The Learning Experience We Called Play Day

We could barely contain ourselves. No one was talking but all of our squirming and desk drumming still made it noisy in the fifth-grade classroom. Even a stern around-the-room glare from Miss Schlegelmilch only quieted us down for a few minutes.

We had finally reached the biggest day of the year. It was that special day we waited for all year, years even. The day before Christmas vacation couldn’t match this.

It was Play Day at Colvill School.

It wasn’t the final day of school. There was still at least a day or two to go but Play Day marked the beginning of the end. It couldn’t be scheduled on the last day of school in case it rained. Play Day was meant to be held on a warm, sunny day in late May when you knew the cold days were gone, hopefully forever.

Play Day, as I recall, was reserved for the upper grades – maybe fourth but certainly fifth and sixth. It was our reward for enduring days of the obligatory end-of-year Iowa tests. I never figured out what kind of people lived in Iowa but after taking these tests, I was certain they must be mean. I was also convinced that they created the toughest versions of the tests just for Minnesota kids.

We had been told about Play Day from older kids for a long time. Now it was our turn. Play Day was really Play Afternoon since the main events were after lunch. That meant we had to behave and do some schoolwork in the morning or Miss Schlegelmilch would end it right there.

The main event was sort of a mini Olympics which included numerous races – running races (individual and relay), wheelbarrow races, sack races (single and double) and a team beanbag toss.

It seems to me that we could only enter a certain number of them in order to allow more kids a chance to win. This was before the days of everyone getting a participation ribbon. I already knew which kids had no chance of winning anything and I felt sorry for them. But I wasn’t about to forego the possibility of winning after all these years of waiting.

During the winter we often had running races in the basement community room, which also served as our gym. If someone could create a synthetic version of the smell of that room and put it in an aerosol can, many of us would instantly recognize it as “school smell.” Gifted smellers would know it as “school gym smell” and the real hyperosmiacs would be able to differentiate between “Colvill School gym smell” and “Colvill School third grade room” smell.

The races in the gym were our preparation for Play Day and where we could study the competition. We didn’t even know what types of races there would be except for the running races. So I was shocked to have to figure out, at the last minute, how best to get to the finish line standing in a burlap sack.

The competition was held on the school’s front yard near the flagpole. The finish line was only about 50 feet from the start, if that. I got beat handily in the first running race I was sure I’d win. Other kids were growing up and getting more athletic. I hadn’t paid attention. Dang!

I joined with my close friend Tony in the team sack race. I don’t think we were even close to third place. I think my take for the day was a blue ribbon in a relay race, a red in the beanbag toss and a white in something I don’t even remember.

I was depressed about not outright winning the running race, but that soon dissipated when the ice cream cups were served. What’s better than eating cold ice cream on a flat wooden spoon?

Strangely, Play Day the following year was not as exciting. We couldn’t have the races on the school yard because a new gym addition was being built. We sixth-graders watched them build it much of the school year knowing we would never use it. We’d be in seventh grade at the high school the following year. We couldn’t even help create a “Colvill School new gym” smell.

So for our final Play Day we had to walk to the open area just before the first train overpass near the NSP power plant (Xcel today). It just didn’t seem right. I don’t even remember if I won any ribbons that day. Maybe it was because this was not how I expected to end my grade school years.

There would be no more Play Days. This was it and it was not what I expected. I sensed that I would never win another ribbon. The competition from then on would be fierce and ribbons would be for something a lot different and more challenging than a 50-foot sack race. 

I felt better after eating my ice cream with the flat wooden spoon. School was almost done and I had a whole summer ahead of me before I had to worry about seventh grade.

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