If We Had 100 Million Dollars…

  1. Updates
  2. 100&Change
  3. Civil Society
  4. Cooperation
  5. Kindness
  6. Listening
  7. Social and Emotional Learning

Read excerpts from our application to the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced eight semi-finalists for 100&Change, a competition for a 100 million dollar grant to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Of the 1,884 organizations that applied, Playworks was one of 800 that passed the MacArthur Foundation’s rigorous review process.

Playworks aims for 3.5 million students at 7,000 schools to experience safe and healthy play by December 2020.

Applying for 100&Change was a perfect opportunity to ask, “How would we define the problem we address in a way that justifies a $100 million investment?” and “What would we do differently if money were not a limiting factor?”

Excerpts from our application are below.





Our nation is the most polarized it’s been since the Pew Research Center started measuring. Whatever the conditions that have allowed divisiveness and the erosion of trust to develop, the basic skills of cooperation, empathy, and listening are not robust enough in our citizenry to respond. Without a solution that equips children with these essential skills, our country’s social fabric will continue to fray.

Surprisingly, a solution is hiding in plain sight. Safe and healthy play in school offers an accessible and ubiquitous opportunity to model and develop these skills. Our evidence over 20 years demonstrates how straightforward and cost effective this solution is. The effects are nearly immediate and ripple from the playground to classrooms to the larger community.

Playworks has a plan and the capacity to achieve measurable outcomes for 20 million students in 40,000 schools by December 2022, driving the system toward social/emotional learning for future generations.


At Playworks we believe in the power of play to bring out the best in every child. For 20 years we’ve been demonstrating the transformative impact of play for children’s well-being and engagement in school. We’ve witnessed thousands of playgrounds rife with conflict become joyful hubs of cooperation, relationship-building and empathy, all through thoughtful encouragement of safe and healthy play.

The simplicity of play and its intrinsic connection to children’s development make it a powerful solution for rising conflict and polarization in our society. Through play we learn to share, negotiate, solve challenges together, and celebrate shared experiences. These are the skills children desperately need so they can thrive as adults in an increasingly diverse democracy.

Playworks is focused on ensuring that every child has access to safe and healthy play at school every day. This is our strategy for creating and protecting the future of civil society.


Democracy’s success depends on the active engagement of all citizens to overcome individual differences and solve collective problems. Yet today our democratic processes are mired in seemingly intractable conflicts. Trust is low. Polarization is becoming the norm.

As a nation we are rapidly losing our ability to thrive in our collective. We are losing the capacity to see value in a diversity of opinions, to work through our differences, to recognize our dependence on each other. The fraying of civil society is inextricably linked to failures in our public education system. Democracy depends on public schools to prepare citizens by effectively supporting the cognitive, social and emotional development of children ages 5-18, who bring with them a vast array of life circumstances and challenges.

Many children are not gaining necessary skills for effectively engaging in civil society. Their learning environments are not offering an alternative to the fractious community outside school walls. If we require engaged citizens who can think and reason and create and collaborate and empathize with others, then we must teach these skills in all schools. We must reconnect the focus of teaching and learning to the building and protection of civil society.

Democracy and learning are both social endeavors. They are accomplished in environments with other players who bring their own experiences and character to contribute to the process. The evolution of democracy requires opportunities for children to practice citizenship in positive and safe environments, in every city, town, and community across the country.


Learning to be an engaged member of any community requires opportunities to build relationships, practice resolving disagreements, and create solutions with others. These activities draw on social and emotional skills such as caring, empathy, trust and respect. These skills are not readily learned through traditional knowledge acquisition. They are honed in the relationships children build through collaboration and dialogue in the classroom, on the bus, and on the playground.

Our solution is based on research in children’s development that has long emphasized the importance of play for cognitive and social growth. American culture has largely isolated the value of play to either very young children or its physical benefits, as a relief valve for pent up energy. These views miss the power of play for social-emotional development and the cultivation of the very skills necessary for democracy to function. These skills include cooperating, resolving conflicts, recognizing social norms and actively listening, among others. Playworks has demonstrated how children learn these skills on the playground and then use them in the classroom and beyond.

