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Move Over Schoolyard Bullies

Recess coaches put "play" back into the playground.

Everyone gets into the game at a Playworks recess.

It's recess at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, California, and children parade single file onto the playground. At the sound of a whistle, they run to different corners of the blacktop and form orderly groups to play four-square, kickball, handball, and basketball. Others twirl hula hoops or jump rope in double-dutch. There's even a friendly soccer game at the far end of the schoolyard.

There's no pushing or shoving, no screaming, name calling, or teasing, and there are no kids left on the sidelines because the schoolyard bullies are hogging the ball.

This is recess minus the chaos. This is a Playworks recess.

Playworks is an organization that partners with schools to transform recess into a productive part of the school day. Now in 10 U.S. cities, with plans to expand to 16 next school year and 27 the following year, Playworks emphasizes game rules and good sportsmanship to help kids burn off energy and have fun before returning to class, eager and ready to learn.

''Recess is fun again!,'' says Kelly Iwamoto, who teaches fourth grade at Bennett-Kew Elementary. ''The kids seem much more peaceful, positive, and cooperative.''

Before Playworks, recess was bedlam, she says. Some kids were fighting and screaming names. Others were playing games but arguing over the rules, accusing each other of cheating or cutting in line. And then there were kids who weren't engaged at all — they'd sit along the wall by themselves, biding their time until the bell called them back inside.

Kelly Iwamoto with students Xaviera (left), Millard, Sergio, and Ndubuisi. Xavier, Sergio, and Ndubisi are on the Playworks volleyball team, and Millar and Ndubuisi are junior coaches who help out on the playground while developing their leadership skills.

Kids like Xaviera, a shy fourth-grader taunted by her classmates, especially at recess. Xavieria didn't like sports and didn't think she was good at any. But then Carlvert Green, or Coach Green, as the kids call him, got her into the game.

Boosting Kids’ Confidence

''He showed her the rules of the different games, and encouraged her to start playing,'' says Iwamoto. ''Now the kids seek her out to play with them, and her involvement and confidence on the playground are spilling over into my classroom where she's more assertive, asking and answering more questions, and just being more engaged overall.''

That's not the only difference Playworks has made in Iwamoto's classroom. She says her students' behavior has improved, and they're much less fidgety and anxious. Students no longer bring schoolyard disputes into class, which takes away from learning when she has to play arbitrator. In fact, schools with a Playworks progam reclaim about 36 hours of instructional time a year because of smoother transitions from recess to classroom.

''Coach Green has taught our kids to say ‘good job and nice try!’ so often it's become part of their natural vocabulary,'' Iwamoto says. ''Gone are the days when students would make fun of the kids who struck out at kickball.''


Be Respectful, Follow Directions, Have Fun!

Coach Green is one of Playworks' full-time, trained playground coordinators, or coaches, who work at each school to run the recess programs. They also run before-and-after school programs and developmental sports leagues — co-ed leagues that allow low-income students to participate in team sports they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. The coaches are mostly recent college grads who love kids and eventually want to pursue careers in health or education.

''If you're having fun let me hear you say ‘Oh, Yeah!’,'' calls Coach Green.

''Ohhh, yeah!'' the kids sing back.

That's one of the Playworks' coaches rules — have fun. The others are to follow directions and be respectful. When kids forget the rules, the coaches use voice and hand signals to remind them to stay focused on proper play.

Janelle Averill is the Playworks coach at Gardenville Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. She's worked with kids since she was 16 as a baby sitter, summer camp counselor, and most recently as a student teacher at Salisbury State, where she majored in health education.

To work out disagreements, kids play "Ro Sham Bo."

Like Coach Green, Coach Averill teaches rules and gets everyone involved so no one is standing idle. But she says her most important role is fostering conflict resolution. If a group of kids is arguing over what happened during a game, they are told to work it out themselves with a simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, or ''Ro Sham Bo'' as they call it at Gardenville. Whoever wins Ro Sham Bo decides the outcome, and the issue is settled.

''Coach Averill makes sure every child has a role, the ability to participate, and the opportunity to shine,'' says Gardenville principal Tammie McIntire-Miller. ''Now they're exposed to sports, and to leadership and conflict resolution. They're calmer, their vocabulary is better, and they're just nicer to each other. It's the best anti-bullying program around.''

When McIntire-Miller was looking for a way to get her students more active – a moral imperative, she says, considering the number of obese and overweight students – she found Playworks on a Google search. What caught her eye was that it didn't require a huge investment.

''The budget is something we always consider,'' she says. ''But this program is incredibly reasonable.''

The total cost of the program is about $50,000 - $55,000 depending on the city. The schools each pay $25,000 of the program ($23,500 for first-year city schools) and Playworks picks up the rest through fundraising and development activities. How the schools pay for the program varies from site to site and district to district, but once they see its impact, many schools make funding Playworks a priority in their annual budget.

To qualify for a full-time Playworks coach, at least 50 percent of a school's enrollment must be eligible for free and reduced lunches. If schools don't meet the low-income requirement, however, there are programs to help train educators or volunteers to bring safe, inclusive play to their school.

Back on the playground, recess is over, but the kids aren't ready to go back inside. It's a situation Coach Janelle is used to, and one she has a signal for. When she wants the kids to line up to go back to class, she blows the whistle twice, yells freeze, and curls her arms up to flex her muscles. Kids across the playground freeze, flex their muscles, and then walk quietly to the line, ready to go back to class and ready to learn.

Want more information? Find out how to bring Playworks to your school.

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