Nettle Middle School’s Recess Rockstar

  1. Updates

When Juan Lluberes left law enforcement a few years ago, he wasn’t planning on heading back to recess. As he began as the Student Support Coordinator at Nettle Middle School in Haverhill, though, it seemed that’s where most of the problems were. 

The leadership team at Nettle was proud to offer recess for all of their middle school students every day. They know the importance of a regularly scheduled time for physical play and activity, and they know students continue to get less of it as they age. Research shows that higher levels of physical activity in children are associated with lower levels of stress and anxiety. And recess is the best opportunity for many high-need students to be active, with 42% of daily activity occurring at recess. 

However, it seemed Mr. Lluberes (Mr. L to the Nettle students and staff) was spending most of his day being called out to recess to deal with fights or bullying. It was starting to seem the negativity was outweighing the positive benefits they were aiming for. Then the Principal, Shereen Escovitz, came across Playworks. With only a couple part time staff at recess and no foundation of healthy games and activities happening on the recess yard, she didn’t know how to get started, but Mr. L stepped in.

First, a Playworks Trainer came to see recess in action.

It confirmed much of what Mr. L and Ms. Escovitz already knew, but they hadn’t thought about how dividing the large field, currently overtaken by a stretched out game of football engaging just a few students, would enable them to have a variety of more engaging and inclusive activities. There was a place to start. 

But when students started returning to school in early 2021, the fights returned too.

With only a portion of the kids back at school, there were less issues to deal with but also more flexibility to try something new. A full Recess Reboot was planned for fall 2021, but Mr. L was ready to take on the work. He just needed some advice and partners. 

After a brief call with a Playworks Trainer and an introduction to Recess Lab resources, he went to work on a recess map and introduced more activities. He divided up the space into a few zones, and started thinking about which activities would appeal to which of his kids. He even took it upon himself to launch a Student Coach program, empowering 22 of his 7th and 8th graders to take a leadership role. 

Then, throughout the spring of 2021, recess started to get better.

More of the students were finding games and activities to engage in, and the music blasting in the chill zone made recess feel like a place students actually wanted to hang out. The various zones and game variety helped in other ways as well: “Nettle has seen about a 90% drop in physical fights and injuries during recess. When problems occur, they do not consume the entirety of recess,” says Mr. L, “These issues are normally resolved within the boundaries of that specific play area.” By engaging more students at recess and equipping them with conflict resolution skills like Rock, Paper, Scissors, the Nettle was able to change the culture of their recess.

When the time finally came for the Recess Reboot in September, Coach Molly just had to reinforce the great work Mr. L had started. She helped launch the new cohort of 7th grade Junior Coaches, taught some new inclusive dodgeball games to all of the individual classes, and encouraged some tweaks to the transitions in and out of recess. However, she could already sense the culture change that Mr. L had started. 

“Mr. Lluberes has been a game-changer at Nettle Middle School,” says Ms. Escovitz. “His initiative with rolling out Playworks has re-shaped not only our recess culture, but our school culture as a whole. Mr. L’s endless positivity, relentless work ethic, and passion for supporting students has made our school a better place”. 

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