Activating Empathy Through Play - Silicon Valley

by Playworks
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Activating Empathy Through Play - Silicon Valley
Activating Empathy Through Play - Silicon Valley
Activating Empathy Through Play - Silicon Valley

In partnership with Play Rugby USA, Playworks Silicon Valley hosted a flurry of Rugby Jamborees throughout the South Bay Area. For many children, this was their first time playing Rugby and provided an amazing community building opportunity

Nearly 100 children from throughout the South Bay Area participated in these Playworks jamborees. Our Coaches worked with students in the weeks prior to the events to ensure there was time to get comfortable with rugby rules and fundamentals

Children arrived with an amazing attitude and willingness to play. The day consisted of a fun warm-up stretching session, explanation of Play Rugby USA's core values, lead-up rugby skills, snack break, and the fan favorite, Ultimate Rugby closing game! There was a genuine effort from students to learn new skills - passing the rugby ball, communicating with their teammates on defense, and "respecting the game" by playing fairly and safely. All participants had a blast at the end of each event playing Ultimate Rugby incorporating all of the skills they learned throughout the event and playing in one large flag rugby game with students and Coaches alike!

Green Cards were given out throughout the Jamborees to individual students selected for their positive sporting behaviors such as good teamwork, giving their best effort, or helping out other students to better learn rugby fundamentals. At the end of the day, these students were celebrated with a Play Rugby gold medal and a rousing applause from the group!

A huge THANK YOU to Anthony Lenos, Bay Area Program Director at Play Rugby USA, and his assistant, Matthew Clark, for providing multiple trainings to our Playworks staff leading up to the Jamborees, coming out to ALL the events, and helping facilitate rugby rules, games, and the 'Ultimate Rugby' closing game!

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Lexsi's CEI
Lexsi's CEI

Each Spring, our AmeriCorps coaches hold an event focused on addressing a need in their school community. They work with their principal and other school staff to identify the need, and then thoughtfully plan an event that addresses that need in a fun setting. These events are called Community Engagement Initiatives, and the goal is to have as many students and their families participate as possible. This is no easy feat, especially since most of our schools struggle to engage adults in the community.

Read ahead to hear about 3 of the CEIs our AmeriCorps coaches hosted this year. All of these coaches spent an immense amount of time and energy to plan and prepare their events, and used creative strategies to ensure families in their school communities attended.

Coach Lexsi’s Playground Beautification at The Primary School

A new partnership this year, The Primary School is our most unique school for many reasons. Firstly, The Primary School only serves the most needy families in East Palo Alto, and focuses on providing health services to those families in addition to educational services. Secondly, The Primary School opened just 3 years ago, so their oldest students are in first grade. Third, since The Primary School opened 3 years ago, their campus consists of portable buildings situated in the middle of a converted parking lot. Aside from a grassy area with play structures, students play in whatever open spaces of blacktop they can find. Coach Lexsi noticed it was hard for her students to play games like four square, tetherball, and basketball without courts painted on the ground, and the lack of boundary lines confused kids who couldn’t tell the difference between the play space and the rest of the campus. As an arts and crafts enthusiast, she decided her CEI would be a school beautification to address these issues.

Since her oldest students are in first grade, Coach Lexsi knew she would need to make modifications so that everyone could participate and feel like they contributed to their school. Coach Lexsi started preparing very early on. First, she created several imaginative designs, such as a circular four square court bordered by colorful shapes, a coiled up snake with the alphabet on its scales, and a free throw lane for the school’s small basketball hoop. In order to have a variety of colors, Coach Lexsi organized an in-kind donation of paint and supplies from Sherwin-Williams. Next, she created stencils so students and their families could paint the designs without help. Then, she decided where each design would go and created stations for families to go to with a set of directions in English and Spanish. On the days leading up to the event, Lexsi stayed after school to chalk out all of the designs so families would know where to paint and what it would look like. Finally, on the morning of her event, Lexsi had free breakfast available to participants, which was donated by a cafe she used to work at.

Coach Lexsi’s CEI was a huge success. More volunteers and families showed up than she expected, and everyone had a positive experience. Students were excited to paint designs they could interact with at recess, parents were thankful for the opportunity to paint permanent activities for their children to engage with during the day, and teachers were delighted by the new splashes of color, “It actually feels like a playground for kids now.” Since Lexsi’s CEI took place on the first Saturday of spring break, all of the designs had time to dry before students came back for recess. Even though Lexsi also had time off for spring break, she came back to the school a few times to make touch-ups.

