Shift Behavior & Accelerate Learning - PacificNW

May 22, 2014

Double High-5 Challenge: My Story

As we approach the last few weeks of the school year we are on the brink of a major milestone; five years of bringing the Power of Play to the Pacific NW. Over the past five years our collective efforts have helped create safe school climates with less bullying, more healthy play and more time for classroom learning.

Thank you for joining us to be part of the solution. That deserves a High-5!

To commemorate the end of our fifth year, our Board has graciously decided to reach back into their hearts and wallets to give to the cause again this year! The Board is inviting a High-5 match challenge. They will match up to $5,000 to make this our Double High-5 challengeand raise a total of $10,000 to finish these past five years strong!

I invite you to support our year-end Double High-5 challenge with a generous gift of $50, $100, $250 or more. Together we can make a larger impact.

As you probably know, I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I spent my childhood growing up in Eugene, Oregon climbing trees, playing in the parks and riding bikes around town. Play was a big part of my life and key to making life-long friends and learning life lessons. Growing up with caring adult role models and lots of kids my age was something special that I didn’t realize until later in life when I started working with Playworks.

10 years ago I was an AmeriCorps member completing my term of service for Playworks in Richmond, California. That year of service as a Playworks coach, working every day to bring out the best in every kid through play, was an incredible experience that motivated me to continue this important work. As much as I enjoy the California sunshine I felt an urge to bring Playworks and the power of play to my home state.

In 2009 I left the Bay Area and moved back to Oregon to open the Playworks Pacific Northwest office. We had heard from schools, parents, and community leaders about the difference Playworks could make for local students and decided to become part of the community.

I’m proud of the work our team of staff, partners and advocates have done over the past five years to impact the lives of thousands of kids in the region. Kids like Junior Coach Ashley. I look forward to the future as we to go deeper into the Portland metro area and broader to the rural areas of the region.

I hope you will support our efforts to increase impact by participating in our Double High-5 challenge with a generous gift of $50, $100, $250 or more. Our goal is to raise $10,000 by June 30th, can you help us get there?

Thank you for believing in the Power of Play!

Did you know? Playworks is the only national organization that transforms recess into a powerful tool for educators and children. Please ensure we create a safe, happy and inclusive place for every kid on our school playgrounds. Send your generous gift today!


Feb 20, 2014

Inspiring Our Next Generation

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:

Oct 15, 2013

Angels Among Us

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.

Jul 16, 2013

Transforming Schools Through Play

OPB Think Out Loud Broadcast at Shaver Elementary
OPB Think Out Loud Broadcast at Shaver Elementary

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?  


  • Rebecca London: Senior researcher at the John W. Gardner Center at the Stanford Graduate School of Education
  • Micah Barrit: Playworks coach at Shaver Elementary
  • Lamonte: 5th grade Junior Coach at Shaver Elementary
  • Evelyn: 4th grade Junior Coach at Shaver Elementary
  • Kathy Keim-Robinson: Director of Student Servies for Parkrose School District
  • Jonathan Blasher: Former coach; executive director of Playworks Portland 


May 1, 2013

Playworks Emphasizes Safer, Healthier Play

April 17, 2013 -- Just a few years ago, Susan McElroy wouldn't schedule anything at Grout Elementary, where she serves as principal, for the period immediately following recess.

That's because recess had become the part of the school day when conflicts between students came to a boil – and spilled over into classroom time, so much so that teachers and administrators would count on having to clean up a few messes each day before teaching or returning to administrative work.

But, in a relatively short period of time, all that has changed. McElroy said so far there have only been two suspensions at the southeast Portland grade school this year, down from 54 six years ago when it began collecting data to reduce bullying and other behavioral problems.

Grout now employs a counselor to support children and families, and started using a different approach to discipline – one based on Positive Behavior Support, a research-backed approach to reducing challenging behavior in schools and other settings.

