by Sue Ann Rybak
Nubia Watson, a fifth grader at C.W. Henry Elementary School, smiles as she catches the bean bag during a Playworks’ “brain break.” Brain breaks are organized games and physical activity played at indoor recess, usually in 10-minute intervals.
At a time when most schools are reducing recess time or eliminating it altogether, every student at C.W. Henry elementary school – kindergarten through eighth grade – is participating in a Playworks direct service program. Playworks is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.
A recent study found that one in four elementary schools no longer provide recess to all grades despite research showing recess not only improves children’s physical health but social and academic growth as well.
Jeanette Fournier, executive director of Playworks in Pennsylvania, said one reason Playworks is so successful is because it is designed to accommodate any community.
“The great thing about Playworks is that we can transition to indoor play,” Fournier said. “Kids are able to participate in recess even when the weather is bad.”
Greg Lynch, a program director at Playworks, said the indoor program is designed to give kids a “brain break” in the middle of learning.
“It helps re-energize the kids and allows the kids to refocus,” Lynch said.
Michael Brix, a parent of two students at C.W. Henry Elementary School, said recess isn’t just for kindergartners.
“Playworks is implemented on a school-wide basis with an emphasis in cooperative play, skill building, and gross motor activity,” said Brix, who is a member of the PTA at the school.
“Recess is a time for learning through play, just like class time is learning through other methods,” said Brix, who has a degree in elementary education and theater. “Recess also allows the children to participate in gross-motor skills that lead to a decrease in obesity and promotes a more healthy worldview. When I observe Playworks coaches, they are emphasizing teamwork and fun aspects of the game as well as knowing rules and structuring the activities so that all kids get a chance to participate.”
Brix added that the Playworks program helps eliminate some of the social anxieties on the playground because it is structured so “everybody plays.”
“Coaches usually separate the children so there is no residual anxiety in not ‘being picked,’” Brix said. “Playworks fits neatly with Henry because it helps to level the playing field. I don’t know if Playworks alone decreases bullying at C.W. Henry, but it is part of the entire school culture, which I believe empowers each child to advocate on their own behalf and leads to decreases in instances of bullying.”
Playworks coach Dan Whelan said his role at Henry is to make sure “everybody gets in the game” noting that all the games are noncompetitive.
“I always try to encourage kids,” Whelan said. “Even if you are out of the game, there is always a chance to get back into the game. It’s not about keeping score. It’s about having fun.”
Whelan said the students learn Playworks’ core values which are respect, inclusion, healthy play, and healthy community. All the students agree to follow Playworks’ class agreements.
The cost of Playworks program is almost $60,000 a year for each school. If schools qualify for the Playworks direct service model, the organization will split the cost of a full-time coach with the school. To qualify for the direct service model, 50 percent or more of students must qualify for free or reduced lunch. The schools are required to pay about $29,000 and Playworks will cover the rest.
“In addition, to a caring adult in schools every day from open bell to close bell, our coaches support before and after school programming,” Fournier said.
Fournier said one of the key components of Playworks is creating leaders within the school, so children become leaders at school, at home and in the community. Playworks trains 15 students from the fifth and sixth grade to become junior coaches who help to monitor recess for peers in grades K – 4.
Fournier said Playworks’ junior coach program builds play into leadership.
“Kids learn conflict resolution skills,” Fournier said. “It’s a very hands-on, tactile approach to leadership.”
Lynch said besides receiving a coach and the five-component program for the duration of the school year, teachers receive training so they learn games as well as Playworks’ methods and techniques.
“We offer as much supplemental support for professional development and school-based activities as possible,” Lynch said.
The junior coaches participate in special after-school youth development programs and receive homework assistance. Junior coaches also receive training and participate in workshops at Playworks’ annual Junior Coach Leadership Conference. Fournier said this year’s conference will be held on March 12 at the Lenfest Center. She added that Playworks also coaches four sports leagues a year including kickball, volleyball, basketball (for girls only) and soccer.