To address the increasing discord of American public culture, we will inspire, equip and support public elementary schools to integrate consistent, safe and healthy opportunities to learn through play. By December 2022, 40,000 elementary schools will provide daily, safe and healthy play and 20 million students will have developed the skills necessary for actively and positively engaging in civil society. This represents meaningful progress towards changing the way schools educate children to be citizens.


Playworks has proven it’s possible and financially feasible to integrate play into thousands of elementary schools. Our innovation includes guided games at recess, playful conflict resolution tools children can use on their own, modeling positive relationships, and opportunities to play cooperative and socializing games.

100&Change offers a dramatic opportunity to step beyond Playworks’steady march toward scale and radically accelerate our impact.  With $100 million Playworks and our partners will access new channels for spreading the innovation and teaching tens of thousands of adults how to lead safe and healthy play in schools nationwide. Building on our current plan, Playworks will first focus on a robust digital channel for delivering inspiration and tools to schools. Second, Playworks will establish a network of individuals and organizations that influence principals to join the movement for safe and healthy play. Finally, Playworks will partner with up to 50 districts and their local communities nationwide to engage deeply in embedding safe and healthy play into schools, including evaluating impacts and promoting outcomes through influencer networks.

This impact will be sustained through Playworks’ digital channel and collaboration with state education departments to provide technical support via existing channels, essentially creating extension agents for play.


A randomized control trial evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University in 2010-12 found statistically significant differences between Playworks’ schools and control schools:

  • Playworks teachers’ average rating of students’ feelings of safety at school was 20% higher than reported by teachers in control schools. Teachers in Playworks schools reported significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess, a 43% difference in average ratings.
  • Accelerometer data showed that children in Playworks schools spent significantly more time in vigorous physical activity at recess, a 43% difference.
  • Teachers in Playworks schools reported spending significantly less time to transition from recess to learning activities (34% fewer minutes).

Other supporting evidence:

  • Non-Hispanic black students at Playworks schools had higher average number of steps taken per minute, higher average time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and higher intensity counts than their peers in non-Playworks schools. (Journal of Physical Activity & Health, Volume 13, Issue 3, March 2016)
  • Teachers and principals at Playworks schools agreed that by the end of the year, recess offered opportunities for student engagement, conflict resolution, pro-social skill development, and emotional and physical safety. Respondents linked changes to improved school climate. (Journal of School Health, Volume 85, Issue 1, pages 53–60, January 2015)
  • In a social-emotional competencies evaluation, Playworks Junior Coaches scored an average of 4 points higher after program participation. 84% of Junior Coaches assessed as “Need Instruction” at pretest experienced reliable improvement. Gain is above average effect size in published literature. (Evaluation conducted by Sarah Accomazzo, PhD., UC Berkeley, Social Welfare, 2015)


First, play is not considered by many education leaders to be a powerful tool for improving outcomes for children. This creates a risk for broad adoption of our proposed solution. Playworks has addressed this risk through person-to-person persuasion and by letting impact speak for itself. Second, potential changes in federal education policy could directly impact our prospects for success. In our experience, states and districts are able to simultaneously accept changing educational mandates and embrace new best practices. Our influencer strategy will be crafted with the federal situation in mind. Third, staffing at schools is already stretched thin, so incorporating a new activity during the school day could be hampered by lack of personnel resources. Playworks is currently building partnerships to access talent outside of schools that could effectively fill this need, including college students, retirees and after-school providers. Finally, we understand that managing a scaling organization is inherently risky. From building a sustainable model to adapting organizational culture to new environments, we know the unforeseen challenges are considerable. Playworks has met these challenges by becoming brutally aware of what we know and what we don’t know. We seek expert help often and share our challenges widely as a means for gathering new solutions.

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