The Recess Regimen
District Schools Seek to Bring Order to Play Periods With the Help of a Calif.-Based Nonprofit Organization

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Brearn Wright Jr. remembers recess during his first year as principal of Clark Elementary School in Petworth as "like a MASH unit."

"Recess time was the time the school nurse dreaded, because she knew she'd have so many kids waiting in the lobby" to be treated for injuries from fighting or falling, Wright said.

Traditionally the one period of the school day when children are free of adult-imposed structure, recess is increasingly regarded by educators as a trouble spot. They say that in the Xbox- and Internet-dominated world of many students, the culture of healthy group play has eroded, turning recess into a chaotic and sometimes violent period where strife from the schoolyard can spill over into afternoon classes.

So last year Wright decided to outsource recess. He hired Sports4Kids, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that introduces students to a regimen of traditional playground games, along with a more closely supervised version of such team sports as basketball. The program also stresses conflict resolution, with disagreements mediated by, of all things, rock-paper-scissors.

In the past two years, principals at 14 elementary and middle schools in the District have signed up with the group, joining more than 160 schools in cities that include Baltimore, Boston and St. Louis. The group's reach will soon be expanding dramatically. Tomorrow, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is scheduled to announce a five-year, $18.7 million grant that will bring Sports4Kids to as many as 650 schools in 27 cities, targeting about 1 million children from low-income families.

Educators and health experts say recess is an important -- and underutilized -- opportunity to promote physical fitness and social development. A 2007 Johnson Foundation study found that, for children in first through sixth grades, recess represents more than 40 percent of the available time in a given school week for physical activity, more than PE classes or after-school programs.

"Recess is one of the best opportunities not only to help kids become more active, but to teach the life skills that will help them live healthier lives," said Robert Wood Johnson president Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.

It also means that this is not the free-for-all that recess used to be. At the Brookland at Bunker Hill Education Campus in Northeast Washington one afternoon last week, the first of two recess periods began with 100 or so fifth- to seventh-graders forming a half-dozen straight lines in front of Brad Riley, the young "site manager" who led them in jumping jacks.

When they dispersed, it was to designated areas, marked by Riley with small orange pylons or chalk lines on the asphalt. There was "snowball alley" (a dialed-back version of dodge ball), jump rope, three-on-three basketball and foursquare. Disputes are resolved by rock-paper-scissors.

"Booyah!" Riley chanted, using an "attention getter" that the kids repeat as he organizes a game.

Sports4Kids is the creation of Jill Vialet, a former Harvard University basketball player who began the venture 12 years ago at two Berkeley, Calif., schools. She was operating a children's museum in Oakland when she encountered four children sitting outside a school principal's office, ejected for fighting at recess. As she started to observe schoolyards, it struck her that games fell apart quickly and that slights easily escalated into serious conflicts.

"Knowing how to play in a healthy way is not an innate skill. It's learned," she said.

Schools pay about $25,000 a year for Vialet's program; she raises the rest, about $45,000 per school, from private donors. For their money, schools get someone such as Riley, who walks students through the forgotten nuances of double Dutch and kickball. Teachers also receive training, so they can assist the site managers.

Riley, who runs both of the school's recess periods (the other is for first through fifth grades), leads snowball alley with a light but steady hand.

"Let me see everybody in rolling position," he says to a row of kids poised to roll their large rubber balls across the grass to another line of students. Those running between the lines have to maneuver around the balls.

Riley warns against throwing the balls, but one boy lofts his into the air, hitting a girl running the gantlet squarely, although not seriously, in the neck.

Riley quietly takes the snowball alley scofflaw aside. "You know you're not supposed to do that," he said, before letting him back into the game.

On the other side of the schoolyard, Vialet, visiting for the day, is observing three-on-three basketball. "Watch the hand checks!" she says.

At least half of the students at Brookland at Bunker Hill and the 13 other D.C. schools that have hired Sport4Kids are from low-income families. Vialet said that's where her donors are interested in spending money. Educators say that although Sports4Kids would work anywhere, kids from neighborhoods with a dearth of organized sports programs and crime that keeps many of them indoors face special deficits in learning how to play.

"A lot of our students don't have models for what meaningful play looks like," said Stephen Zrike Jr., principal of William Ohrenberger Elementary in the West Roxbury section of Boston, where a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education reported a reduction in fights and disciplinary problems after the introduction of Sports4Kids.

What the kids themselves think is difficult to know for sure, because interviews for this report were conducted in the company of an assistant principal at Brookland at Bunker Hill. Fifth-grader Bryant Jones, 10, said that before Sports4Kids, recess was "a little boring," Jaden Wilson, also 10, said he liked the organization.

"I like the lines for the games," he said, "so that people don't say, 'Hey, you pushed me.' "

As for Wright, after Clark Elementary closed in June, he took Sports4Kids with him to his new assignment at Truesdell Educational Center, a school for grades pre-K through 8 in Petworth.

"Our school system has failed historically to teach our kids how to resolve conflicts," Wright said. "In the neighborhood, the one way to resolve conflict is to put your hands or a weapon on someone." Sports4Kids won't solve all of that, he said, but it's a start.

"So they can move beyond rock-paper-scissors."

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