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School Climate & Safety

Study Weighs Benefits of Organizing Recess

By Nirvi Shah — April 17, 2012 5 min read
Sixth grade students at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School in Chicago play dodgeball at recess under the supervision of a Playworks coach. The program's managed-recess approach is used in more than 300 schools in 23 cities.

While an overwhelming number of elementary school principals believe in the power of recess to improve academic achievement and make students more focused in class, most discipline-related problems happen at school when kids cut loose at recess and lunch, according to surveys.

One of the solutions, according to a study released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: more, and well-trained, staff on the playground.

The study examines an approach to creating more-structured recess time that is provided by Playworks, based in Oakland, Calif. It finds that the nonprofit organization’s program can smooth the transition between recess and class time—giving teachers more time to spend on instruction—and can cut back on bullying in the schoolyard. Teachers in participating schools also reported that their students felt safer and more included at recess, compared with those at schools without the program.

Playworks is used in 23 cities at more than 300 schools serving low-income students.

For their study, researchers from Stanford University and the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research looked at 25 schools in five cities during the 2010-11 school year. Schools were randomly assigned to either implement Playworks or put off using it for a year.

Debbie Serota, a recess coach from the nonprofit Playworks in Chicago, displays the wrist bands she gives as a reward to students who help run games at recess.

The most significant finding shows students who participate in a Playworks-structured recess transition from that to schoolwork more quickly than students in traditional recess, said Susanne James-Burdumy, an associate director of research at Mathematica Policy Research.

“I think it is an exciting set of findings,” Ms. James-Burdumy said. “This is one area where Playworks is aiming to have an impact: specifically trying to improve students’ ability to focus on class activities.”

The study found that, on average, teachers at participating schools needed about 2.5 fewer minutes of transition time between recess and learning time—a difference that researchers termed statistically significant. Over the course of a school year, that can add up to about a day of class time.

Scaling Up

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also based in Princeton, has been funding Playworks since 2005. It helped the program expand from a few schools in Oakland to more than 300 schools in 23 cities, said Nancy Barrand, the foundation’s senior adviser for program development. The goal is to expand into 27 cities and 750 schools.

“We’re using a process of scaling where we’ve identified a successful, evidence-based model,” Ms. Barrand said. Playworks “is a pretty common-sense approach. It’s really about the school environment and how you create a healthy school environment for the children,” she continued. “If children are healthy and happy, they learn better.”

Playworks founder and chief executive officer, Jill Vialet, said the idea came from a frustrated principal 15 years ago. The principal had been dealing with the same three students daily because of scuffles and mischief at recess that spilled over into their classes.

Ms. Vialet wondered whether creating a little structure at recess could quell some of those ongoing woes. She recalled her own days as a child when a municipal parks and recreation worker named Clarence made sure she—one of the few girls there—was included in the games at a District of Columbia park.

“I wanted to make sure every kid had a Clarence,” she said.

That evolved into Playworks. Schools pay the organization about $25,000 a year—using federal Title I money for disadvantaged students—for a full-time recess coach. Many of the coaches are Americorps volunteers.

“They are earnest young adults, kind of like an über camp counselor, creating an environment of inclusive play,” Ms. Vialet said.

The coaches map the area where students spend recess, setting boundaries for different activities, such as kickball. They help children pick teams using random measures, such as students’ birth months, to circumvent emotionally scarring episodes of being chosen based on skill or popularity. If conflicts arise, coaches teach simple ways to settle disputes and preempt some quibbles by teaching games including rock-paper-scissors.

Forty percent of the surveyed teachers said students used the rock-paper-scissors game to resolve conflicts or make decisions when they were back in class.

Coaches get involved in the activities, which “makes it possible for kids who don’t see themselves as super-sporty to get into the games themselves,” Ms. Vialet said. “There’s just enough structure for the kids to be successful.”

Solving Own Problems

While adults need to be present and ready to intervene at recess if necessary, said Edward Miller, one of the founding partners of the New York City-based Alliance for Childhood, and Playworks provides that service, children should also have the opportunity for individual and small-group play.

“My own observation is that Playworks is great at the organizing of games and activities, but not so great at giving younger children the freedom they need for truly creative and imaginative play,” Mr. Miller said. “Many adults make the mistake of thinking they need to intervene when in fact children are perfectly capable of working out their own problems without the adults. This is where experience and judgment are essential.”

The Mathematica study found Playworks has a mixed effect on behaviors related to bullying: Teachers at schools with the program found that there was significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess than teachers at schools without it, but not a reduction in more general aggressive behavior. Playworks has no formal curriculum that addresses the problem, Ms. Vialet noted.

“Our coaches are functioning like the older kids in the play yard used to: teaching kids rules to games, intervening if there is conflict, norming behaviors around inclusion,” she said.

However, researchers also found that teachers’ and students’ perception of aggression and bullying on the playground differed. While teachers observed that there was less name-calling, shoving of classmates, and excluding of some students from games because of Playworks, students didn’t, Mathematica’s Ms. James-Burdumy said.

One explanation may be that only 4th and 5th grade students were surveyed about that, while teachers were reflecting on their observations of 1st through 5th graders.

As researchers continue to study Playworks, adding four more schools to their observations, that will be a question to which they hope to find a better answer. Additional results from the study may be out in another year or so, Ms. James-Burdumy said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Weighs Benefits of a More-Structured Recess

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