Four strategies for supporting student leadership in a healthy reopening


By Jill Vialet

People often assume that play is the opposite of work, that it takes away from learning, and that it creates an environment that is lacking the “seriousness” that redressing academic inequities demands. The Playworks School Re-Opening Workbook, which is available for free, aims to correct these misunderstandings. Play in school can help create a safe, empowering environment for every kid, whether school is taking place in person, online, or both.

Centering play in instruction – and in our plans for reopening – presents an opportunity to cultivate greater student agency. This moment may feel too risky to rely on a more decentralized approach for making decisions, but allowing students to participate in the translation of Covid-19 constraints into new rules, and empowering them to be a part of determining how these rules will be supported, represents a singular opportunity to create a learning environment that is designed to succeed.

Map the school

Mapping space to play is going to be even more critical as schools approach physical distancing recommendations this year. As you are thinking about the return to school, we suggest that you embark on a pretty ambitious mapping exercise, including indoors, outdoors, and any remote space that you may use. Including students in the mapping process is particularly important because it will help you to understand how the “counter-spaces” – hallways, the schoolyard, the cafeteria, bathrooms, etc. contribute to the student experience. These are areas where students typically have more autonomy, and the regulations you create for them may have a disproportionate impact on how students feel at school.  

Once you are in-person, asking students to measure the space using their own bodies as opposed to a measuring tape creates an excellent way to introduce different math and problem-solving skills. Having students work in small groups – working collaboratively while observing physical distancing requirements – can provide a chance for them to practice with the new rules while engaged in a project that invites them to be a part of solving challenges that these requirements present.

It’s also worth considering the parent/family experience of your space. If other adults are not being allowed onto the school grounds, including them in the mapping exercise – if only as an audience for a student-led Zoom presentation – can serve to create a sense of belonging despite the physical limitations.

Assumption storming

Assumption storming is a design technique that is essentially a brainstorm session in which you list out the assumptions for your project.  It represents an important opportunity to consider all the ways your school has historically operated – all the assumptions about how school works – and to consider how some previously non-negotiables might now be reconsidered.

One opportunity for sparking creativity around Covid-19 compliance might include first having your students list out all the assumptions they have around complying with the physical distancing requirements and then “flipping” them – stating the opposite as an assumption. For example, assumptions might include “The youngest students are incapable of staying 6 feet apart,” “Teachers are going to have to spend a significant amount of time ensuring compliance with the social distancing rules,” and “Students aren’t going to want to wear masks.” Flipped, the assumptions are “The youngest students are going to be the best at social distancing,” “Teachers won’t be the primary people ensuring compliance with the social distancing rules,” and “Students are going to be excited to wear masks.” While the initial “flipping” doesn’t get directly to the heart of how these changes might occur, it does create an important mindset shift that can help with generating innovative solutions, while providing a foundation for students to share how they are feeling including what worries them.


Rituals are a form of play that enable teams to get in sync emotionally and mentally. Just as physically mapping the space allows for a better understanding of space as a design lever, rituals allow for the mapping of time, intentionally creating experiences that help you achieve your goals. 

Many schools already have rituals that they don’t think of as rituals – from setting up classrooms before school starts to morning circles. This year represents an important opportunity to make some conscious decisions about how you are going to set up, meet and adapt to change.   Having students lead class rituals, and design new ones especially if you are operating remotely or in a hybrid structure, represents an important opportunity to promote greater understanding. 

Given the greater probability of students being exposed to trauma in this moment, rituals represent an important chance to create opportunities for choice and voice that can help to mitigate the associated behavior challenges.

Create a Classroom Charter

At the heart of this whole conversation is the question of how we translate what is required in this moment into rules. One of the things that has been made abundantly clear in all our years of running Playworks is the importance of how things feel. Paying attention to that, above all else, has been our single best predictor of success.

To this end, instead of creating typical classroom rules that are teacher-directed, we recommend creating a Classroom Charter. The Charter is an agreement that is based in feelings. The Yale RULER program process starts with the question “How do we want to feel at school?” followed by “How will we make sure to feel these feelings?” Engaging students in this kind of a discussion while simultaneously wrestling with masks, physical distancing, and handwashing, can set students up to feel more engaged with the process, and to have a greater sense of both purpose and understanding.

By reimagining this moment as an opportunity to center student leadership and trying these four strategies, you’ll create a safer and more engaging school environment for every kid to play, learn, and grow.

About the author

Jill Vialet is the founder of Playworks and the author of Recess Rules. Follow her on Twitter @jillvialet.