically spring into action. Instead, with club and rec teams idled, games postponed and seasons in jeopardy, it’s time to get creative, not passive. Yoga and dance are good options for youngsters, especially those that may not be at an age where they can head out the door for a 2-mile run or long bike ride.

“But this is not the time to stop caring about how to get and keep kids physically active,” said Tom Farrey, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “Physical activity is beneficial in many ways in building healthy communities, including disease prevention.”

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. (A 2018 study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital showed that just 5% of kids ages 5 to 18 met that standard.) And particularly for younger kids in a school-like environment, that activity is best broken up into a few different segments throughout the day.

Playworks’ virtual recesses are being held at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. And if Mother Nature would cooperate, there’s a wealth of active games they’re offering up as a template for those in need of some ideas or inspiration.

“Parents are scrambling to figure out what to do with their children and how to keep them occupied,” Rogensues said. “And what we know is that play is just a phenomenal tool that we can be using to help keep kids moving in the right direction educationally, but also from a healthy-mind, healthy-body perspective. But it’s important to make sure it's grounded in this idea of laughter and all the things that we need kids to be feeling right now, despite the uncertainty in the world.”

To find Playworks Michigan's resources and game guide online, visit

Go here to visit the Playworks YouTube channel.