Putting the Play Back in Recess

  1. Updates

By Melody Guyton Butts, The Herald Sun

DURHAM – Standing at the corner of a bustling blacktop, keeping watch over a few dozen first-graders playing four square and jumping rope, Parkwood Elementary School Principal Michael Somers tells of a starkly different recess environment just a year ago.

Then, there were no triumphant shouts of “Goal!” from the soccer field behind him. There were no groups of students and teachers moving together in a weeks-long quest to run – or walk – a marathon. There was no rollicking game of capture the flag.

“Last year at recess, we would have about 40 kids just kind of standing here look at each other,” Somers says, pointing to an empty area behind the school. “Another little group would be over there talking.”

But that was, as Jill Vialet puts it, “BP – before Playworks.”  

Vialet is the president and founder of Playworks, a national nonprofit that works with schools to put the play back in recess. The program was implemented in the 2011-12 school year in nine Durham schools – Bethesda, C.C. Spaulding, Eno Valley, Fayetteville Street, Glenn, Hope Valley, Parkwood and Spring Valley elementary schools, plus Maureen Joy Charter School – and Playworks and Durham Public Schools officials are hopeful that the program can be expanded to more schools next year.

Playworks, which solely serves schools with free or reduced-price lunch rates above 50 percent, brings a full-time coach to each school to organize and facilitate safe, healthy physical recess activities.  

The idea is to get all children playing – boys and girls together. The adult coach is assisted in his or efforts by a team of fourth- and fifth-grade students, known as junior coaches. At the end of recess, the Playworks coach gathers the students to talk about what they did well and what needs improving, and then sends them back to class in a zen state of mind thanks to a deep-breathing exercise and high-fives.

The coach also meets with individual classes every few weeks for “class game time,” when students learn how to play field games like kickball and soccer.

“That's a great opportunity for me to teach a lot of the teamwork and conflict-resolution skills,” explained Parkwood coach Janelle Averill.  

Conflict resolution is a huge component of the program, says Laura Deeprose, program director for Playworks in Durham. When a dispute happens – say, the ball hits the line in a game of four square – students extend their hands for a quick round of Ro-Sham-Bo (more commonly known as rock-paper-scissors) to solve the conflict.

“It can go over into the classroom, too,” she said. “If two kids are fighting over a computer or fighting over a pencil, they just do a quick round of Ro-Sham-Bo, and the conflict is solved. They're able to do it on their own, without involving an adult, which I think is really neat.”

The program's goals are multi-pronged: Teach children the fun and benefit of moving their bodies; cut down on behavior problems during both recess and class time; and develop students into leaders.

“I think, ultimately, we norm certain behaviors like empathy and teamwork and leadership,” Vialet said during a recent visit to Durham.  

“I think a lot of the problems that we see and experience as society are the result of us not norming these more pro-social behaviors in the first place,” she continued. “The negative behavior has kind of filled a vacuum where we haven't done the sort of work that I think the community's responsible for, teaching kids how to behave. If they behave poorly, I think it's because we did something wrong as grown-ups, on some level.”

Somers said he's seen a drastic change in disciplinary referral traffic since Playworks came on board.

“The majority of our office referrals last year came from recess and what I call post-recess fallout, things that continue in the classroom after recess,” he said. “We've probably had as many this year as we would get in a week last year.”

A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University found that Playworks found that schools with Playworks spent 27 percent less time transitioning from recess to instructional time than did schools without the organized-play program.  

While recess is Playworks' focus, each Playworks coach also runs either a before-school or after-school program four days a week in which a small group of students – about 12 at Parkwood – plays games and works on homework. Those programs are free for students.

Coaches also organize inter-scholastic leagues for sports like girls basketball and co-ed volleyball. Players – interest is so high that coaches must draw their names from a hat – compete after school against teams from other Playworks schools in developmental games, meaning that there's no scoreboard.

Don Fowler, executive director of Playworks' Durham location, described one recent volleyball game night as thrilling.

“Moms on the Spring Valley team were cheering for kids on the C.C. Spaulding team, and you've got the teachers there and the principals there,” he said. “Those are the nights when the kids are beaming the brightest. It's crazy how excited they are – they're representing their school, but it's also people caring about them outside the norm of what their day looks like inside the classroom.” 

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