Renbrook Physical Education: Pandemic Style

Gretchen Hathaway
Our campus was empty all spring. Students stayed at home, glued to their screens. Everyone was curious: How would our PE department keep kids active and motivated from a distance?      

All spring, Athletic Director Peter Reynolds, Assistant Athletic Director Sarah Davis, and PE teacher Natalie Kirkpatrick motivated kids remotely by making videos in their back yards. They offered athletic challenges, communicating with energy and humor as they demonstrated: Shoot baskets into a trash can! Teach someone to do a proper squat! Here’s a drill you can try! Get on your bike and ride! Instagram became the new gym.
Then came the fall, and we were back on campus, but it could not be a typical fall. On a sunny morning in October I sat and talked with Mr. Reynolds, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Kirkpatrick outside the Barnes Gym, surrounded by piles of equipment and plastic wading pools full of disinfectant, to learn about how our program evolved.      

“Beginning in March, our mantra was, ‘keep the integrity of Renbrook physical education,’ while we rolled with the changes,” said Mr. Reynolds. “Our goal, as always, was to promote health and have fun doing it; that’s the spirit of our program.”     

Sarah Davis explained, “In planning for fall, our aim was to offer as much normalcy as possible, consistent with health and safety. We had to get a good grip on the necessary precautions, then invent new routines and choices for kids to enjoy. We wanted to make activities as appealing as possible within the restrictions. To make it fun.”     

As Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, and Mr. Reynolds planned, they were guided by two imperatives: 1) Listen to the science—the experts will tell us what’s needed for health and well-being;  2) Keep cohorts’ and classrooms’ integrity; allow no mixing of grades and classes.      

They faced intense logistical challenges: Can we share manipulatives—balls, rackets paddles, bats? Can we pass a ball back and forth? How can we safely transition between classes? This tenacious team was undaunted and met the challenges creatively.      In Upper School, the athletic program was utterly transformed. The goal was to provide social interaction, fun, and fitness in the absence of interscholastic sports. The solution was a menu of activities to enjoy for life. Between September and Thanksgiving, there were 20 different offerings. For each two-week cycle, kids could choose among four activities: one non-competitive, individual option, such as running, biking, or archery; one group choice, like volleyball, matball, or Wiffleball; one skills-and-drills choice, such as field hockey, soccer, or tennis; and one fitness option, such as weights or speed and agility.     

According to Peter Reynolds, lawn games like frisbee, ultimate frisbee, cornhole, and can jam were very popular. So was archery. There was a lot of demand for biking, which consisted of 7.2 miles of trails around the West Hartford reservoir, just down Canal Road from school.      

I asked Mr. Reynolds, “Do the kids miss sports?” “Yes,” he said. “Sports offer opportunities to develop leadership, to build team solidarity across grades, to learn fair play, to lose and to win gracefully, to respect the authority of the umpire. Kids miss the build-up to game day. Of course many still have the team experience on town teams, but not here at school.”     

Sarah Davis added, “There are definitely positives, though. Kids organize and run their own games of Wiffleball and volleyball. Coaches step back. We see students taking more responsibility for themselves and their equipment.”     

“The Lower School is outdoors all the time,” said Natalie Kirkpatrick. “Our upper and lower tennis courts have been handy in wet weather. Keeping each classroom as a separate cohort has meant that all activities are co-ed: field hockey, soccer, archery, and pickleball. We introduce some competitive elements to give students the opportunity to practice conflict resolution and sportsmanship. In the Early Learning Center, we’ve been able to continue our guided discovery approach with movement-based games and activities outdoors, emphasizing gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination.”      

The bedrock values underlying Renbrook’s physical education have guided our adaptation to these extraordinary times, keeping our students active, engaged, and healthy in unexpected ways, thanks to the resilience and creativity of our faculty. While Mr. Reynolds, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Kirkpatrick have inventively guided the effort, other faculty members have jumped in to help cover the burgeoning offerings. Keeping kids moving has been a community effort.
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