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Playworks: Using the power of play to create a positive school climate

Recess isn’t necessarily fun and games for all children. But it can be. Ask any teacher or principal and they’ll tell you that social problems in the classroom often begin on the playground. They’ll also tell you that kids who move, run and play at recess are better able to focus while at their desks. How does a school harness those dynamics? Using Playworks.

Playworks was founded in Oakland, CA by Jill Vialet, a former school principal who “lamented that it [recess] had become the most chaotic period of the school day, with kids getting hurt, getting into trouble and getting left out.” Playworks strives to foster recess where “kids play hard, cheer loud and high five with joy. And they carry a feeling of empowerment and belonging with them into their classrooms, back to their neighborhoods and out into the world.”

First introduced to our schools through parent Rebecca London, a member of the Santa Cruz City Schools Wellness Committee, the program has been piloted at Bay View elementary for two years. After the district sponsored an initial training for play coaches, Principal Mary Anne Robb launched the program along with a flip in recess timing – scheduling play before lunch. Together, the twin efforts led to more inclusive play, more students physically active during recess, fewer playground conflicts, and an impressive drop in classroom discipline issues.

The Santa Cruz Education Foundation, seeking to expand these benefits to all of our elementary schools, recently hosted a series of trainings with Playworks staff open to  yard duty staff, teachers, parent volunteers, and after school care providers. School board members, district staff, and Foundation board members also sat in on the dynamic sessions led by Bill Vanark, Director of Program Resource and Development at Playworks.

The core values of Playworks are respect, inclusion, healthy play and healthy communities. But the magic is in using a gentle touch to bring back the joy of play to the school day. Playworks coaches facilitate recess games, but give students room to exercise their innate leadership. Conflicts are resolved using the familiar, but effective, RoShamBo, also known as Rock, Paper, Scissors. Bullying diminishes as students are welcomed into games and develop a sense of belonging.

To learn more about the why and how of Playworks, please visit their website. If you would like to help the Foundation’s work with ongoing training and expansion, your donations are welcome.