A 4th grader who never smiled. A 5th grader who played kickball every recess but never allowed other kids to kick and run the bases. And two boys who got into fights constantly at recess.
Those were just a few of the students who learned how to play well together by participating in Playworks’ Recess Reboot at Weemes Elementary School. Weemes is located in South Los Angeles, blocks from the USC University Park campus. The USC Good Neighbors Grant Program sponsored a four-day Playworks Recess Reboot in December to teach its model of healthy and safe play. Although top administrators were excited about the chance to see Playworks’ program in action, some other staff members weren’t sure it could work given the challenges faced at the inner-city school.
“When you have someone come in— this preppy, positive, happy-go-lucky, jolly Playworks personality—it can feel a little overwhelming, like, wait a second, listen here, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas,” says Jessica Cornejo, the Playworks certified trainer who led the Recess Reboot at Weemes. “So, at first with the adults, there was some skepticism, like, what are you going to come in and teach us about our community? Not because I’m not capable but because of the culture that was so embedded in the students on the playground.”
Prior to the Recess Reboot, to keep order on the playground, Weemes kept classes divided into separate sections of the playground, so kids from different classes couldn’t play together. The Playworks method changed that, with Jessica teaching recess team members how to facilitate positive, inclusive play so different classes could have fun together.
Even the most skeptical recess team members became believers when they saw kids transformed in ways they never expected.
“They were playing and having fun, smiles on their faces,” says Trina Ortiz, a recess team member who’s also the parent of a seven-year-old daughter at Weemes. “They weren’t in sections where they couldn’t play with their friends. So it was awesome. It opened a new door for them.”
But what about the boy with a tough exterior who never smiled? After Jessica selected him to help demonstrate one of the games, he was a changed kid. “I didn’t know his history until the recess team shared that it was a major highlight for them,” Jessica says. “It brought them so much joy that he was actually engaged. The smile is what they said. We’d never seen him smile before.”
He wasn’t alone. The boy who only played kickball loved the new Playworks games so much that he recruited other kids to play them and abandoned kickball for the week. As for the two boys who often fought at recess, they played peacefully with no problem, using Roshambo to resolve any conflicts that arose.
Something else special happened during the Recess Reboot at Weemes, which Jessica says she’s never witnessed before as a trainer. Traditionally, the Playworks trainer leads “Recess 101” where different games are demonstrated to the classes. But one of the recess team leaders stepped up and said she wanted to lead the first game. Then another team member volunteered for the second and another for the third, so Jessica was able to stay on the sidelines. At the end of the week, she says administrators were astonished not just by the changes in how students were playing but by changes in the adults who supervised recess. “[The principal] noted the change in the adults present on the playground—the way they were engaged and empowered—and they were empowering the students, and they were really taking ownership over the recess and playing an active role in facilitating different games, helping students resolve any minor conflicts that might have come up, and just being a lot more positive and more present.”
The Recess Reboot happened right before Weemes went on winter break for three weeks. But in the week following the break, Weemes’ assistant principal, Mercedes Pineda, says she noticed kids practicing skills they’d learned during the Reboot, demonstrating good sportsmanship by saying “good job/nice try,” giving high fives, and using Roshambo to negotiate ties. She’s working to ensure the new systems are maintained because the benefits are so powerful. “It’s a way of empowering the kids and engaging the kids. So when the kids are engaged and they’re involved and there’s a structure out there, it empowers them to be able to play the games correctly and to be able to talk and give their opinions, so it’s pretty cool to see how that’s developing.”
Ms. Ortiz, the recess team member, is looking forward to the next time Jessica visits as part of the Good Neighbors grant. “I’m up for more challenges. Let’s learn some more games.”
The Recess Reboot at Weemes Elementary School is part of the USC Good Neighbors Grant Program funded by university employee contributions to support the university-community partnership.