On a chilly night in February, Alexander Robertson skates into the middle of one of his intense games on the ice at The Rink at Wade Oval in University Circle. Around him, kids ages 7 to 12 armored in sanitized Body Zorbs, large ball-shaped inflatable body suits exposing only their legs for mobility and balance, slam into each other and roll out of bounds in an attempt to reach a large yellow hula hoop at the center of the rink.
“The goal is to stay on your feet,” Robertson shouts into his microphone as he steadily glides between the red and black teams. “A big part of this game is defense. If you can get one person from your team to stand in the hoop for five seconds, your team wins.”
Tonight’s game is part of a series of modified winter pop-up events Robertson has planned for his organization, Recess Cleveland. Since the pandemic, his programs have continued to provide families and children the opportunity to remain mobile outside of their homes, encouraging physical activity and community engagement after spending long days online for work and school. Under the glowing lights and thermo tiki heaters, parents and caregivers cheer on their kids as they huddle together at the edge of the rink with steaming hot chocolate.
In 2015, Robertson launched his nonprofit as a creative way to gather his Glenville neighbors and surrounding communities to play old-school games like dodgeball and kickball in vacant lots around the city. His gatherings quickly spread through word-of-mouth and, after learning schools had significantly reduced playtime, he started hosting his events at various elementary schools to help raise awareness around the benefits of recess for kids. Robertson launched free weekly outdoor games for families and children across Cleveland in an effort to revitalize under-resourced parks and neighborhood green spaces. After garnering success and overwhelming community support, he realized Recess Cleveland held a secret power: by uniting communities through organized playtime, he could help rebuild and connect neighborhoods and strengthen relationships among neighbors.
“We had this power to bring people who normally don’t go to community events or meetings to get them outside to play games and interact,” Robertson says. “So, we started using Recess as the connector to bring resources to our events to increase the quality of life for as many people as possible living in the city.”
In the last two years, Robertson has partnered with local organizations, community development corporations and companies to gather residents in need of resources and services, and connect them to job opportunities, free meals, health care information and much more. When COVID-19 regulated strict guidelines of large public gatherings last March, Robertson worked swiftly to provide new socially distanced programming and games.
Tonight, as players carefully waddle back and forth on the ice, Robertson hopes they’re able to find a temporary escape from classwork and computer screens. While they play safely with kids from neighboring boroughs, Robertson introduces parents to Neighborhood Connections, whose services support Cleveland residents.
After almost two hours on the ice, when the next scheduled group fails to arrive, Robertson creates a new game on the fly. Zorbio Kart, he explains, is a modified version of the popular go-kart style racing game, Super Mario Kart, and players will have to race against each other down to one end of the ice rink and back in their bubble suits.
“While you can’t throw red and green shells, you are allowed to throw soccer balls, Zorbs and bump into each other to trip up your opponents,” Robertson chuckles into the microphone.
When he blows the whistle, communal chaos ensues as parents and kids wobble their way down the slippery ice with concentration, only to be met with pellets of red, blue and orange soccer balls.
“The hardest part is just getting people to come out to the event,” Robertson says. “But once they show up and the games start, people see how much fun everyone is having, and those barriers we all have up begin to break down.”