Playworks for every kid

Better Physical and Emotional Health Equals Better Learning

A thoughtful Q&A with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Jane Lowe
December 6, 2011

With poverty rates in our country on the rise, more children are dealing with instability at home as programs are simultaneously being slashed at school. In the current edition of Education Week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Vulnerable Populations Team Director Jane Lowe discusses the impact of innovative partnerships that address the physical and emotional health of schoolchildren in the article, "Want to Boost Learning? Start with Emotional Health."  Playworks sat down with her to discuss further.


>> Read a Q&A with Playworks CEO and Founder Jill Vialet on NewPublicHealth.org 

Playworks: Your article in EdWeek asserts that Playworks improves an often chaotic time of the day-school recess-which helps make for better school climate and thus learning. Can you explain the connection between school climate and learning to overall health for children?

Jane Lowe: Being ready to learn is not just about having academic skills, but also about insuring that children have a set of skills that allow them to manage their emotions, make decisions, and solve problems. It is also about creating opportunities for children to play and learn through physical activity. The combination of all these skills are what contribute to their healthy growth and development.

There’s no question that the school day is clearly about learning, but in order to learn, we also need to pay attention to the social and emotional needs of children. We know those needs are connected to the child’s ability to learn: meaning children bring feelings and emotions into the classroom whether from the playground or home. An unkind word from a school bully, or being excluded from games on the playground, is as likely to distract a child from their learning as problems from home.

It is in the nature of children, especially young children, to want to play and run around--something that Playworks understands and incorporates throughout their work. An orrganized recess not only gives children a safe place to play, but also to problem-solve with games such as rock, paper, scissors. This approach ensures no child is left on the sidelines.  Opportunities to play allow children to burn energy and develop social skills that affect their social and emotional health as well as their physical well-being, and enable them to enter the classroom ready to learn. These benefits spill over through the entire school day, improving the overall school climate.

Playworks: The article makes a strong connection between poverty, academic achievement and health. In your opinion, how do these things overlap?

Jane Lowe: We know that many children living in poverty do not have access to high-performing schools, adequate nutrition and safe spaces to play. We all need to be concerned that our children living in poverty don’t have access to strong schools where they can fulfill their potential. There is a strong correlation between academic achievement and health. The more educated you are, the better health you are going to have across your lifetime – we know that people with more education are likely to live longer, have better health outcomes and have healthier behaviors, such as not smoking, getting regular physical activity and getting routine health screenings and check-ups.

Playworks: Why has the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation chosen to work with Playworks to address these unmet needs of children?

Jane Lowe: RWJF’s Vulnerable Populations portfolio focuses on innovative solutions to entrenched problems that exist at the intersection of health and social factors like education, housing or employment.  We believe that health begins – and is maintained – outside of the doctor’s office, where we live, learn, work and play.

We began working with Playworks in 2005 because what it offers is a practical but revolutionary solution to the challenge of recess. Before Playworks began to work with schools, we heard time and time again that recess had broken down in to chaos, with kids either getting in to trouble, getting hurt, having disputes or otherwise sitting on the sidelines, totally disengaged. We’ve seen how the program transforms the school climate, improving outcomes in kids’ health, behavioral wellness and readiness to learn.

Our goal with Playworks is to spread this model widely to low-income schools that have fewer opportunities for safe play so we can create healthy environments for children to learn, grow, have fun and achieve their greatest potential. Together, we are working to reach at least 500,000 children through Playworks Training and expansion and serve more than 600 schools in 27 communities around the nation by 2013.