Morning recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda is a boisterous affair, made even louder today by a strong wind that blows across the concrete yard, billowing kids’ shirts and ruffling their hair. Over at one end of the long yard is a playing field where Coach Kenny Wong is supervising about 20 children. They’re playing capture the flag – a pretty common game – but there’s something uncommon happening here, as principal Jan Goodman explains: “There’s Coach Kenny out there, and he’s playing a game and he’s got some fifth graders in it, but there’s also some first graders playing with them.”
Usually at this age, the size and social difference among kids from different grades keep them from playing together – to make sure younger kids don’t get hurt. But recess has been different here at Ruby Bridges, since the school brought in a program called Playworks. Coach Kenny is a Playworks employee, and he’s out in the yard with the kids almost all day long.
“He has the kids learn cooperative games that teach sportspersonship, fairness and respect, and are really fun at the same time,” says principal Goodman.
Coach Kenny also leads a “junior coach” program, where kids in the upper grades act as his assistants in the yard. They help him pass out and collect equipment, and make sure that the rules of games are clear. Junior coaches also help with conflict resolution, often by suggesting a good old-fashioned rock paper scissors match.
Playworks is a national non-profit based in Oakland with the goal of bringing “organized play” to schools. But what exactly is “organized play”? And why would you need it at recess?
Goodman says conflicts at recess often start with an argument about a game’s rules, and that’s where junior coaches can be helpful. Kids can also feel lost if they don’t have clear options for play, and conflict can arise from that, too. She wants kids to be ready to learn when they return to the classroom. “We really want them to feel good about themselves by the time they go back in, so they don’t bring any baggage from recess,” she says.
Playworks’ founder Jill Vialet used to run a children’s art museum, where she heard many school principals complain about recess at their schools. Like Goodman, they were concerned that problems at recess were spilling over into the classroom. Vialet says these kinds of conversations motivated her to dig into this issue, and what she found is something that is becoming common knowledge: today’s kids are not getting the same opportunities for free, creative play that previous generations have had. The rise of entertainment technology and video games, along with an emphasis on achievement and testing in schools, has led to kids getting less practice at just playing with each other. And play, Vialet believes, is essential to a child’s intellectual development.
Playworks does focus on teaching specific games and rules, but the goal during recess is to provide enough options so kids have the freedom to choose activities for themselves. In this way it’s both structured and freeform.
Alison Townley, Playworks East Bay executive director, says that without enough structure, recess can become intimidating.
“What’s really scary for a kid is when they come to the play yard and they don’t know the rules of the game,” she says. “They’re afraid to walk up to the game because they don’t know which kid switched the rules that day, or which kid’s switching it mid-game.”
But when rules are clear, kids can really relax into play, and that teaches them more than just how to behave at recess.
“Play and sports are the things that have taught us how to work in an office, or work in an environment, or go to college,” Townley says. “We learned to play with each other, and to play fairly and to be honest, and [to] trust.”
The full Playworks program, with a full-time Playworks coach onsite, is expensive – about $25,000 per year per school. So Playworks offers teacher trainings to schools that can’t afford the whole program. At these trainings, adults actually have to get up and play, resulting in scenes not often glimpsed in “professional development”: sweaty teachers giggling hysterically as they run around carpeted conference rooms. Afterwards, they discuss the values or messages that might be operating under the surface of a given game’s rules. For example, that old chestnut: “Tag, you’re it”.
Playworks trainer Brady Gill says that being “it” carries all sorts of negative connotations for a child. “What if I’m ‘it’?” he posits. “What if I’m running around and I can’t tag anyone? Or people see that I’m ‘it’ all the time? What does that mean about me, you know?”
So Playworks teaches variations of tag where half the group, or even everyone, is “it” at once, eliminating the fear of being singled out by changing the focus of the game’s rules.
Oakland-based after-school teacher Chioke Clinton says that while he doesn’t believe that educational games can solve all the behavior issues at the schools he serves, he appreciates the new perspective he’s gained from Playworks’ training: “I never really looked at the value of games as far as instilling the principle of overcoming barriers – social barriers and our own personal fear – that we internalize, that keeps us from accomplishing our goals.”
Junior coach Julia Nymdorj might not use the same words as Clinton, but she seems to have a similar understanding of the benefits of play. She now plays basketball in the co-ed intramural league that Coach Kenny started at Ruby Bridges Elementary School.
“When I didn’t know how to play basketball or anything, boys made fun of me,” she says. “And then when I started playing, they’re like, ‘Wow. I was mistaken, why did I ever make fun of you?’”
Principal Goodman says one of the greatest benefits of Playworks’ style of organized play is strengthening the connection between mind and body, and that’s what she wants for her students.
“If your body’s not at peace, or if your heart is not at peace, then you won’t be able to learn at all, no matter how good your brain is,” she says. “So I think it’s just essential, if we’re going to create well-rounded citizens in the future, that we learn how to take care of our bodies, and use our bodies in productive and respectful ways.”
Other nationwide programs promoting structured play:
KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit that envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America.
Recess Rocks was conceived in Connecticut in 2004 and launched nationally in 2010.
Peaceful Playgrounds Right to Recess Campaign Toolbox contains a full PowerPoint presentation and speakers notes along with all research and documents to support daily, unstructured physical activity during school hours.
Where and how do your kids play? And what has it meant to them? Share your story at 415-264-7106.