“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” A proverb popularized by James Howell in 1659 has withstood the test of time and is just as meaningful three centuries later. In modern days, the recess schoolyard is home to play, exercise, and expression. Running, climbing, monkey bars, swings and slides are buoyed with the peal of childhood laughter. Unfortunately, not all recess is healthy when the playground becomes a home to bullies, taunts and exclusions.
In 1996, Jill Vialet, was meeting with a principal in Oakland, California. She was there to pitch a children’s museum program, but the principal, exasperated from a difficult meeting with three fifth grade boys said, “What I really need is help with recess.” She was tired of seeing the same kids day after day hauled into her office for playground disciplinary issues. Kids, she believed, were inherently good, but doing bad things and creating chaos in the schoolyard. Vialet rose to the challenge and founded Sports4Kids, which is now called Playworks. Her goal was to transform recess (and the rest of the school day) by implementing safe and healthy play, so that teachers could teach and children could learn. This non-profit organization is the only one in the nation providing trained, full-time “play coaches” to hundreds of low-income schools in major urban areas. These coaches work in the schools to organize games and activities during both recess and class time. They run a leadership development program during school hours that benefits both staff and creates leaders in the 4th and 5th grades who act as mentors to the younger grades. After school they provide tutoring and physical activity programs as well as developmental sports leagues.
From one school in California, the program has now expanded to 27 cities. It currently operates 12 Denver Metro area schools. Brown International Academy is the latest school to join their roster and a major coup for the elementary school that continues on its quest for innovation and excellence in the world of IB and beyond. Denver executive director, Andrea Woolley, said “Brown was the last school to join our program this year, due to the efforts of a PTO parent, Gina O’Brian. It is not the usual way we enter a new school, but O’Brian attended one of our training seminars, and approached me afterward and said, ‘We need you at Brown’.” Within 24 hours PTO leadership and principal, Suzanne Loughran, developed a game plan to integrate this unique opportunity, with the realization that it was going to take community support and funding to make the dream a reality.
The cost of this program is $51,000 per year, and with the generous philanthropy of a $19 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, participating schools must fund $25,500. Funding from individuals, foundations, and small local businesses will help to provide increased physical activity level at school, enable children to solve conflicts, and create a more focused and “ready to learn” attitude upon returning to class from recess. Brown parent, Justin Cucci of Linger and Root Down has already contributed $2000 toward this powerful program.
Based on research from Playworks, the results from Denver school principals and teachers at the end of the 2010-2011 school years indicate that 94% said that students’ use of conflict resolution strategies during recess increased and 96% said that bullying at recess has decreased, While the stats sound good, what does it really mean?
By way of discovery, I spent a day with “Coach Jenny” on the Brown playground to watch Playworks in action. As children leave the lunchroom they line up to receive instruction on the games being played each day. There are four basic games that create the cornerstone of the program: 4-Square, Switch, Jump Rope and Hula Hoop. As these games are learned and mastered, additional games move on to the field like a game of 3-line soccer that had the 5th graders running in an animated, wild romp. While the games are not mandatory, the coach is there to encourage, not force participation. With time even those reluctant tend to join in. “Coach” Jenny Curtis notes, “It is definitely a choice, but our goal is to engage all of the students in physical activities.”
Most interesting is the problem solving technique that forms the basis of conflict resolution. The game, “Rock-Paper-Scissors” is utilized when disputes occur over gamesmanship. I watched over and over again, as children, unsolicited, determined the outcome by this technique. In Playworks parlance, the kids say, “RoShamBo”, a Japanese phrase that is the final word on the “verdict.” It allows winners and losers to feel equal and empowered as joint decision makers in solving a dispute and assuming responsibility. As Woolley said, “Many national and international issues could be solved with this simple game.”
Suzanne Loughran believes that Playworks is “Enhancing and reinforcing what we are already teaching in the classroom with IB attitudes and learner profiles that create character traits contributing to personal success within groups. To be successful we must teach our students to function as a team.” To learn more about this unique program, attend Brown’s Back-to-School night on September 8 from 5:30-6:45. If you are not a Brown parent, but a local citizen, business or foundation that would like to help contribute to this important program during a time of massive school budgetary cutbacks, please contact Brown’s Wellness Committee, Tina Daily at Tina1.firstname.lastname@example.org or Gina O’Brian at email@example.com. Your help and involvement fosters the kind of play that works for our community as a whole.