Overcoming the challenges of creating an inclusive school community

Educators know that helping new students transition into a school’s  culture is critical to building and sustaining a healthy community. This can be tough, especially when students come from different backgrounds or cultures.

We see examples of schools overcoming this challenge on Playworks playgrounds around the country. The key to their success is enabling students to feel safe and included on the playground.

For example, Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School sits on Chicago’s northwest side, surrounded by a mosaic of newly established immigrant communities. The school’s 900 students speak 43 different languages at home, from Urdu to Vietnamese. Its zip code – 60625 – is one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse schools in the nation.

Peterson’s multicultural community also presents its own unique challenges for creating a positive and inclusive school culture. Just imagine: so many different kids interacting with people of so many different cultures and languages for the first time.

The Peterson playground very clearly spotlighted some of these challenges. Before Playworks, students separated themselves into small clusters, not by age or grade, but by culture and language. While students felt comfortable, the creation of these siloed groups inhibited inclusiveness and community building.

One year after implementing Playworks, you could walk onto the playground and feel a difference. Play became a common denominator rather than language or homeplace. By leading with inclusion and empathy, and encouraging every student to jump into games, kids began befriending others from different backgrounds and chose to regularly play games together.

Similarly, in Arizona, Coach Mitzi Ortega served at a school where 1,400 students spoke 37 languages.

“There can be tension within cultures on the recess playground,” said Mitzi.

She worked with a teacher to identify a pathway to bringing the community together. Mitzi created an International Family Night to bring together refugee families to provide resources they need to thrive.

After bringing together families and gaining the trust of the parents, school administrators, and kids, Mitzi started to see positive changes on the playground and in the classroom.

“When you see the best come out of every child, no matter their gender, race, or age, you get to experience one of the best things ever,” she said.

While not every community has a similar extent of linguistic or ethnic diversity, every playground is inherently diverse. By leveraging the power of play, Playworks finds ways to bring students with different abilities, backgrounds, cultures, and identities together.

More Stories of Play


kids and adults on tv set
kids and adults on tv set

Developing leaders on and off the playground ›

Before Playworks came to Gustavo’s school, he says recess was bland with just three options for how to spend the time. After Playworks came, there were actual games, regulations for games to make them consistent, a lot less harassment of people making fun of other people. “After Playworks, school felt like more of a safe…

empty room with words painted on walls
empty room with words painted on walls

The Difference a Caring Adult Makes in the City of Good Neighbors ›

“Schools are going weeks without hearing from kids. Calling it a tragedy doesn’t do it justice. Even if kids are safe, they’re still lost kids because they aren’t connected,” Tyler Davis, Playworks Site Coordinator in Buffalo, NY, explains about kids in the pandemic who haven’t been attending school virtually. At the end of the pandemic,…

Global Recess Alliance logo
Global Recess Alliance logo

Recess is Necessary ›

Researchers agree: it’s important to prioritize recess in how schools approach re-opening. The research community has come together to establish the Global Recess Alliance in an effort to bring attention to the essential role of recess during school reopening. These scholars, health professionals, and educational leaders agree that recess is critical for children’s physical and…

Stories from the Playground: Coach Hoops ›

It’s not every day that a Playworks #AmeriCorps Coach is honored by the Los Angeles Lakers, complete with a basketball clinic hosted by legendary forward A.C. Green. Then again, being treated to a center court awards ceremony at a Lakers game isn’t something a Playworks Coach experiences every day, either. But it’s her everyday actions…