Portland Monthly Magazine recognized Playworks in their 2013 Light a Fire Awards. The annual awards ceremony is a celebration honoring the individuals and organizations who make Portland more prosperous, beautiful, healthful, and sustainable—in a word, better. This year, Playworks was recognized for Inspiring Our Next Generation. See the Portland Monthly story below or click here for the full story and list of recipients.
PORTLAND PLAYWORKS lives and breathes recess. Inside its headquarters on SE Madison Street, shelves overflow with bright orange cones, multicolored dodgeballs, and plastic goalposts. Impromptu foursquare games are a daily occurrence for the staff, but they’re merely practice for the four-year-old nonprofit’s real goal: teaching thousands of kids the social tools they need to play safe and healthy in the 14 metro schools it works with daily (in addition to 80-plus regional schools it services indirectly).
“Group play isn’t what it used to be,” says Jonathan Blasher, executive director of Playworks’ Pacific Northwest branch. Instead of being that carefree respite for games and sports that most adults remember nostalgically, he says, recess is now a time when almost 90 percent of negative issues in schools erupt, from schoolyard bullying to gender exclusion.
To confront that change, a think tank of teachers, summer camp directors, and sports instructors created Playworks in Oakland, California, in 1996; Portland’s division started in 2009. The goal: to create positive, respectful, and inclusive play environments for often-stressful low-income communities. And Playworks’ 20 staff members do it by taking all that equipment off the shelves and into schoolyards.
“We don’t do win or lose, boys versus girls, or team captains,” Blasher explains. “There is a common language that everyone understands, and we solve conflicts with simple games like rock-paper-scissors.” To this end, one of Playworks’ most effective projects, the Junior Coach Program, pairs older elementary students with younger students to learn games and solve their own conflicts as they arise, giving the older kids responsibility and the younger ones role models.
“Playworks has been about creating a kind and cooperative atmosphere around the school,” says Susan McElroy, principal of Daniel A. Grout Elementary, which has spent four years in the program. “All my kids follow the same rules, procedures, and conflict resolution processes, which translates to less fighting at recess and more instructional time in the classroom.”