Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Improvising recess: How do we find the playful while parenting in a pandemic?

For poet Natalie Meisner and her wife, a balance of structure and play has been the key to helping their sons navigate a chaotic time.

For poet Natalie Meisner's family, a balance of structure and play has been the key to navigating these times

The Meisner family's backyard. (Natalie Meisner)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

Like so many people, my wife and I keep waking up each day and improvising a life that resembles the one we'd made together before the pandemic. For us, this has included working from home, suddenly becoming grade three teachers for our two sons, growing food, worrying about our friends and family in far off places (some of whom are in more precarious circumstances than we are), pitching in to help where we can, staying informed while trying not to let the news cycle crush all hope...dogpaddling.

This is the image I've found myself using when friends and colleagues ask how we're doing. Maybe it's because I like the visual of dogged determination, not yet sunk...but I also just like dogs.

The Meisner family's dog Rockit. (Natalie Meisner)

Our sons miss their friends, their teachers, their coaches and all the stuff they used to do with other humans. Their whole world (like everyone's) underwent a radical and sudden scaling down about four months ago, and they made their displeasure at having us in the dual roles of moms and teachers known immediately. With half a lifetime of theatre and a good number of years as a professor, you would think I'd be somewhat immune to criticism — but there is no one like a nine-year-old to bring the pain of truth if you even dream about slacking.

"This is not your best day, Mom."

"Oh, thanks. On a scale of optimum being 1 being suboptimum and 10 being astounding, where do you put me?"

"What does suboptimum mean?"

"Aha!"

After an initial period of chaos/panic, we sat down with them and just asked what they missed the most and how we could make it better.

"RECESS!" they hollered in unison.

I have to say, I get it. Recess is, as early advocate W. T. Harris noted, is "complete suspension of the tension of willpower" and the "surrender to caprice for a brief interval" — and who in the hell doesn't need that right now? Recess is your license to let loose, let your guard down; a chance to let your freak flag fly and let your wild mind wander. Recess is like a magical trap door to unstructured free time, which everyone from neuroscientists to child psychologists to social innovation theorists posit as special sauce for the brain. Cognitive development, social wellbeing, agency, divergent thinking and creativity itself all depend on play. We won't even get into the fate of baby rats deprived of play in laboratory experiments.

As a poet, theatre maker and professor of creative writing, it is my trade to smash binaries, hold clichés up to the light and make the familiar strange. In fact, I often describe what we do as artists as very serious play. If these strategies are useful for work, why not at home as well? Growing up as a working class queer from a single parent home in a fishing village whose fishery had collapsed, I learned play and humour as a survival skill.

And now back to grade three. We told our sons that if it was recess they were after, they could fill their boots, go on outside and have all the recess they desired.

"It's not the same," they said, dejected.

And they hit on a key realization, I think. We are all in the middle of one giant gaping recess right now. First it was a month of Sundays, then two and three. Now we are staring into the maw of a year, maybe more of ever-loving Sundays. If recess is so awesome, why aren't we enjoying it?

How the Meisner family organizes their sons' days. (Natalie Meisner)

We realized that a lot of the joy — the sweet, sweet release of recess — depended upon a certain amount of structure and meaningful work to counterbalance it. It was up to us to supply this structure, so we got out a magnet board and organized all the things we would do in a day into subjects on blocks. There were the standard blocks for math, science and social studies, but we also included cooking and conversation. We reserved a substantial block for "lunch play" and a key square marked "recess."

Before long, we saw a change. They began to go and get their own books and work on math on their own; they were sharpening their pencils and showing up at the kitchen table ready to rock some learning. Suddenly that big threatening expanse of time began to blossom for them again. At the appointed hour, they roared out of doors once more with anticipation and sharp wolf boy teeth and so much more joy.

The application of structure is also the fulcrum and the lever for creativity, whether you are sitting down to write a poem or dig for solutions to a thorny social problem. Structure of the right type and amount actually releases the brain into creativity.

Try this:

A: Please write me a beautiful opening line for your next masterpiece.

B: Please write me one line about your best friend's go-to facial expression.

I'm betting that B gets us the best sentence.

The playful approach to most everyday problems, with a bit of structure added to taste, is the one that yields the juiciest set of results. There are certainly times when this strategy falls short; no one is pretending that you can play your way out of a war zone or systemic oppression. But you might be able to use play and humour as strategy to build the mental resilience for yourself or your community to survive another day.

We are all just dogpaddling right now and failing, then getting up and giving it another shot. It's all just a part of this gig of being human. So be gentle with yourselves and one another. When you can, create something, and don't forget to play. Each and every one of you reading this right now, paint a picture in your mind...what does your ideal recess look like? Now take it.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Natalie Meisner is a playwright, an award-winning multi-genre author and the fifth Poet Laureate of Calgary. Meisner is a wife and mom to two great boys and a Professor in the Department of English at Mount Royal University where she works in the areas of creative writing, drama and gender/sexuality studies. nataliemeisner.com

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