Lexsi certainly achieved her goal of creating, “a more safe, inclusive, and independent play space for the students,” and in her reflection she recognized that the beautification “definitely made a positive impact because the painted playground is being used each day and has created more activities for the students and a safe place with permanent boundaries.”

Coach Crispin’s School Clean-up at Edenvale Elementary

Coach Crispin has the longest commute out of any of our coaches, but he never complains about it. Crispin might live an hour and a half away from his school now, but he used to live in the very same neighborhood as his students, in East San Jose. When he was in elementary school, Crispin walked to school on sidewalks littered with trash, which contributed to the image of an impoverished community with gang activity. Now back in his community, Crispin not only noticed the trash, but he occasionally saw young adults smoking on the playground on the days he left work late. He recognized that the school environment wasn’t safe for his students, and that the campus wasn’t being respected as a place where children go to learn, so he decided to host a community clean-up for his CEI.

In order to make his event fun and engaging for participants, Crispin partnered with the Boys and Girls Club after school program at his school, which was planning on hosting an egg hunt for Easter on the same day Crispin scheduled his CEI. In addition, Crispin made sure to have game stations available for kids after they picked up trash, which was also a great way to showcase his Junior Coaches and their game facilitation skills. Crispin solicited in-kind donations from local stores so he could provide snacks and funds for the event, and he received litter pick-up materials from the City of San Jose to ensure everyone’s safety.

The day of his event happened to coincide with Earth Day, which resulted in a larger turnout than expected. Crispin had 15 high school volunteers, several families, and six teachers participate, which surprised him, since it’s usually hard to get school staff to come to extracurricular events. He sent everyone out in groups to pick up trash from the neighborhood, and they ended up filling up more than 5 bags, which exceeded their goal. In Crispin’s reflection, he wrote, “Students said they really liked it and were competing to see who picked up the most trash. I had a few teachers that also participated and were pleased to see the students and families take action to clean up the school.” After the clean-up, participants could play games with the Junior Coaches or socialize over snacks, and the event was concluded by an egg hunt, which was very popular. Overall, Crispin achieved his goal of bringing the community together to create a safer environment for students, and he even managed to bring awareness to the ways we treat our environment.

Coach Melissa’s Game Day at Mckinley Elementary

Coach Melissa is a bit of a celebrity in her school community. Not only is she a Playworks AmeriCorps Coach at McKinley Elementary, but she’s the girls basketball coach for Andrew P. Hill High School, which went undefeated and won the championship this fall. Melissa continued to coach girls basketball for our Playworks developmental league in the winter, and the sport became so popular among McKinley students that the boys at her school requested a boys basketball league for the Spring, which the other San Jose Playworks schools also opted for instead of the traditional dodgeball league. Clearly, basketball is a beloved sport in South San Jose schools, so throughout the year Melissa has used basketball and other sports to encourage respect, inclusivity, healthy play, and healthy community on her campus. By maintaining high standards for her students and by being consistent with expectations and her role as a caring adult on campus, she’s helped her school staff reduce behavioral problems on and off the playground.

Coach Melissa knows that positive habits and behaviors also need to be reinforced at home, so she decided her CEI would be an event for the whole community to participate in. It made the most sense to engage the community in sports play, but she also wanted to her event to be inclusive for people who felt more comfortable participating in other kinds of activities. Melissa’s solution was to create arts and crafts stations alongside the sports stations, and she even coordinated a face painting station for extra fun. Each station was organized by color, and each person received a card that could get stamped off after they participated in each activity. Students who completed every station got prizes, including high value ones, such as San Jose Giants tickets, which Melissa in-kinded in advance.

On the day of her event, a record 85 students students showed up, and the amount of family members were “too many to count.” This was a result of her early promotion, which involved visuals posted around the school and announcements at the end of every recess. 18 volunteers came to help, and many of them were students from the local high schools. During the basketball tournament, non-players participated in the game and arts and crafts stations, and expressed that they were happy there was something for everyone to do. This CEI was clearly a community oriented event, and Coach Melissa succeeded in bringing everyone together to engage in healthy play. Since she was so positive, organized, and prepared for her CEI, no one would have been able to guess that Coach Melissa struggled with scheduling, school support, and food donations. In fact, she even had participants ask her when her next event would be.

