Playworks coaches help put the fun back in recess at 14 D.C. schools

Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly said that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement on the importance of recess in January 2012. The AAP statement was released in January 2013. This version has been corrected.

Recess has taken a beating in recent years. Because of shrinking budgets and ever-increasing academic demands, playground time in many school districts has dwindled, seen as a frivolous luxury. In some places, recess has been cut altogether, despite endorsements from the American Academy of Pediatrics and studies showing that recess not only improves children’s fitness, but benefits their social-emotional growth and academic performance.

But 14 public and charter schools in the District have overhauled recess dramatically to make playtime a priority. Each of those schools has a Playworks coach who helps facilitate playground activities. A nonprofit organization started in Oakland, Calif., in 1996, Playworks champions recess not only for its health benefits, but for the opportunities it creates to teach children conflict resolution skills.

“Yes, it gives kids the physical activity and the opportunity to play, but it’s also the social-emotional learning aspect of it,” said Nancy Barrand, a senior adviser for program development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provides funding for Playworks. “It’s helping kids learn how to socialize, how to take turns, how to be able to wait, how to be able to compete without killing each other. It’s all the things that one learns from play. Sometimes it’s easier to learn those things from play than from reading a rule book and being told what to do.”

Susan Comfort, executive director of Playworks D.C., cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’s statement on recess from January 2013 and its emphasis on the academic benefits of play, calling the policy statement a “grand slam” for Playworks’ efforts to get schools to make time for play. She hopes the AAP endorsement will help protect recess.

Playworks’ direct service program includes about 175,000 children at 380 schools in 23 cities. To participate in its direct service model, where the organization splits the cost of a full-time coach with the school, 50 percent or more of the students in a school must qualify for free and reduced lunch, Comfort said. Playworks also serves other schools, with children from all economic backgrounds, by holding training sessions to allow school staff to administer the program on their own.

The direct service program is about $65,000 a year per school, including teacher training, a “survival kit” of equipment and a stipend for the coaches. The schools put up $29,000 of that, Comfort said. Playworks covers the rest of the cost.

Jill Vialet, chief executive of Playworks, started the organization after visiting a school in Oakland for her job as the founder of the Museum of Children’s Arts.

Vialet was waiting for a meeting when the principal emerged from her office with three boys who had been unruly at recess. After dismissing the boys, the principal told Vialet that recess was a nightmare. Teachers didn’t want to be on the playground supervising, and they spent an excessive amount of classroom time dealing with problems that carried over from playground disputes.

The principal said, “Can’t you do something?” That principal was joking (sort of), but Vialet ran with the idea.

“So much of how we talk about education is about serving or helping kids,” Vialet said. “So little of what we talk about involves their agency, their choices, their leadership, their engagement.”

At the Playworks schools in the District, the coaches set up stations on the playground, varying the available games from day to day, and children can choose which ones they want to play. Coaches are playing with the kids the whole time, fully engaged in the games.

They don’t have to spend their time policing conflicts because the children are taught to use the game rock-paper-scissors to resolve disputes. And despite what you might think — yeah, we tried that with our kids at home and it was a disaster — the coaches and teachers say it’s like magic. The kids do rock-paper-scissors when they disagree about whose turn it is or what game to play, and then they move on, no questions asked.

A study released in May by Mathematica Policy Research suggests that the Playworks model works. It found that teachers at Playworks schools reported 43 percent less bullying and exclusion than at non-Playworks schools. They also spent 34 percent fewer minutes getting children to settle down and get back to work after recess. And Playworks students spent 43 percent more of their recess time engaged in physically rigorous activity than kids at schools without Playworks.

“It’s really been a game-changer for the kids,” said Jackie Jaffe, a second-grade teacher at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Northwest. Jaffe was at Bruce Monroe before it launched its Playworks program during the 2008-2009 school year, when Bruce-Monroe and Park View were consolidated into one school. They brought the program in to help build the new school community, according to Rachel Hustedt, a Playworks program manager in the District. This year, the school is transitioning from having a full-time Playworks coach to managing the program with school staff, according to Comfort.

“We used to come back and I would spend 20 to 30 minutes of instructional time putting out the fires of whatever happened during recess time, because they had nothing else to do” but argue, Jaffe said. “Now we come back from recess and I don’t miss a second.”

So the kids at Bruce-Monroe, or at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest, come out for recess, line up to hear the day’s games, and do a cheer before breaking apart to blow off some steam. They run around playing toilet tag (when you’re tagged you have to kneel, put your hand up, and remain frozen until someone comes by and “flushes” you), foursquare, soccer, jump rope or basketball.

If they don’t like the day’s options, they can ask the coach about starting another game. Or they can hang out and talk to a friend if they prefer. It’s not about telling the students what they have to do so much as organizing the playing field and then letting them choose what they want to do and how to resolve disputes when they come up.

The program also selects some older students to be junior coaches and help oversee recess. They get to wear special shirts and assist the recess coach with set-up and organization of games. Sometimes, the kids are chosen because of their leadership skills. But often, it’s not the star students who get picked.

“We’ll pick a shy kid, or a kid that’s using their leadership in the wrong direction, as more of a bullying tendency,” Comfort said. “Giving them a responsibility and letting them lead games and teach other kids positive behaviors and rock, paper scissors has a transformative effect on their own behavior.”

That is particularly true with shy children or those who are non-native English speakers, Comfort said. Learning how to be assertive and proficient with English on the playground can translate into classroom success, she said. It’s another way Playworks employees believe their program helps kids academically, as well as physically and socially.

“If you’re going to ask them to decode letters and to add numerals, they need a brain break between those to operate at full brain capacity,” Comfort said. “Recess isn’t just to fight obesity or get kids moving. It’s not just to develop their social-emotional skills. It’s also critically necessary if you’re going to have success in the classroom.“

Susan Ohanian, author of “What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?” agrees that free time to play — in addition to structured physical education classes — is critically important for children.

“They are under adult direction all day long. Recess should be a time when they’re independent and able to draw on their own resources,” Ohanian said, recalling a rainy day in third grade when she went outside and stood in the rain during recess. “The teacher told me to get out of the rain. I said, ‘It’s recess. It’s my time.’”

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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