And, to address the problems associated with recess, the school started working with Playworks, a nationwide nonprofit that brings coaches into schools to identify students to serve as “junior coaches,” as well as offering in-classroom instruction on game play, and training to help other schools improve the recess experience for children. Playworks also offers after-school or before-school programs in some areas, which includes play as well as assistance with homework, and organizes sports leagues.

“If you tell a kid to exercise, they'll roll their eyes at you, but if you tell a kid, go play, they'll play,” said Jonathan Blasher, executive director of Playworks Portland.

In December, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement called “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” which said “safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it” and called on schools to keep or expand, rather than reduce or eliminate, recess.

Only a handful of states require schools to set aside recess periods, and Oregon is not among them, though state regulations recommend all schools set aside a recess program. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's School Health Policies and Programs study, which was released in 2006, 96.8 percent of elementary schools regularly scheduled recess for students in at least one grade, though only 79.1 percent of schools provided daily recess for students in every grade. A recent survey conducted by RWJF, though, said one in five principals say their districts have reduced the number of recess minutes offered, generally in the hopes that increasing classroom time will improve schools' chances of meeting adequate yearly progress standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“For the first time in our country's history, children have a lower life expectancy then their parents,” said Nichole Maher, president of the Northwest Health Foundation, which provides grant funding to Playworks. “This is due to maternal nutrition, obesity, diabetes and a whole host of preventable health issues. Playworks is an example of engaging children and families in a healthy life in a fun and safe environment. It also proves educational and social outcomes! We are big fans at NWHF.”

But even as experts tout the benefits of school recess, educators and coaches are working to, as Blasher said, “maximize the benefit of recess.”

Often, playground disputes at Grout would arise from kids arguing over the rules of a game, or picking teams.

“We just find that kids didn't have any idea how to organize for play,” McElroy said. Now, kids are taught the rules of many common playground games during classroom time, and they are taught how to resolve disputes without yelling or fighting.

When The Lund Report visited the school during a Monday-morning recess period, a group of kids playing foursquare talked about how to count a play where the ball hit the line. They decided to defer to the judgment of a junior coach (a student wearing a “Playworks Junior Coach” shirt, who has received some leadership training) and continued playing.

“They're working it out,” Blasher said, smiling.

McElroy said teaching kids to play rock-paper-scissors – similar to drawing straws or rolling dice to make quick decisions – has saved kids a lot of grief when they organize games or settle minor disputes.

“It's so easy. You wouldn't believe how much it helps,” she said.

When the bell rang, kids politely and slowly walked into the school building: “Normally, they'd be pushing and shoving,” Blasher said.

Playworks also hires adult coaches who participate in the games with children, and regular school staff who supervise. Teaching games and respectful behavior in the classroom also creates the opportunity for students who can't communicate well with other kids – such as English language learners or students who are nonverbal due to autism or another disability (Grout has two self-contained classrooms whose students all have autism) – to be included in play.

Playworks started in 1996 at two schools in Berkeley, and started to expand beyond the Bay Area in 2003 after developing relationships with Americorps and receiving seed funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Now Playworks is in 22 cities serving a total of 270,000 students, and launched in Portland in 2009, where it currently serves 13 schools. Playworks' presence in schools is funded by a combination of sources: funds directly from the school, and those from private, corporate and individual sources. The price tag for direct service in schools averages between $60,000 and $70,000 per school -- with 35 to 45 percent coming from schools and the rest coming from Playworks' fundraising -- but services don't stop there. Playworks has provided training for an additional 40 schools across the state.

One mother reached out to Playworks after hearing about the program and went through volunteer training to take their ideas back to her kids' preschool, where she had already seen kids force each other to eat sand and engage in other bullying behaviors. 

The key to all Playworks' programs is to see what schools are already doing and build on that work, Blascher said.

“We're about supplementing existing programs, not replacing them,” Blasher said. “It's a both-and, not an either-or.”

Coach Chelsea from Grout School leading a class!
Coach Chelsea from Grout School leading a class!


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Oakland, CA, United States

Project Leader

Jonathan Blasher

Portland, OR United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Shift Behavior & Accelerate Learning - PacificNW