The dedication and commitment Coach Lexsi, Crispin, and Melissa have to serving students and families in their school communities not only enrich our Playworks programming, but foster an environment of respect, inclusion, and healthy play on the playground, in the classroom, and at home. Community Engagement Initiatives teach school staff, students, and families to value schools as places where students can learn, play, and feel safe and supported, especially when many neighborhoods and living situations are dangerous or stressful. With your support, we’re able to provide our Coaches with the resources they need to be caring and consistent adults on and off the playground.

Crispin's CEI
Crispin's CEI
Melissa's CEI
Melissa's CEI
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At Playworks, caring adults make a big difference to the children attending our schools. We are so grateful to individuals and corporate groups who come out to volunteer with us, who role model for children, making a big impression and understanding the remarkable power of play. Children at schools often don't have stable adults in their lives, and knowing someone cares about them is very important. Adults are often asked if they will come back again and when, and children sometimes shout them out for their awesomeness!! 

Adults have also painted murals and school playgrounds. When the children see the work that the adults have done for them, a feeling of happiness often overcomes them. We are grateful for the adults who support Playworks! 

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One of our coaches shared this story with us and we'd love to share it with you! 

Getting a junior coach program to run smoothly and successfully is not an easy feat. I would say that I will always have work to do in this area because I know that all of the junior coaches I work with have loads of potential, and I know that they can achieve great things if they just put their minds to it. They tell me all of the time when I check in with them that they want to be leaders, and they want this program to run well. However, I think part of the barrier is not knowing what each recess will bring, and not knowing if the students will respond well to them being there. It is an unpredictable thing, but I tell them all of the time that they can do it. They just have to be patient and willing to step out of the comfort zone to get the job done.

Part of what makes this program difficult is that you are working with so many different personalities. Some junior coaches are so eager that it takes very little coaxing to get them to hop in with students they don’t know and lead a game. Others are very reserved, and the mere thought of being in charge is frightening. Then I have to remind myself that even these students who aren’t as willing to get out there on the recess area signed up for this opportunity for a reason. They wanted this responsibility, and they wanted to be a leader, they just aren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Through trainings and recess, I have seen a lot of my junior coaches grow and become confident in their abilities. I have enjoyed watching them hop into games at recess and get them running without a hitch. It is a pretty incredible sight to see, and there is one instance I can recall that really brought a smile to my face.

One of my junior coaches who was out during the 1st-3rd grade lunch recess came up to me while I was working on getting Mountains and Valleys started up and asked if he could run it. I was so taken aback and a little timid to take him up on his offer because this game was brand new to the black top and I wanted it to stick. Of course, I told him yes, but I stood by and watched as he helped the students get into teams and explained the rules. After a little while, he came over to me while the game was in full swing, and said, “Coach, go check on some of the other games. I got this.”

I am pretty sure I almost cried right on the spot. It was an incredible thing to hear because this junior coach had not really stepped up before, and to hear him send me on my way and be so confident in what he was doing was truly incredible.

So with that, I walked away wondering if he would rise to the challenge and keep students playing the entire recess. When I walked back close to the end of recess, I could still see children playing Mountains and Valleys and loving it! In that moment, I could not have been more proud to be a Playworks coach and have a junior coach program because it showed me that what I am doing here is working. Even if I can’t see those kind of changes every day, I know that they are possible, and I know that I have the ability to inspire young leaders to do remarkable things!

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on the playground
on the playground

Since I’ve arrived at Willow Oaks it has been a personal quest to help enforce a more positive culture. I have strived to make sure that kids were using proper conflict resolution to their problems. This story involves a second grader in class one day and was relayed to me by a teacher. The class was having social studies and they were discussing how people in different countries go to war, and even strife within nations end up arguing over things and going to war. When asked to describe why the students felt these nations went to war and what could possibly be done to stop this in the future one of the girls raised her hand and replied with this, “I think they should just Ro Sham Bo. When I argued in 4-Square coach Michael told me to Ro Sham Bo and we were able to keep playing and there were no more problems.” This highlights the innocence of a child but also makes me feel like I am doing something right that they would remember this and try to apply it in real life situations.Being so close with the kids I often don’t see the changes I hope to see, but hearing things like this lets me know that what we do here is working in some sense, and we are changing things more than we can see.

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Location: Oakland, CA - USA
Project Leader:
O'Brien Patricia
Campbell , CA United States

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