The Changing Playground

Playworks Celebrates AmeriCorps Week

It is raining outside, as it usually is in Oregon. Ella, a fifth grader, sits by herself against the wall at recess. She refuses to make eye contact with any of the kids running past her.

She tells me she had to give a speech in class today, and it did not go well. She has a speech impediment that makes her afraid to speak at all, much less give a presentation. She had told me several times how nervous she was for her speech.

We start talking about foursquare, her favorite game. When a student gets out at four-square, they receive a line of high fives and a “Good job, nice try!” from the kids patiently waiting to play. A Junior Coach standing by tells them that they did a great job, and they join the recycle line to try again.

This is what is so hard for kids (and many adults) to learn. Getting out or “losing” is never fun, and can sometimes be heartbreaking. But what makes us great is our ability to accept the outcome and try again. When a student knows that they have the support of their classmates and teachers, whether they are successful or not, the fear of failure eases a little.

Before Playworks came to this school, the playground became the site of the Rural Oregon Olympics every day at promptly 10:45 am. The stakes were high. Basketball was reserved for those who could shoot effortlessly; kickball was a war zone, and most kids who did not have the same competitive energy or athletic ability were relegated to the play structure and the swings. Fights and arguments were frequent, and these conflicts spilled over into the classroom. Losing was not an option.

Affecting school culture is difficult. Change comes slowly, and in small increments, but kids are quick learners.

Now, a fourth grader who had a notoriously difficult attitude gives high fives to his teammates in soccer. Basketball is open to those who have never dribbled a ball before. Junior Coaches dutifully split up kickball teams to ensure fairness.

More and more kids descend the play structure and learn to play together, experiment with sports, and resolve conflict. Students are learning to encourage and rely on their classmates. In class game times, we talk about how our class is our team. We want our team to feel respected, included, and a part of something greater.

Ella became one of my Junior Coaches, tasked with working shifts at younger kids’ recesses to ensure safety and promote inclusion and positive language. We meet twice a week after school to work on leadership skills, go over conflict resolution tactics, and discuss ways to make all aspects of the school day more welcoming. She is finding her voice.

I watch her at recess leading a group of kindergarteners in the infamous “milkshake cheer.” She does not remember the words, subbing in nonsense words for the correct lyrics, and the kindergarteners eat it up, cheering “Again! Again!” These moments are helping Ella feel confident and know that she is contributing to her school.

She will have days when she feels as though her presentation wasn’t good enough. Or days when she loses at soccer or switch or bump all-star—but she is learning that there is always another chance to try again.

 


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