Shift Behavior & Accelerate Learning - PacificNW

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!


Feb 1, 2013

Recess, Just What the Doctor Ordered

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on the critical role of recess in schools, saying “Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that 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.”

Recess is a necessary part of our children’s school day, but unfortunately this can be forgotten in the journey to provide academic achievement. It is wonderful to have the official recommendation of doctors on our side while we work to make recess a highly valued part of the school day.

And we’re so happy to see many major news sources pick up this story and to hear the world talking about the value of recess.

Here are the five key points the pediatricians of the AAP specifically recommend to parents, teachers, school administrators, and policy makers:

  • Recess should be held daily and consider a child’s time. It should not be taken away as punishment or for academic reasons.
  • Recess breaks should be provided in regular intervals to allow children time to decompress and prepare for the next set of lessons.
  • Recess compliments, but should never replace physical education.
  • Unlike sedentary school lessons, recess is active and can contribute to the daily recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity.
  • Children build friendships during recess and develop lifelong skills, including communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, and coping.

(Read the full statement here)

Thank you to all of our amazing supporters in the great Pacific Northwest, helping to create a healthier and happier generation one game at a time!

Nov 14, 2012

Coach Ruby and Junior Coach Chloe

Coach Ruby & Junior Coach Chloe
Coach Ruby & Junior Coach Chloe

As Playworks continues its fourth year in Portland, we’ve been busy optimizing every opportunity during the day for children in low-income schools to create healthier lives and school climates. Through play, our program coordinators (coaches) teach kids (and model) the importance of inclusion and respect and empower them to solve their conflicts in positive ways.  

Coach Ruby joined Playworks Portland in 2009, our first year in the Pacific Northwest.  She served two years as an AmeriCorps program coordinator with Playworks then transitioned to become a veteran staff member. Playworks program coordinators like Coach Ruby are present and smiling at each of our partner schools every day from 8:30am to 5:30pm. She has played thousands of games with hundreds of students and transformed a school once riddled with behavior issues and bullying into a place of active learning, high fives and rock, paper, scissors. The Junior Coach program is a leadership development opportunity for 4th and 5 graders, (just one of five Playworks program components) that elevates school climate and builds a strong peer community.  Coach Ruby recently shared this about one of her students;

“Chloe was a reserved student, but behind her shy exterior was something incredible. She was an outstanding leader, with infectious positivity. I remember during a kickball game Chloe noticed a peer having a terrible time. Like a pro, Chloe consoled him, told him how great he was doing and turned his attitude around. Chloe’s greatest asset as a Junior Coach is her selflessness for others. She is a role model and a catalyst for positive change.”

Coach Ruby, Sitton Elementary School, Portland

Junior Coach Chloe graduated to middle school this year but we know she has learned valuable skills and will continue to inspire those around her and will continue to be an outstanding leader for her community and Ambassador of Play.

Stories like these become reality every day and we are able to expand our services to reach more children in struggling communities. Thank you for being our partner!


Aug 21, 2012

Growing in the great Northwest

Expanding our Playful Reach in the Northwest

Playworks Portland is excited to celebrate a significant grant from Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Community Benefit Program to further Playworks’ goal of increasing opportunities for safe, meaningful play and physical activity. Funds will be used to increase the access, opportunities and impact of play for 20,000 school aged children in the Pacific Northwest region.

“We are thrilled to deepen our partnership with Kaiser Permanente Northwest to help kids be healthy and ready to learn,” says Jonathan Blasher, Playworks Portland executive director. “This support will help us continue our vision of ensuring that every child in the Pacific Northwest gets to experience a great school recess.”

As part of the one-year grant, Kaiser Permanente funds will support Playworks’:

  • Training and consultation services at over 40 schools in Cowlitz, Clark, Washington, Marion and Clackamas Counties
  • School-based direct service programming at two East Multnomah County schools
  • Junior Coach Program and Interscholastic Sports Leagues for 12-18 direct service programs in the Portland metro area

“Kaiser Permanente Northwest is dedicated to improving the health of the communities that we serve. This partnership with Playworks will allow us to support our common efforts in the region and increase the potential for schools to be a center of health, learning and well-being,” remarked Kaiser Community Benefit Manager, Molly Haynes.


Play Works for Employees

For a second year in a row, Oregon Business magazine has named Playworks Portland one of the 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon. The list is compiled to recognize nonprofits for fostering an outstanding workplace. The rankings were based on the confidential input of employees who answered questions about workplace satisfaction such as benefits, management, trust, work environment and career development. Scores and ranking of the winning100 nonprofits will appear in the October issue of Oregon Business and announced at a dinner event this Fall.

May 24, 2012

Playworks Portland Spring Report 2012

Corporate Kickball 2012
Corporate Kickball 2012

It must be Spring because it’s just about time for Playworks Portland’s Third Annual Corporate Kickball Tournament.Last year we had a number of great corporations and organizations join and support us including Nike, Portland Trail Blazers, Portland Pilots, Symantec, Columbia Sportswear, Interworks, Kaiser Permanente, Kohl's, the Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel and PPS Principals. Corporate Kickball is a great opportunity for you to get your staff out of the office, participate in some team-building and sneak in a little networking, all in support for nearly 6,000 kids in Portland!


Another Successful and Fun Junior Coach Conference

The Junior Coach Conference is the time when we get to celebrate the hard work of our amazing junior coaches, those 4th and 5th grade students best known for wearing bright purple shirts on the playground. Last month more than 120 junior coaches from all over Portland gathered at Rigler Elementary to play games and participate in exciting workshops to increase their leadership skills. This is a valuable time for kids to learn from each other, and for us to honor and appreciate the hard work of the students and the positive improvement they have made on their schools.

The morning began with kids from each school performing cheers and songs to introduce themselves. They then spent a fun-filled day playing team building games and practicing positive communication. After a wonderful lunch prepared by volunteers, they met professional lacrosse player, Ryan Powell who gave a talk about dedication and teamwork, then was visited by teacher and socially conscious hip hop artist Chris Riser and DJ Common Denominator for a dance party! We wrapped up with an awesome scavenger hunt.

We would especially like to give a HUGE whoosh clap to our coaches for mentoring and training their junior coaches throughout the year!


Great Recesses Reduce Bullying and Helps Learning

In one of the most rigorous scientific trials to find an effect on bullying, researchers from Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University have found that a Playworks recess can transform school climate, paving the way for less bullying and more focus on learning. 

The study, one of the first that evaluates a recess- and play-based program, found that investing in recess and organized play can reduce bullying, improve student behavior at recess and readiness for class, and provide more time for teaching and learning. The study specifically looked at what happened when schools partnered with Playworks.

This new research finds evidence that Playworks offers a promising approach to reduce bullying, and represents the first in a series of findings.

Corporate Recess a Hit! We are thrilled that three lucky businesses were able to win a Corporate Recess for their employees this spring. Corporate Recess is a fun and active opportunity for your employees through two platforms: onsite team-building; and school based community engagement. Developed by Playworks, the national leader in play, Corporate Recess is customized for you by our local experts to transform your work space to a playground or bring your team to help transform a school playground. It engages your staff in lively playground games that promote key conflict resolution skills, teamwork and collaboration. Contact us today and schedule your Corporate Recess! 

Thank you for your support!

Cooperative Play at Junior Coach Conference
Cooperative Play at Junior Coach Conference
Study Graph
Study Graph
Corporate Recess in Action
Corporate Recess in Action


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Oakland, CA, United States

Project Leader

Jonathan Blasher

Portland, OR United States

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Map of Shift Behavior & Accelerate Learning - PacificNW