Teaming Up with Boston’s John F. Kennedy School for Safe and Healthy Play

  1. Updates

When Jonah Williams walked into the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain at the beginning of this school year, he couldn’t wait to see the students he’d known when he was a full-time Playworks Coach there. After 3 years and a pandemic, he was worried it would be hard to recognize the 5th graders he hadn’t seen since they were in 1st grade, but his fears dissipated as soon as he saw a class in the hallway. 

“Coach Jonah!?! What are you doing here??”

This time around, Coach Jonah is back as a Site Coordinator running the Playworks TeamUp model, which means he spends one week a month at the JFK working with the staff and students to implement Playworks best practices on site. While Coach Jonah’s not there every day to run recess the way he was in the 2018-19 school year, another familiar face is: Mr. Coburn, the JFK Director of Safety and Operations.

“The school decided to make the shift to TeamUp because they were really looking to build capacity and invest in their staff members,” says Coach Jonah. “It’s great to see how Mr. Coburn has taken the lead: managing transitions, encouraging students to use Rock Paper Scissors to resolve conflicts, and empowering the other recess staff to really engage in games with the students.”

Mr. Coburn and his team are the ones ensuring that every recess at the JFK is safe, engaging, and fun. Leaning on the strong sense of community at the school, the JFK Administrative and Recess Team have come together to build their ideal recess for their students. With a commitment to continuous improvement, they’re working each day to make sure students are building new friendships and finding options and opportunities they want to participate in at recess.

As the point person at every recess to manage systems and expectations, Mr. Coburn keeps things on track. But that doesn’t mean he spends his time on the sidelines supervising – you’re more likely to find him throwing a football with students or playing a game of tag.

“The secret sauce is actively leading by example,” says Mr. Coburn. “It’s a collective effort, but leading the charge is the most important piece. Sometimes I’ll just jump into a game of Hula Hoop Tag and say I’m going to get everyone and it really just energizes the kids. If somebody’s good at baseball or loves bowling or even something like bean bag toss, we can do that at recess and get excited about it.”

Now when Coach Jonah shows up for TeamUp weeks at the JFK, he gets to focus on investing in his Junior Coach team and teaching new games and social-emotional skills at Class Game Time. His 15 rockstar Junior Coaches are excellent role models for their younger peers during recess and in school. These youth leaders help to implement a true Playworks recess for their peers, full of safe and healthy play which leads to more engagement and empowerment in the school even when Coach Jonah isn’t there. They always show up in their purple Junior Coach shirts and manage some of the JFK students’ favorite recess games, such as Kickball, Fishy Fishy, and Hula Hoop Tag

This week in their two training sessions, Coach Jonah focused on teaching the Junior Coaches some Indoor Recess games and procedures so they can be just as helpful to their school community through the winter months. When it’s snowing, raining or too cold to go outside, each Junior Coach leads an activity for a single classroom, keeping students playing and active even when the playground is covered in snow.

During Class Game Time sessions, Coach Jonah gets a chance to teach new games that students can sustain on their own at recess and provides space for students to engage with their classmates, classroom teachers, and recess monitors in a new and different way. 

“I love seeing students and teachers rebuild relationships and social skills that have taken a hit throughout the pandemic,” says Coach Jonah.

As he teaches games like Rock Paper Scissors Relay and Fishy Fishy to the JFK students, he makes sure to emphasize how to set up the game on their own at recess. It’s often as simple as bringing out two cones and counting off into two teams to get started, or letting students know they can play Fishy Fishy until there are two fish left, who can then become the new sharks. 

Mr. Coburn emphasizes that these new games and relationship-building opportunities are a highlight of the TeamUp partnership. “One of the best things is switching it up a little bit,” he says. “We know Coach Jonah comes once a month for a week, so when it’s coming up it gives an opportunity for a transition week – something different to add to what’s going on. It keeps it fresh.”

The combination of Mr. Coburn, JFK’s recess team, and Coach Jonah’s monthly on-site support demonstrates the true power of the TeamUp program. While Coach Jonah’s time on campus is limited, the focus on capacity building, teaching self-sustaining recess games, and empowering Junior Coaches to own recess means the JFK students feel the power of play even when he isn’t there. 

“It’s always a welcome site when Coach Jonah comes in with the students, but being able to sustain it takes people from the building,” says Mr. Coburn. “No one has to be the most skilled. I know I can play football or basketball with them, but the basis of what I do is willingness and effort. And that’s something everyone can do.”

Are you interested in learning more about TeamUp? Check out this page for more information or reach out to Partnership Director Dawn Lavallee at dawn.lavallee@playworks.org.

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