Portland Monthly Magazine recognized Playworks in their 2013 Light a Fire Awards. The annual awards ceremony is a celebration honoring the individuals and organizations who make Portland more prosperous, beautiful, healthful, and sustainable—in a word, better. This year, Playworks was recognized for Inspiring Our Next Generation.
PORTLAND PLAYWORKS lives and breathes recess. Inside its headquarters on SE Madison Street, shelves overflow with bright orange cones, multicolored dodgeballs, and plastic goalposts. Impromptu foursquare games are a daily occurrence for the staff, but they’re merely practice for the four-year-old nonprofit’s real goal: teaching thousands of kids the social tools they need to play safe and healthy in the 14 metro schools it works with daily (in addition to 80-plus regional schools it services indirectly).
“Group play isn’t what it used to be,” says Jonathan Blasher, executive director of Playworks’ Pacific Northwest branch. Instead of being that carefree respite for games and sports that most adults remember nostalgically, he says, recess is now a time when almost 90 percent of negative issues in schools erupt, from schoolyard bullying to gender exclusion.
To confront that change, a think tank of teachers, summer camp directors, and sports instructors created Playworks in Oakland, California, in 1996; Portland’s division started in 2009. The goal: to create positive, respectful, and inclusive play environments for often-stressful low-income communities. And Playworks’ 20 staff members do it by taking all that equipment off the shelves and into schoolyards.
“We don’t do win or lose, boys versus girls, or team captains,” Blasher explains. “There is a common language that everyone understands, and we solve conflicts with simple games like rock-paper-scissors.” To this end, one of Playworks’ most effective projects, the Junior Coach Program, pairs older elementary students with younger students to learn games and solve their own conflicts as they arise, giving the older kids responsibility and the younger ones role models.
“Playworks has been about creating a kind and cooperative atmosphere around the school,” says Susan McElroy, principal of Daniel A. Grout Elementary, which has spent four years in the program. “All my kids follow the same rules, procedures, and conflict resolution processes, which translates to less fighting at recess and more instructional time in the classroom.”
- See more at: http://www.playworks.org/communities/pacificnw/news/inspiring-our-next-generation#sthash.A1HW5jWY.dpuf
Teachers at King Elementary School in northeast Portland had described recess as chaotic, rough and lacking organized games. Then, four years ago, a trained Playworks coach named Sam Balto entered the picture and turned the students’ play time into an opportunity to nurture common values such as respect, inclusion and healthy play. With hard work and constant practice, King students changed what recess looks like and, in the process, created a community.
Here Coach Balto shares the story of how one student’s life was transformed:
A fourth grade student named Reggie* has severe cerebral palsy. When I first arrived at King Elementary School as a Playworks Coach, Reggie would sit in his wheelchair during recess and watch his classmates play kickball, basketball, foursquare and other games.
As a Playworks Coach, my job is to encourage and empower students to interact with each other in a respectful manner and find ways for everyone to have fun. After watching Reggie stuck on the sidelines, I thought he needed to have a different recess experience.
During class game times, I discussed the situation with fourth and fifth grade students. I explained that Reggie wasn’t playing because, in order to participate, he needed other students to help him. When I asked the students if anyone would like to volunteer to help Reggie, I was hoping five to ten students would offer. To my surprise, dozens of hands went up. Out of 60 students in three classes, 33 wanted to help.
The response was overwhelming. Interest in helping came from Junior Coaches, members of the afterschool program and athletes on Playworks teams. The pool of students who wanted to help included some of the most challenging students in the school - students who normally don’t volunteer.
Every day, three or four designated students ate with Reggie during lunch. Then they went outside to interact with him and even modify games so all of them could play together. Anyone on the playground could see how much fun Reggie was having. The patience and care his classmates showed him was visible. Reggie felt like he was part of recess now, and not just an outsider looking in.
I have experienced few things as moving as watching these young students include Reggie and make him part of the community. The students who helped him are known at King Elementary School as “Game Changers” and they truly are.
*The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
It's a relatively simple concept: paid coaches play with kids during recess and during some classes. Kids learn how to play a variety of different types of games and resolve conflicts using the "roshambo" or "rock-paper-scissors" method.
5th grader Lamonte is a "Junior Coach," which means he plays with the younger kids at recess and helps resolve conflicts when they come up. He remembers a time just a few years ago before his school used Playworks. He says kids used to cheat and act out often, and now he sees a huge difference in how the kids at his school behave — both in and out of recess.
Did you or your kids experience organized play in school? What questions do you have about the role of recess at school or how Playworks operates?