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National Nonprofit Wants to Teach All Elementary Students to Play

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It's probably hard to imagine an elementary school student who doesn't know how to play. But the woman behind Playworks said her organization often hears from teachers who say their students have no idea what to do during recess.

151215_Playworks_Houston_08441.jpgThe 20-year-old nonprofit works to bring play to elementary schools and after-school programs all over the country by placing recess coaches in schools or through training teachers and administrators on how to get their students involved in safe and healthy activities on the playground. The Playworks model is a little more structured than a traditional recess. Trained adults and older student leaders teach the children games and encourage them to play. But students are not forced to participate, and there are usually several different games going on at once. Ultimately, the students decide whether they want to play tag or kickball.

When Playworks founder and CEO Jill Vialet was growing up, the 52-year-old said children learned about things such as how to settle playground disputes fairly and how to choose teams from older kids in their neighborhoods, but today these sand-lot lessons are being lost.

"For low-income kids, I think their families are justifiably concerned about neighborhood safety," said Vialet. "It's understandable that parents want kids to come home and be inside and be safe. But for more middle- and upper-income kids, the kids are going from structured activity to structured activity."

And Vialet contends that all of those structured activities leave little time for pickup games in the park or the lessons about teamwork and cooperation those games teach.

Playworks recently announced plans for a huge expansion. Currently, the organization serves 113 school districts throughout the country and works in 1,800 schools. Through a new initiative called Playworks AIM, the organization hopes students in 7,000 elementary schools will have the opportunity to experience safe and healthy play every day by the end of 2020. The group doesn't plan to serve all of those students directly. Instead, the nonprofit will provide free resources and training for more schools over the next four years.

"The ultimate goal is for there to be safe and healthy play for every kid in America every day," said Vialet. "In doing that, you achieve all sorts of other outcomes."

A randomized, controlled trial of the program by the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Research found that Playworks led to increased teaching and learning time, more physical activity, and improved feelings of safety while cutting down on bullying.

Through Playworks, students don't receive formal lessons on social and emotional learning, but the program uses play to teach those ideas.

"It teaches kids a facility with empathy and teamwork and leadership and inclusion," said Vialet. "It really is the experiential way kids learn to cooperate and to self-regulate, and it's always been that."

The cost of the program varies based on the level of support the school desires. It costs between $60,000 and $65,000 to bring in a full-time Playworks coach, but schools pay much less due to donations to the nonprofit. This service is only available in low-income schools. A school with more than 50 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch is eligible for a subsidy up to 50 percent.

It costs $18,000-$22,000 to bring in a part-time, on-site coordinator, and schools may be eligible for a subsidy of up to 30 percent if more than half of their students receive free or reduced lunch. Schools are also able to sign up for a program that only provides training to existing staff. The cost for that begins at $2,500, and those schools are ineligible for subsidies.

The program's expansion is being funded in part by $26 million in new funding commitments primarily from four donors: the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Jenesis Group, and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

(An earlier version of this story did not include the price for the Playworks program that includes training alone.)

Photo: Playworks students enjoy recess at an elementary school in Houston, Texas. (Tyrone Turner)

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