The Secret to Playworks’ Success

Student Nick Nieto, an ongoing volunteer with Playworks, shares his experience at a UCLA speaking event.

Recess is the most overlooked time of the school day. And at many low-income elementary schools across the country, teachers and principals see that conflict often starts on the playground, and can find its way back into the classroom. With so much pressure on schools to demonstrate student academic performance, recess is often seen as a detractor from the school day. And that’s exactly why so many principals decide that recess is more trouble than it’s worth, choosing to reduce it or to eliminate it altogether.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to visit Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary in the Watts neighborhood here in LA. It’s a rough neighborhood, and these kids live right in the middle of it every day. But when I got out onto the playground, the kids didn’t seem like kids from tough circumstances. Right when we got there, a first grader named Christian came up to me, and the first thing he said was “The three rules of the playground are one, be respectful, two, be safe, and three, have fun.” Later I joined a game of foursquare, and when two girls had a disagreement during the game, they played rock-paper-scissors to resolve the conflict, and then kept playing. There’s a reason this recess worked so well: Coach Calvin from Playworks.

I lead a student-driven marketing consulting group here at UCLA, and Playworks is one of our clients, so I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Playworks inside and out. It seems so basic, so what makes it so amazing? None of the methods they use are groundbreaking. In fact, all they really do is give every kid the chance to play. The secret to their success? Understanding that the playground can be the most important classroom.

Out on the playground, kids learn how to get along with each other. They learn how to get back up after making mistakes. They learn how to solve conflicts. And they learn a lot about themselves. What Playworks coaches do is create an environment where kids that would otherwise feel left out are given the chance to be a part of the team. Where kids who might otherwise become bullies, are given the chance to be leaders. When the kids have a disagreement: they play rock-paper-scissors, and move on. The self-reinforcing cycle that separates kids as good and bad, athletic and un-athletic, is interrupted by an enthusiastic, playful adult that makes sure every kid has a chance get in the game. Kids return to the classroom happy, and much more ready to learn. They feel safer at school, and for the first time, many of kids feel like they belong.

If my work with Playworks has taught me anything, it’s that recess can be fixed at any school, with any group of kids. As the next generation of parents, educators, and civic and business leaders we need to really value play. We all need to understand that play isn’t something trivial we let silly kids do to take a break from learning. Play IS learning, lifelong learning. As George Bernard Shaw reminds us, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” So if you care about elementary education, if you really care about the future of our nation’s kids, you have to be looking at play and recess.


Nick Nieto is a junior at UCLA and is the executive director and founder of Edubase, a student-driven 501(c)3 organization that provides marketing support to nonprofits. Edubase is currently working with Playworks on marketing projects surrounding Playworks SoCal and CEO Jill Vialet’s novel, Recess Rules. Check out Edubase at

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