Search form

Playworks: Reforming Recess by Teaching Rules of Play


Ask some principals to identify the most difficult part of their day, and it will be recess, a time when fights and visits to the nurse's office skyrocket. But before you decide to eliminate this important opportunity for physical activity, consider the causes of the chaos. Many students don't come to school with the tools they need to resolve conflicts or the basic understanding of playground games. This is where Playworks, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, comes in. Through talented on-site playground coordinators and well-trained junior coaches, it provides the structure and guidance required to make recess the powerful and productive experience it should be. 

"We know that play is essential to the emotional, social, and physical development of kids," explains Jill Vialet, founder and president of Playworks (formerly known as Sports4Kids). "We know that what happens in the classroom is important, but what happens on the playground is also vital to the health of kids and schools."


Getting All
Kids Involved

Larissa Adam, of Ascend Elementary School in Oakland, California, knew that Playworks was "working" at her school when she saw middle school girls getting excited about taking part in basketball practice during lunch recess so that they could prepare for weekly games.

Before Playworks came to Ascend five years ago, many girls were not playing sports and getting exercise during recess. Interpersonal conflicts frequently occurred.

"As a result of the program, a significantly higher percentage of girls are participating in basketball, dodge ball, soccer and there are significantly fewer conflicts between students," Adams observed. "The program is instrumental in getting kids excited about sports, particularly students who might normally be reluctant to participate."

At a time when some schools are eliminating recess in favor of additional instructional time, Vialet believes that encouraging healthy play at recess is vital and can contribute to the classroom learning environment. Playworks helps schools make the most of recess times, providing skilled coordinators who create a safe and structured environment and organize games and sports during recess periods. A nonprofit organization, it works side-by-side with physical education teachers to promote opportunities for physical activity.

"Last fall, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that recess was the single best way to boost physical activity in kids. Because of 

cuts [in programs that engage kids in physical activity], there are actually more opportunities to teach and encourage kids to be more physically active in recess than there are in physical education or after-school programs," Vialet reported.

"Other studies have found that kids are more likely to engage in an activity over the course of their lives if they experience that activity as fun at a young age. So playing games -- especially games like kickball and four square games that anyone can learn quickly and enjoy -- is the best way to create that positive association with physical fitness."

Playworks began in two Berkeley, California, elementary schools and today serves more than 50,000 students in 131 low-income public schools. The organization currently has branches in San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., and future expansion is planned.


"I was happy because I got to help the other children," says Gustavo, a former Sports4Kids junior coach who is now a sixth grader in middle school. "Some children felt bad because they didn't know how to play the game, so then we helped them learn how to play. There was one student that I taught how to play basketball. And he really learned the game really well."

Students who become junior coaches through Sports4Kids develop leadership skills and embrace the responsibility, notes Eyana Spencer, principal of Manzanita Community School (Gustavo's alma mater). Her first experience with Playworks occurred when she was a teacher in another school in the Oakland (California) Unified School District. That school had 650 students in grades K-5 and a large paved yard with no play structure.

"Prior to the arrival of a Playworks coach, there were a lot of conflicts and fights," recalled Spencer. "There were no organized games. Most students had nothing to do other than to chase each other and fight over the four or five balls. After recess, a significant amount of time was spent on solving recess conflicts, which took away from instructional time."


What we have learned from more than a decade in the playground trenches is that recess does not have to be hell. Not only is it possible to manage the chaos, but doing so can actually transform the entire school climate.
-- Jill Vialet
(Photo by Jonathan Payne)

When she was teaching, Spencer appreciated the expertise of the Sports4Kids coach at her school, who willingly taught her and her class many games. She wasn't always dressed for physical education and didn't have an extensive knowledge of games, so the guidance of the coach was indispensable.

Today, as a principal, Spencer says that she wouldn't run her school without a Playworks coach. The coach helps to resolve recess conflicts when they occur, checks out playground equipment, and teaches noncompetitive games. Her students especially like traditional games such as four square, kickball, wall ball, and tennis. A Playworks coach and junior coaches make these games possible.

"[Playworks] is so worth it," Spencer stated. "I have worked at three schools with four different coaches, and each was fantastic. Playworks does great job of hiring. They find young energetic people who really care about children, physical fitness, and fun!"

Across the nation in Baltimore, Maryland, Principal Andre D. Spencer has a similar admiration for the Playworks coaches. He reports that students on the playground at Brehms Lane Elementary School jump rope, run relay races, play tag, dance, and engage in other games with far more "technical" names, all under the wing of an outstanding Sports4Kids coordinator.

In its third year, the program at Spencer's school includes opportunities for single classes to learn the rules of organized games and for larger group play during lunch period recess. There is also an after school component that is reserved for fourth and fifth graders who are trained as junior coaches, of which Brehms Lane has twenty. Thanks to Playworks, even shy students are extremely active during recess, and there are fewer discipline problems, especially during lunch.