Fatima Rogers, principal at C.W. Henry Elementary School said the junior coaches are a great asset to the program at the school.
“They [junior coaches] are encouraged to model positive behavior at class game times and indoor recess,” Rogers said. “The junior coaches are given opportunities to lead games for their class and assist younger classes’ indoor recesses. Through extensive after school training, they are provided with the skills needed to assist their peers in proactively solving conflicts.”
Sabiana Cajamarca, a fifth grader at C.W. Henry elementary school, is a junior coach in the Playworks program. She said she loves that Playworks incorporates various sports into the games.
Fifth-grade junior coach Elizabeth Brown said she loves seeing “all the kids playing together and having fun in a group.”
“If I see someone sitting alone I invite them to come play a game with us,” Brown said. “Last year, I was a junior coach, and there was a lot of arguing over whether the ball hit their square or not. So, I encouraged the kids to use Rock Sham Bo – rock paper, scissors – to resolve their arguments.”
Lynch explained how the Playworks program is implemented outside on the playground.
He said the playground is divided into five square courts: a basketball zone, a wall ball area, a place for jump ropes, a free-play zone and a kickball field.
“The idea is to give students as many options and opportunities to get involved in healthy play as possible,” Lynch said. “Each junior coach is responsible for monitoring and playing in a single game area during their shift. They also serve as peer role models and peace promoters on the playground. We want kids to be able to own their own play as much as possible. Coach Dan’s role is to be there when necessary but whenever possible to empower the kids by allowing them to start and lead their own healthy play throughout the school day.”
The truth about recess
Critics of recess say it is a waste of time and provides opportunities for students to exhibit anti-social behavior such as bullying. While there is no evidence to support this theory, there is ample evidence that recess has positive effects on children both academically and socially.
Pointing out in a 2012 press release that recess is a necessary break from the demands of school, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated:
“Safe and properly supervised recess offers children cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. It should be used as a complement to physical education classes, not a substitute, and whether it’s spent indoors or outdoors, recess should provide free, unstructured play or activity.”
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, pointing to the abundant research supporting recess and the need for unstructured play, said “research on recess is deeply clear that kids do better when they have it than when they don’t.”
In January 2009, the Journal of Pediatrics released the results of a study that examined the links between recess and classroom behavior. Of the 11,000 third-grade students studied, those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none.
Hirsh-Pasek said a recent study by Anthony D. Pellegrini found that the longer kids worked without a break on standardized tests, the less attentive to the task they became.
“A recent study found that middle school students spend 50 hours on average in front of a screen,” she said. “Kids are spending hours – the equivalent to a full-time job – on computers and other technology. Recess is one of the few times children can interact with their peers.”
Hirsh-Pasek noted that a recent study by Anthony Pellegrini found that students who participated in recess on a daily basis were more socially competent.
“Peer mentoring teaches older kids how to control themselves and learn how to be models for younger kids,” she said. “The kids feel empowered. It gives agency back to the kids. So much of what kids do at school doesn’t have agency. You are supposed to sit, listen and copy.”
Hirsh-Pasek said parents tend to think that all play has to be structured.
“Recess is great because it’s recess,” she said. “The trick is to make sure that whoever is monitoring the playground is really giving kids a chance for total freedom. The good news about Playworks is that they are careful, but it doesn’t mean that recess should be regimented.
“The society we live in today says we want more creative people for the jobs of tomorrow. But, unfortunately we live in a world where people don’t know how to play. There is a blessing in having a skinned knee.”
For more information about Playworks go to www.playworks.org/communities/pennsylvania.
C.W. Henry will hold its Annual Fun Fit Fest on Saturday, May 17, to help raise funds for its Playworks program. The Fun Fit Fest will feature a fitness circuit, free classes and healthy snacks. The school invites businesses to showcase their healthy lifestyle services, practices and products as event sponsors and vendors. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, to join the event committee, inquire re sponsorship, and/or provide fun fitness activities.