February 24, 2013

Nonprofit’s Coaches Teach Kids Games and Prevent Bullying

Photograph by Carrie Richards

A Playworks coach at Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, in San Jose, Calif, organizes activities for kids and teaches them how to settle disagreements.

Playworks, a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., thinks that Hula Hoops and relay races just might hold the key to better academic performance for elementary-school students.

The organization seeks to provide fun, organized opportunities to play during recess, allowing children to return to class refreshed and ready to learn. The charity places full-time coaches in 360 schools in low-income neighborhoods who organize games, encourage participation, and show kids how to mediate conflicts with techniques like rock-paper-scissors. Older students act as junior coaches, helping to lead activities and teach new games to younger children.

“We focus on recess and play in schools, with the idea of leveraging it to really promote learning and physical activity,” says Jill Vialet, who founded the organization in 1996.

Playworks grew from a conversation Ms. Vialet had with a principal who was frustrated by the amount of time she and her teachers spent dealing with playground conflicts. The principal was running late for a meeting, and when she emerged from her office, three little boys she had been disciplining trailed behind her.

“She starts describing how recess had become this really chaotic time and how these boys were always getting in trouble,” says Ms. Vialet. “They weren’t bad kids, but they were starting to see themselves as bad kids.”

Outside evaluators studied 14 schools in the Playworks program and compared them with 11 similar schools that were not. Teachers in the Playworks schools reported better behavior at recess and 27 percent less time transitioning to classroom activities after recess than at the control schools. What’s more, kids were far less likely to bully or treat one another poorly.

Boone Elementary School, in Chicago­—one of 22 cities where the organization works—started the program this fall. Discipline problems have decreased significantly, says Lori Zaimi, the school’s assistant principal.

“The teachers can now focus on teaching,” she says. “They don’t have to worry about what happened during recess.”

Money from fees­—charged both to participating schools and to other schools, for training teachers and administrators—accounts for a little more than one-third of the organization’s $30.9-million annual budget. Most of the rest comes from private donations by individuals, corporations, and foundations, with government grants bringing in another $2.3-million.

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.