"My students love the program, and they truly adore the Playworks coordinator," added Spencer. "They most definitely prefer organized activities rather than free play because they have set rules which make it fair for all. I have several active students, and this program helps tremendously."


Faced with the issue that safe and structured play was never modeled for students, two years ago the staff of Ohrenberger Elementary in Boston, Massachusetts, turned to Playworks to implement effective organized and team play. At the time, recess games often ended abruptly and were plagued by excessive arguing and disagreements about how to appropriately play them.

"With Playworks, our students have been taught how to play specific games -- four square, double dutch, different types of dodge ball, and various forms of tag," reports Ohrenberger principal Steve Zrike. "The site coaches are incredibly well trained and have high expectations for cooperation, teamwork, and sportsmanship. Students are also taught to use rock, paper, scissors to resolve any disputes that might arise. Armed with these strategies, students can quickly move past a disagreement and enjoy the game they are playing."

A spirit of cooperation pervades the schoolyard, and Zrike admits that he has never seen so many students engaged in meaningful and structured recess activities in any school.

"Recess is an enjoyable and physically and socially rewarding experience for our students," he adds. "Naturally, parents and teachers have embraced the program because of the positive response of students and the transformation that they have witnessed on our playground."

Reinforcing the core values of the school -- respect, responsibility, and hard work -- Playworks has ensured that the students remain active and safe during recess. Zrike "cannot say enough" about the positive impact the program has had on the school community.


By bringing order to the playground, Sports4Kids alleviates a source of stress for principals, teachers, and kids. In some schools, games disintegrate into conflict before they even get off the ground. Chaos rules and spills over into the classroom. These problems can eventually become a distraction and erode the students' sense of safety. Ultimately, this affects their ability to learn.


Kids to Play

Playworks founder Jill Vialet believes that the same qualities that are fundamental to safe and healthy play -- like teamwork, respect, and encouragement -- are also fundamental to safe and healthy schools. And games offer the perfect opportunity for creating and reinforcing positive behavior. Although her organization provides needed structure to make recess productive and positive, she recognizes that both structured and free play are essential for healthy social-skills development and success in the classroom.

"Until kids are comfortable with game rules and conflict resolution, I think it's important to provide some structure so they don't end up on the sidelines," Vialet explained. "Once that foundation is in place, kids have more confidence, game skills, and respect for others to engage in healthy and safe free play with their classmates."

While Playworks coaches are on the playground to conduct structured games, kids still have the option to play their own games and use sports equipment in creative, independent ways.

"As the power of play becomes more salient for parents and other people who work with children, I think everyone will realize how important it is for both structured and free play, and everyone will start to make more opportunities for both," Vialet added.

The surprising cause for much of the mayhem during recess is simple: many kids have not learned the basics of play. They don't know how to create and follow rules or how to resolve conflicts. Vialet has visited schools where the center of the schoolyard was about as vacant as a volcano crater, flanked by children on the sidelines, unsure of what to do with their free time or how to engage their classmates.

"The schoolyard has changed a lot since we were kids. If you were like me, you were playing four square or freeze tag or kickball -- any number of games that got us running, playing, and generally having a great time," said Vialet. "But in an age when kids don't have the opportunities for unsupervised play after school, on the weekends, or during the summers, many kids today come to school not really knowing how to engage in healthy play. For children who live in rough neighborhoods, playing outdoors may be strictly forbidden by their parents for safety reasons."

Even when organized activities are offered by schools during recess, the students who most need to participate -- those at risk for obesity -- may not get involved, and by design some games, such as tag, do not require the continuous participation of all players. Sports4Kids gets every kid involved by having grown-ups play along with the kids.

"I think that one of our greatest assets is our team of coaches, mostly young people fresh out of college who are looking to give back to their communities," Vialet told Education World. "Not only do they teach game rules and how to resolve conflict, but they also get to know the kids they work with and in many cases form mentoring relationships. So they notice when someone isn't participating and put forward extra effort to get him or her involved. By playing alongside the kids, they can model empathy, teamwork, leadership, and silliness all at the same time."

One of Playworks strongest assets is the Junior Coach Program. In it, some of the older students on the playground are asked to take on leadership roles by conducting games and handing out equipment. Being a junior coach keeps kids engaged while instilling confidence and a sense of responsibility, and with more leaders and games on the playground, there is a greater opportunity for everyone to participate.

"Too many kids come to school not knowing how to play, and that ends up creating a serious behavior management problem on the playground," added Vialet. "But when schools partner with us to teach kids how to play and to invest in making recess healthy and safe, it transforms not only the playground but the entire learning environment."


Playworks works with public elementary schools that have more than 50 percent of the school population receiving free or reduced lunch. However, the organization also offers training workshops and a free downloadable playbook of games. See the Playworks Web site for additional information.


Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010, 2015 Education World


Originally published 03/24/2008
Last updated 06/14/2015