Bringing Out the Best: Debbie Rhea’s LiiNK

Liink is a unique laboratory for researching one end of the spectrum of play

With the advent of Playworks’ 20th Anniversary and our aim of reaching 3.5 million kids in 7,000 schools by 2020, I've launched a blog that I am calling "Bringing out the Best." I welcome your ideas and suggestions for stories! 

I liked Debbie Rhea from the moment I started talking with her on the phone. Debbie is the researcher and driving force behind LiiNK (Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids), a new project based in Texas garnering significant media attention. 

As a solid advocate for the power of play to bring out the best in kids, Debbie is a kindred spirit. Like Playworks, LiiNK advocates for the value of real recess where kids are in charge of their own time. They stress that “brain breaks” or other classroom activities are no replacement for the benefits of child-directed play outside.

Also like Playworks, LiiNK recognizes that in order for play to thrive at school, grown-ups need alternatives to harsh discipline and eagle-eyed supervision. To make recess work, both programs encourage play for the sake of play, rather than playing to win. They also both focus on developing school norms for respect and inclusion that permeate the classroom and the playground.

But Debbie is also quick to point out that the programs are very different. An essential aspect of LiiNK is that it emphasizes the importance of teachers “getting out of the way” when kids are outside. 

Defining play has always been something of a challenge, but one way to think of it is as a continuum with “structured” sports and games led by kids or adults on one end and “unstructured” open-ended or imaginative play on the other. What makes LiiNK so extraordinary is that it is creating a unique laboratory for researching one end of the spectrum of play: Debbie’s goal is to assess the impact of giving kids the opportunity to experience a truly unstructured, outdoor play experience; one that she is quick to emphasize, “does not include adults.”

When Debbie says unstructured, she means it: To create and observe a truly unstructured environment, LiiNK does not allow sports or games during recess–no balls and no equipment of any kind. Instead, tree climbing, swinging on swings, and imaginative play are encouraged. Debbie is finding that kids gravitate away from games when given this framework. LiiNK teachers are also delivering the Positive Action curriculum in the classroom in conjunction with this unstructured recess time, and participate in three full days of training so that they are able to create a foundation that enables participating students to be successful.

So far, LiiNK is working with Kindergarten and first grade classes in six schools in the Fort Worth area and having some remarkable success. From measuring behaviors in the classroom, academic achievement, and attentional fatigue to BMI and physical activity levels, LiiNK is showing dramatic impact.

LiiNK has plans to expand to ten new schools in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in the fall, and further plans to expand both in age range and in regions in the coming years. Their programs are demonstrating the impact multiple recesses and character building have on the learning climate and on childrens' academic success. Now, they are working to answer the big, exciting question, "How can we change school policies to incorporate multiple recesses and character building daily?" 

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