Letting kids play pays off

Structured recess leads to well-behaved pupils in class

March 02, 2010|By John-John Williams IV | john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Dajah Jones' bead-accented braids sprayed through the air as she fell to the ground after colliding with Harlem Park School classmate Dorion Cook. The two sixth graders were among a dozen students playing a complex running game called Jedi Mind Reader during a recess period in the school's gymnasium.

A concerned Dorion immediately ran over to Dajah and extended a hand to help her to her feet. The two chuckled as they ran into place to play again.

Although Harlem Park does not offer physical education classes, students are receiving about 30 minutes of physical activity during the school day through Playworks, an Oakland, Calif.-based company that provides structured recess programs that emphasize good sportsmanship in low-income schools in 10 cities.

"We're stopping the chaos at recess time," said Jessica Kohnen Karaska, Baltimore's executive director of Playworks. "We're driving positive behavior. And we are accelerating learning."

Playworks doesn't end with daily recess. Playworks schools also offer a before-school recess program; an after-school program that incorporates a snack, homework assistance and recess; and interscholastic sports such as girls' basketball for fourth- and fifth-graders in the winter and co-ed volleyball in the spring.

The program combats childhood obesity while teaching valuable life skills through structured play, according to Harlem Park Principal Joyce Akintilo.

"Many of our kids become couch potatoes," she said. "We have to get our kids caring about and enjoying physical activity."

And, she said, "You have more fun when you are playing in a healthy way. They understand the rules and they understand the expectation. They have learned self-control. They need a way to release that energy in a structured way. That has to be taught."

The proof is in the playing for students.

"I like recess," Dajah, 12, said. "It's a fun way to help you exercise. You need to be healthy. Being overweight is not pretty or nice."

Dorion, 13, loves being able to be active.

"It helps me burn up a lot of energy so it helps me in class," he said.

Seventy-one percent of teachers and administrators at Playworks schools in Baltimore said that students are more on task in the classroom. Nationally, teachers report an increase of 36 instructional hours per school year as a result of the program because they are spending less time dealing with student behavioral problems.

"This is valuable," Kohnen Karaska said in reference to instruction time. "It's really helping kids get the wiggles out and focus."

Baltimore, which was the second city to team with Playworks in 2005, plans to expand from 24 to 32 schools next year. Only schools where 50 percent of the students receive free and reduced-price meals are eligible to participate.

The program costs $55,000 a year to run in each school. The schools pay $25,000 of the cost; the remaining funds are recouped through grants and donations, said Kohnen Karaska.

The program has coordinators - also known as coaches - who lead the recess sessions and are trained in a variety of areas including group management, conflict resolution, child development, diversity and special needs students.

The program coordinators consult a 300-page playbook filled with games and other gender-inclusive activities that are structured to encourage teamwork. Students usually vote on which activity they want to play each day.

"It's really their yard," said Honour McClellan, the Playworks program director for Baltimore. "They have the option to play what they want."

Paul Gilbert, a program coordinator at Harlem Park, is pursuing a master's of education in school counseling at Johns Hopkins University and wants to work as a guidance counselor in the city school system.

"You are acting as a mentor," Gilbert said after playing a spirited game of kickball with a group of students. "It's not just about the physical component."

Program coordinators such as Gilbert epitomize Playworks, according to Kohnen Karaska.

"They are enthusiastic. They have a desire to work with kids," she said. "These are people committed to service. ... We think about them as change makers."

Well-behaved students are encouraged to become junior coaches, who are trained to assist the program coordinators. These students proudly wear boldly colored purple shirts to identify them.

Simone Papadakis, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, became a junior coach in the fall. She said she likes the position because it gives her the opportunity to help other students.

"Coach Gilbert needs a lot of help," she said, joking. "It's important. You get rewarded for being a leader."

Raquwon Rowell, a 12-year-old fifth-grader, said he was made a junior coach last year because his "academic skills are great."

He added: "I act right."

Sixty-six percent of employees who have Playworks in their schools report fewer conflicts in class. At Harlem Park, there have been 15 office referrals this year, compared to the 50 that administrators would see before the program was implemented three years ago.

"It has made a great difference," Akintilo said. "You see that translated into the way that our students behave."

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